The Congress and the government have declined beyond belief in the past year.
In contrast to the nightmarish 2010 closing, the previous year had ended brilliantly for the Congress and the Manmohan Singh government. Crushed by scams and scandals, and pilloried by critics and friends alike, both are on the run today but end-2009, the Congress was on a roll, topping its Lok Sabha blockbuster with victories in tough State elections. The United Progressive Alliance, shrunk to miniature size after the polls, seemed to know who the boss was — or at least that was the outward impression, Mamata Banerjee's signature eruptions notwithstanding. And after five difficult years, the Congress seemed to have finally entered into a comfort zone with the government, with each willing to acknowledge the role played by the other in getting a second successive term.
Incredibly, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi had pulled off the social sector-economy division of labour that was trashed as hare-brained and unworkable when the idea first came up: If nothing else, competing egos would ground the project. Yet as the year was rung out, it was evident that the aam aadmi programmes, despite the official roadblocks and patchy and half-hearted implementation, had found resonance with the target groups. The feedback was inescapable for anyone tracking the 2009 election. For its part, the economy stayed robust, defying world-wide recession and predictions of doom. The conflicting imperatives of social justice and high growth appeared to have been at least partially met — ironically, not in spite of the divergent visions of the Congress chief and the Prime Minister but perhaps because of them.
Indeed, the outstanding impression of 2009 was this harmony. To the outsider, the Congress troika — Rahul Gandhi, as first family heir and showing faint promise, naturally took the third spot — was far and away the best on offer: sober, dignified, and remarkably detached from the politics of ambition, the leadership was Teflon-like in repelling scandals and criticisms which only too readily attached to party and government.
As against this, 2009 was a year of ignominy for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Unrelenting electoral setbacks, ideological confusion and an open and protracted succession war pushed the party to the edge from where pulling back seemed impossible. The BJP's general election performance was its worst in two decades, and it won no State election through the year. This is how the Congress and the BJP stacked up electorally in 2009: The UPA was ahead by over 100 seats in the Lok Sabha, winning 262 seats to the National Democratic Alliance's 159 seats. The Congress' own tally was 206 seats to the BJP's 116 seats. Of the 992 seats up for grabs in the States, the Congress alliance won 440 and the BJP alliance 125. The Congress alone won 360 seats to the BJP's 79 seats.
Number-crunchers argued that the Congress had won its 206 Lok Sabha seats on a thin vote base of 28.55 per cent. However, no other party came even close to this; the nearest rival, the BJP, was 10 percentage points behind. Also consider the odds: no government since 1984 had returned after a full term in office. More to the point, no government had returned judged on its performance rather than because of an overpowering emotional issue — Indira Gandhi's assassination, Kargil war, etc.
The Manmohan Singh government went into the 2009 general election in the backdrop of back-breaking prices and the world's worst slowdown since the 1930s. Yet the voter response — at least in Uttar Pradesh where this writer travelled — was amazingly free from the expected anguish and rancour. Asked which party they wanted at the Centre, eight out of 10 people named the Congress, though feeling no affection for the local Congress candidates and not even wanting to vote for them. Clearly, the “decency” quotient of the party's leadership and welfare measures such as the (Mahatma Gandhi) National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and loan waivers had won out, even if only temporarily, against any inflation-driven hardship. At a backward qasba in Sambhal in western U.P., a poor, unemployed Muslim boy, Mohammad Faheem, said he backed Dr. Singh for Prime Minister because he had confidence in his leadership: He had managed the domestic economy at a time of international financial chaos.
What a compliment from the aam aadmi and what a let down just one year down the line. The Congress leadership has tumbled headlong from the high perch while the BJP, facing its worst crisis since inception, has begun its slow climb to the summit. As of now, it is an improbable mission but the BJP is a fighter, ever willing to see light at the end of the tunnel. Consider how badly mauled and stranded it was in 2009, and then again consider how far it has travelled on the road to recovery.
The Congress' initial response to the flood of scams in the second term was typical. Rather than accept that it had horribly betrayed the people's mandate, it turned around and pointed to the BJP's own misdemeanours, speaking the self-defeatist language of “your corruption versus our corruption.” The point was: The Prime Minister and the Congress chief did not address reports of irregularities in the Commonwealth Games until it was almost too late. Forget documentary proof, the scam was evident to anyone who saw Delhi being turned inside out for no reason. But the leadership moved only after unmentionable amounts had already disappeared down a bottomless pit. The story was repeated with the 2G scam. Union Telecom Minister A. Raja's resignation and the rush of raids and seizures came after a stunning indictment by the Comptroller and Auditor-General left the government with no option. But even in a situation where the government was caught in a welter of accusations and attacked mercilessly by the Opposition, it refused to yield to the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe, raising questions, for the first time in a long and illustrious career, about Dr. Singh's proclaimed innocence.
The Prime Minister would know what it is to lose a reputation built over a lifetime. Well after the scams came to light, Dr. Singh was spared any personal criticism by the Opposition. Instead every Opposition politician, from the BJP's Rajiv Pratap Rudy to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s Sitaram Yechury, made it a point to mention the “integrity” and “incorruptibility” of the Prime Minister. But today, after the CAG report and the release of letters exchanged between Mr. Raja and Dr. Singh, not to mention the explosive and compromising contents of the Niira Radia tapes, there is confusion over the Prime Minister's conduct and, worse, over the state of the Republic.
Taken together, the revelations are deeply disturbing. The picture they paint of India is of a country at the beck and call of an elite group of colluders. In this climate, who can fault the cynicism and anger currently visible against all organs and estates of the state? Almost the first lesson a young student of civics learns in India is that Cabinet formation is a prerogative of the Prime Minister. Coalitional compulsions might allow for consultations but not for the process to be hijacked by dubious elements. Nonetheless, it is this awful lesson that the student of civics is likely to have learnt over the past two months. The impression of collusion is only reinforced by the new song on the lips of the powerful: The exposure of scams, not the scams themselves, mind you, have hurt India's image.
As early as 2007, the Prime Minister was aware that his advice on spectrum allocation was not being heeded. Yet after a fantastic election victory, which seemingly vested more powers in him, Dr. Singh allowed for the return of the same Minister who had defied him so brazenly. Why?
At the Congress' recent plenary at Burari, the Prime Minister and the Congress chief promised action against corruption and the close monitoring of flagship programmes. However, the assurances do not wash given what we know today. The flagship programmes are in a gargantuan mess. Minister for Rural Development C.P. Joshi is on record saying he will not pay statutory minimum wages to MGNREGS workers. His Ministry is fighting a court battle in Andhra Pradesh against the basic rights of workers. Corruption in material procurement has run the programme aground even in a pioneering State like Rajasthan. The super success of the Right to Information Act has not stopped the government from proposing killer amendments, including a 250-word restriction for applications.
Dr. Singh's reputation is under threat, Ms Gandhi has returned at the head of a National Advisory Council that seems unable to get its suggestions across, and Mr. Gandhi, who had briefly lit up the horizon with his democracy experiments, seems to have got lost. The Congress was decimated in Bihar while Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, from where the party harvested a bounty in 2009, look increasingly iffy. One year is truly an age in politics.