Manmohan Singh’s second term: Drift, disunity, unfulfilled expectations

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By Amulya Ganguli

Expectations about the Manmohan Singh government performing better in its second term as the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) completes a year since it returned to power are yet to be fulfilled. It was hoped that a more secure majority in Parliament and the absence of an obstructionist Communist bloc would enable the Prime Minister to push ahead faster with economic reforms and provide more purposeful governance.

But despite the government’s success in fobbing off the challenge from its two main adversaries — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left parties — as the failure of their cut motion on the demand for grants showed, it still seems lacking in confidence.

The reason is more internal than external. While the government has succeeded in obtaining the support of three allies such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), its partners in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as well as a section of Congressmen themselves have proved to be troublesome.

Besides, misgivings prevail about how the government wooed these three parties of the Hindi heartland. While the BSP’s Mayawati apparently believes the government will not pursue the corruption cases against her with the earlier vigor, the RJD and the SP have been placated by the government conceding their demand for including caste in the census enumerations for the first time since 1931.

Among the partners, the DMK has been a major liability, followed some distance behind by the Trinamool Congress. Perhaps the greatest damage to the government’s reputation has been caused by the telecom scam involving the DMK’s A. Raja, who is the Telecommunica-tions Minister.

He was accused of malfeasance during the government’s first term also. But if he was still given the same portfolio, the reason apparently is that the DMK finds him indispensable in a position where ministerial decision-making involves enormous sums of money belonging to India’s ever-growing telecommunications sector. There is considerable scope, therefore, for underhand deals.

When the latest allegations against him were aired in Parliament, following the telecast of a purported conversation between the Minister and a lobbyist, the DMK patriarch, M. Karunanidhi, flew down to New Delhi apparently to ensure that Raja was not removed. Karunanidhi also dismissed the charges of corruption against him as propaganda motivated by the fact that Raja was a Dalit.

But although Karunanidhi was able to save his protégé, there is little doubt that the government’s image has taken a hit. Manmohan Singh’s reputation too has suffered since the episode showed he had little control over the composition of his ministerial team.

If Raja survived because he belonged to a constituent of the UPA, Shashi Tharoor didn’t after embarrassing the government and his party, the Congress, by his suspected role in a dubious transaction involving the Indian Premium League.

Not long after Tharoor resigned as Minister of State for External Affairs, another Minister of State, Jairam Ramesh, came close to resigning for the impropriety of  criticizing the Home Ministry during a visit to China.

Ramesh made two mistakes. One was that he described as “alarmist” the Home Ministry’s policy on investments by Chinese companies in India although, as a Minister of State for Environment and Forests, he had no locus standi in the matter. And the other was that he made the comment on foreign soil.

Although he has earned a reprieve for the time being, there is little doubt that he has dealt himself a crippling blow where his political future is concerned.

If Tharoor and Ramesh were guilty of youthful indiscretion, the same cannot be said of former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, who has also been causing some amount of discomfort to the Congress Party with his criticism of the government’s anti-Maoist offensive. After accusing Home Minister P. Chidam-baram of intellectual arrogance — for which he later apologized — Digvijay Singh has now sought to distinguish between Maoist insurgency and Islamic terrorism by saying the former could not be described as terrorists.

Even if there is a grain of truth in what Digvijay Singh has said such airing of controversial views tends to give the impression of disunity in the government. As does Railway Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee’s habit of being forever on the warpath on some issue or the other.

It isn’t just that she has snapped her ties with the Congress over the forthcoming local polls in West Bengal, her occasional pro-Maoist stance and demands for either dismissing the state’s Left Front government or bringing the assembly elections forward give the impression that a rupture between her party and the Congress at the national level is not far away.

The conflicting views at the top were also conveyed by the government’s sudden decision to consider caste being included in the ongoing census enumeration although Chidam-baram had earlier expressed doubts about the competence of the census personnel to undertake such a task.

The circumstances in which such a crucial decision was taken did not show the government or the Congress Party in a favorable light. It was evidently to keep the pro-backward caste RJD and the Samajwadi Party on the government’s side that the step was taken without any substantive discussion in the party, as an unnamed Congressman later complained.

Yet, the consequences of bringing caste in the census operations after a gap of nearly eight decades have not been fully assessed. Nor has the implications of the Women’s Reservations Bill, which was also hurriedly pushed through the Upper House of Parliament. Since Sonia Gandhi was seemingly behind both these peremptory moves, it can seem rather odd, for she generally prefers moving cautiously after wide-ranging consultations within the party.

If, notwithstanding these internal rumbles and rash initiatives, the government is not in danger of being toppled, it is because the Opposition is in worse shape. But that isn’t a compliment to either Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh.

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

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