Third Anniversary of a Jaded Government

Unlike at the time of its first and second anniversaries, the Manmohan Singh government appears jaded and weighed down with multiple burdens as it completes its third year in office.

Although the economy is still buoyant and there is no visible sign of discord at the highest levels of party and government, i.e. between Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the ruling alliance seems to be perceptibly tiring and without a sense of purpose as it prepares for the last two years of its present term.

The mood of depression in the corridors of power can be discerned from the fact that no report card will be issued this time to spell out the government's 'achievements'. Nor is the prime minister slated to hold a press conference.

A major reason why the government seems to have lost its élan is the series of electoral defeats that it has recently suffered. The blows may have been particularly demoralizing because they were delivered by its principal adversary, the 'saffron' camp.

Starting with the setback in Maharashtra, where the Shiv Sena romped home in the civic elections, the Congress hit the dust in quick succession in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Delhi - places where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally, the Akali Dal, were triumphant.

The recent drubbing received by the BJP in Uttar Pradesh might have been a source of satisfaction for the Congress if the party itself hadn't lost further ground in the crucial state. What is more, the failure of heir apparent Rahul Gandhi to make an impact during the election campaign in Uttar Pradesh meant that the party's GeNext has virtually come a cropper and cannot be expected to boost its chances in the next round of elections in Goa and Gujarat.

The indications of a government's weakness are never more apparent as when some of its own ministers emerge from the woodwork to carp at it. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Congress's 'socialist' brigade has now dropped its earlier reticence to become openly critical.

Among the first to start sniping was Panchayat Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar when he argued that the funds meant for holding the Asian Games in Delhi could be better spent on the poor. The result was that Delhi lost its bid for the games to Inchon in South Korea.

Aiyar, who has been known to be unhappy ever since he was deprived of the oil portfolio, then argued that the economic reforms had turned him from a leftist to a Marxist since the benefits of a deregulated economy were not reaching the underprivileged.

Since then, another junior minister, Jairam Ramesh, has questioned the proposed trade agreements with the ASEAN countries in a letter which he sent directly to the Prime Minister's Office bypassing his immediate superior, the pro-reforms Commerce Minister Kamal Nath.

Although these outbursts can be regarded as no more than irritating pinpricks, similar to the almost constant nagging of the government's communist allies, the fact that these contrary voices are being articulated by dissenters within the party and the government suggests that the 'rebels' have sensed that Manmohan Singh is currently very much on the back foot because of the electoral setbacks.

Whether or not because of the defeats or the internal dissensions, the reforms process seems to have lost much of its steam. While Finance Minister P. Chidambaram recently told a meeting of corporate czars in Mumbai that not everyone believed in deregulation, Manmohan Singh expressed his regret while addressing the Indian Administrative Service probationers that "competitive politics often creates an environment where political masters are not able to take a long-term view of the country's needs, its prospects, the direction in which it ought to go".

It isn't often that a prime minister gives vent to his helplessness over his failure to steer the country in the direction that he thinks is best for it. The compulsions of coalition politics are taking a heavier toll, therefore, of the government's purposefulness than what may have been earlier expected.

Manmohan Singh is being checkmated not only in the matter of economic reforms or foreign policy, where his efforts to improve relations with the US are frowned upon by the communists and the 'socialists' in the Congress, but also in relation to the composition of the union cabinet, which is supposed to be the prime minister's sole prerogative.

The abrupt withdrawal of the young and dynamic minister for communications and information technology Dayanidhi Maran by his party, the DMK, after he earned the displeasure of party leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi showed that the prime minister had no control over who would be included or excluded from the cabinet by the Congress's allies.

To make matters worse, Maran's departure has been followed by the induction in the cabinet of a DMK MP, Radhika Selvi, who is the widow of a mafia don in Tamil Nadu and has never been to university.

The prime minister's lament, therefore, that the political class is unable to take "a long-term view of the country's needs" is true not only of economic reforms, but also about the growing criminalization of politics which is steadily eroding the prestige of parliament and politicians.

As the latest episode underlines, it is the Congress' need to keep all its partners (and its own ambitious ministers) in good humor, which is largely responsible for creating the impression that the prime minister is at the mercy of his colleagues both inside and outside the party.

As a result, instead of Manmohan Singh's low key approach to politics being seen as essential for keeping the fragile coalition together, his soft voice and natural politeness are increasingly being identified with his inability to assert himself and, therefore, allowing things to drift.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)


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