By Swapan Dasgupta
From the time concern began to be voiced about the utilisation of public money for the Commonwealth Games, it has been six months of unending bad news for the Manmohan Singh Government. With the Adarsh Housing Society scandal, the 2-G scam, the furore over the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the S-band controversy coming in rapid succession, the impression that the Centre is now either a helpless or willing partner in the organised loot of the exchequer is becoming conventional wisdom.
So politically debilitating has been the cumulative effects of these billion-rupee scandals that the Congress appears to have lost the will to fight back. True, there have been attempts to establish an 'immoral' equivalence. But repeated invocations of the misdeeds of B.S. Yedyurappa and the attempt to blame the erstwhile NDA Government for all subsequent telecom distortions haven't succeeded in altering the widespread perception that the UPA Government facilitated organised loot. Just as Hosni Mubarak couldn't secure his presidency by screaming 'Muslim Brotherhood', the Congress bid to divert attention to 'saffron terror' hasn't worked, except insofar as it helped Pakistan dilute the charges of its own export of terror.
Offence may theoretically be the best defence but brazenness doesn't always pay. Kapil Sibal, with all the dexterity of a good court lawyer, has attempted to show that the fuss over A.Raja and the ISRO are much ado about nothing. Sibal's penchant for the overstatement yielded diminishing returns during the Kargil war in 1999 and is proving to be positively counterproductive in today's climate of cynicism and disgust. Shrillness was rejected by the voters in 2009 and the abhorrence for it still persists.
This is a message that shouldn't be overlooked by the Opposition which is having a ball pillorying the Government. Before it gloats over near-effortless victory after victory in TV discussions and revels in the Government's discomfiture over biting observations by the judiciary, it should pause to reflect over the state of play in national politics.
The credibility of the UPA Government is rock bottom and so is the standing of the PM. The impression that Manmohan is mute spectator to the misdeeds of politicians and bureaucrats has taken root. Even his own party is worried and becoming restless at his inability to control the slide. The system of diarchy which was once lauded as a great political innovation is under strain and has contributed to the Congress pulling in different directions. The Congress worry is all the more because there is nothing as yet to suggest that the heir designate is ready to assume charge.
The UPA muddle should have seen a natural rally behind any Government-in-waiting. The Opposition's tragedy is that frustration with the Centre hasn't automatically turned into a surge in popularity of the BJP-led NDA. Although the suggestion that the BJP is in disarray is over-simplistic, it is fair to suggest that the saffron alliance isn't anywhere close to grabbing the political space that should have been its for the asking. The BJP has recovered some lost ground since 2009 but not enough ground to be perceived as the next government.
Part of the reason could be the absence of a clear leader to lead the charge. For various reasons the BJP has deferred any decision to 2013 in the belief that a year of relentless campaign will establish the leader as the alternative face. There are three clear possibilities—and a few who are claimants in their own mind—for the top job and a final decision will rest on two factors: the political mood and the imperatives of coalition building. If the craving for a strong, purposeful leader is paramount, the choice is pre-determined. If, however, there is the need to enlarge the NDA to include regional parties in the east and south, the choice could fall on either of the other two.
Yet, merely waiting for the new messiah to be anointed does not constitute good politics. The BJP has to be ready with the groundwork. The declaration of a PM candidate by the NDA is an important facet of the final 365 days of war but it doesn't constitute the entire campaign to reclaim the ground lost since 2004.
The BJP needs a determined bout of single-mindedness and a willingness to address popular concerns. In today's climate it means a commitment to relentlessly pursue the themes of corruption and economic mismanagement, issues that appeal to the widest cross-section of the electorate. It implies a willingness to put shelve pet 'ideological' issues on one side and not get derailed by Congress provocation.
And finally, it means an ability to transcend the churlish we-told-you syndrome and formulate an alternative economic perspective that incorporates the best practices of the many successful NDA Governments. Being an opposition like Mamata Banerjee is to the Left Front may work wonders in West Bengal's state of decline but the national need is to be an intelligent opposition, one that can shoulder responsibilities for people who have a lot to lose from the UPA's misgovernance.
Every party has its eccentrics and the BJP parivar has more than its fair share. The misfortunes of the Congress have given them a chance to go prowling for simple-minded suckers. For its own sake, the BJP has to ensure its madcaps are kept behind locked doors.