Only the Food Bill and other pro-people reforms can end the Congress party's hand-to-mouth political existence.

Remember the old Ajit joke in which the greatest Bollywood villain of all time asks his henchmen to use “liquid oxygen” against the hero? “The liquid won't let him live and the oxygen won't let him die,” he explains. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can be forgiven for feeling a bit like he's caught in the middle of a forgettable 1970s movie. The United Progressive Alliance government he runs is all at sea and each week seems to push him further away from the shoreline. But even as ill winds buffet him from all sides — the latest tempest emanating from somewhere in West Bengal — none of the political forces ranged against him really wants to see his rickety boat capsize. Just when he is about to be swallowed up by all the liquid around him, he gets a tiny bit of oxygen.

So it is that Mamata Banerjee demands a rollback of the train fare hike announced by Railways Minister Dinesh Trivedi on Wednesday, and also his scalp, pretends to flirt with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the idea of a ‘Third Front,' only to pull back and declare that she will not after all abandon the UPA.

No early polls

Though the temptation to go for early Lok Sabha elections is great given the Trinamool Congress's exceptional performance in the West Bengal Assembly polls last year, Ms Banerjee is probably factoring the consequences of a four-cornered contest in which the Left could well recover lost ground. Even if she fancies her chances — the Congress is in such bad shape in the State that it may not take away many votes — the fact is that the TMC alone, with its 19 MPs, cannot bring the Manmohan Singh government down. Other constituents of the UPA like the DMK may be seething over the 2G probe and the Sri Lanka issue but Karunanidhi will not want to risk the dilution of his strength in the Lok Sabha or the loss of a ‘friendly' government at the Centre at a time when his family and associates in Tamil Nadu are being vigorously investigated by the authorities there. The same is true of the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose 21 MPs provide outside support to the UPA. With her safe haven in Uttar Pradesh captured by the Samajwadi Party, Mayawati has every reason to keep the Congress in good humour at the Centre.

Ordinarily, one might expect the Bharatiya Janata Party to be in a hurry to topple the UPA and precipitate fresh elections. But its poor performance in Uttar Pradesh and the growing electoral weight of allies like the Janata Dal (United), the Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena within the National Democratic Alliance make it wary of rushing headlong towards an uncertain political outcome. Add to this the unresolved leadership question and the BJP ends up also wanting to ensure that the Prime Minister — though under constant attack — receives as much ‘oxygen' as he needs to keep his government alive for now.

But if his government faces no imminent danger and Dr. Singh is likely to finish his second term as Prime Minister on schedule in 2014 — though dogged by uncertainty throughout — the prospects of the UPA getting a third innings do not look promising at all.

State elections may well be fought on local issues and the defeat of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa — as well as its seat-of-the-pants victory in Uttarakhand — need not necessarily be taken as a referendum on the Centre's performance. But Assembly elections do tell us a lot about the big national picture because they provide an indication of the strength and health of the party organisation at the State level. The poor showing of the Congress in the recent elections as well as its chronic weakness in crucial States like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, is the product of a number of historical factors but the failure of the party to build strong State-level leaders there is surely top among them.

The inability to select a consensual Chief Minister in Uttarakhand, the one State the Congress wrested from the BJP earlier this month, is symptomatic of the same structural weakness. In other States where the party has a good base, like Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, or even Karnataka, the absence of coherent leadership does not augur well.

New agenda

Rahul Gandhi appears to recognise that dynasts cannot be a substitute for organic leaders in a situation where other parties have a much stronger connect with the people than the Congress has. He has attempted to redress this from the bottom, working to build a semblance of democratic organisation and functioning within the Youth Congress. His reforms have had mixed results at the grassroots and have had hardly any impact on the mother party — pun intended — which continues to be run in the old, centralised, top-down way that led to its gradual estrangement from the electorate in State after State.

If further proof were needed of the Congress party's disconnect from its traditional or potential supporters, one should look no further than the way in which the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh voted in the recent Assembly elections. At a time when India's Muslims want nothing more than a level playing field and an end to the biased attitude of government officials, particularly the police, the Congress waded in with insulting tokenism, making wild promises of quotas and quotas-within-quotas that actually led the community to feel more insecure because of the predictable backlash the BJP tried to fan and benefit from.

The Congress can perhaps get around the structural weaknesses in its political organisation and outlook, as well as the taint of corruption, because the BJP is also hobbled by its own kind of dysfunctionality. But what it cannot do without is a policy overhaul that places reforms which favour the well-being of the ordinary citizen at the centre of its socio-economic agenda.

First and foremost, this means redrafting the proposed Right to Food Bill in line with the proposals recently made by a group of leading development economists, by jettisoning the misplaced pre-occupation with targeting. The HUNGaMA survey of hunger and malnutrition has painted a bleak picture of the impact chronic undernourishment is having on Indian children — a situation the Prime Minister called a “national shame” — and the time has come for the government to put its money where those hungry mouths are. In addition, it is essential that statutory minimum wages are paid for all workers in the rural employment guarantee scheme, and that a big push is also made on the public health front. Other initiatives, like a genuinely humane land acquisition and resettlement policy, or the sharing of mining profits with local communities should not be delayed any longer.

Questions about funding will inevitably be raised, especially with the Economic Survey and other official documents sounding a dire warning about the fiscal situation. But as an insightful column by Shankar Sharma and Devina Mehra in Mint argued on Wednesday, India's fiscal deficit is not such a bad thing because the debt/GDP ratio has been steadily declining thanks to the growth that public borrowing and expenditure seem to be generating. The binding constraint is not financial but attitudinal. The UPA has two years to reverse the damage it has done to itself by thinking of reforms only as concessions to the rich and wealthy. If it doesn't, it will remain adrift until a tidal wave comes along in 2014.

svaradarajan@thehindu.co.in