Political wisdom had it that the Bharatiya Janata Party was the organisation with the grey cells while the Congress muddled along, good-intentioned but unfocussed on future goals and strategy. The BJP’s PR machinery has always been well-tuned to magnifying the smallest achievements in contrast to the Congress which didn’t seem to know or care about image management. All that might be history considering the role reversal we are currently witnessing between the Congress and the BJP. There is a gung-ho optimism to UPA-II which is completely at odds with a regime identified till recently with corruption and policy paralysis. Indeed, from a state of stupor to hyper-activity, Team Manmohan has undergone a metamorphosis which has stunned the Opposition as much as it has the UPA’s own allies. The government’s decision to push ahead with economic reforms — the key part here being Foreign Direct Investment in multi-brand retail — in the face of near-total opposition in Parliament reveals a daring that would have been unimaginable in the beginning months of UPA-II. The change began with the Prime Minister exhorting his officials to revive the economy’s “animal spirits.” Once P. Chidambaram had moved to the Union Finance Ministry, there was going to be no stopping the reform process which seemed able to withstand every obstacle, including the departure from the UPA of the formidable Mamata Banerjee.
With the government and Opposition implacably placed on FDI, a battle of wits between the two was a given in this session of Parliament. Yet the government’s biggest challenge turned out to be the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which made known its opposition to the reform in categorical terms. The procedural wrangles over whether or not FDI should be put to vote were resolved once the DMK came on board; basking in the comfort of numbers, the government signalled its readiness for the vote. To be sure, a defeat on FDI would not have obliged the government to resign. But it would have exposed its lack of majority on the floor of the House, leading to the charge that the regime ruled without a mandate. For the Prime Minister, who has been the most strident on FDI, it would have been a personal embarrassment at a time when he was surely hoping to cement his legacy as the quintessential reforms man. The stakes were indeed high for Dr. Singh and the team he led, which explains why Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath put in the leg work he did to bring around the DMK as well as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. The BJP is bound to wonder where it lost its own famed skills at management.