As the UPA marks nine years in power, an embattled government attempts to recreate the 2004 magic but the aam aadmi is looking elsewhere

In 2004, the Congress gave its decades-old slogan “Congress ka haath, garib ke saath” a new look: it replaced the word garib (poor) with aam aadmi (common man) in the hope, a party spin doctor told this writer, of enlarging the party’s catchment area in the upcoming general election to include the middle class, especially those who, thanks to liberalisation, were just entering its ranks.

It was a gamble after eight years in the political wilderness. But the slogan proved to be a perfect fit for Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s barnstorming tour of the country that brought the party to power at the head of a United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition that year. The aam aadmi tag caught on, entering everyday public discourse. The spotlight shifted from the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance’s “India Shining” to Bharat Nirman, completing the work in progress that is India by giving the aam aadmi the opportunities to participate in nation-building. The message was: it was to be a shared enterprise, with equity and inclusiveness as its hallmarks.

From hero to target

Five years later, in 2009, the party didn’t just win a renewed mandate, it won an additional 60-odd seats. The farm loan waiver and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme made waves in rural India; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s efficient stewardship of the economy at the start of the global recession won him admirers across urban India, and he became the new middle class god.

Today, as the UPA celebrates its ninth anniversary, that dream has soured. An unending slew of scams, rising prices and social protests against issues ranging from corruption to crimes against women, has seen the middle class turning its back on Dr. Singh and the Congress. Television discussions are dominated by tales of an incompetent, corrupt government at war with a panic-stricken party awaiting disaster at the polls next year.

Indeed, the Congress was given just a couple of days to savour its hard-won victory in the Karnataka elections before a vocal section of the media trained its guns on the Prime Minister, suggesting it was a matter of days before he would be replaced by a worthier successor who, presumably, can take on the middle class’s new hero, corporate India’s nominee, Narendra Modi.

Opposition and within

The aam aadmi, meanwhile, has been claimed by Arvind Kejriwal and his friends who have floated the Aam Aadmi Party.

For the Congress, the picture is not pretty.

Dr. Singh has not just had to deal with the BJP that, robbed of its middle class constituency in 2009, has seized every opportunity to pin his government down, and strip him of his Teflon coating. The Opposition has barely allowed Parliament to function in UPA Two, thus blocking the government’s efforts to give itself talking points for 2014 in the shape of the Food Security and Land Acquisition Bills.

But the Prime Minister has not just had to contend with the Opposition. Within his own party, there have always been two parallel strands of opposition to him — one from Congressmen who feel that Indian foreign policy is cast in stone, and the other from those disturbed at the sight of a confident, assertive Dr. Singh driving the national agenda, the man who successfully piloted the India-U.S. nuclear deal, and then led the party to victory in 2009. In many cases, the two coalesced. “Crudely put,” a party general secretary had explained, “the Congress can be divided into the pro-U.S. lobby and the pro-NAM lobby, those who are not shackled by the shibboleths of the past, and those who feel the status quo is the safest.”

Indeed, the differences in the Congress are not between the two “power centres,” Dr. Singh and Ms Gandhi, but between the Prime Minister and those who now see him as a vote-loser. Anyone who has any understanding of the Congress system knows that Dr. Singh would not last a minute without the full support of Ms Gandhi and now her son, party vice-president Rahul Gandhi. Indeed, the fact that the UPA has given stable — if not always ideal — governance to the country for nine years is in large measure due to the unique partnership the two Congress leaders have shared.

But is then Dr. Singh entirely blameless for the state of affairs today?

Then and now

No one in the party still questions his personal probity, phenomenal memory, intellect or scholarship, but those who have worked with him closely say that he is a poor manager, a tardy decision-maker, and finds it hard to bring the passion he brought to the India-U.S. nuclear deal to all that he does. The manner in which he dealt with the financial scandals during his tenure leave a great deal to be desired: if in the early days of UPA One, he had tried to work closely with the party — not just Ms Gandhi — by asking general secretaries to accompany him on trips within the country to increase synergy with the government, he was discouraged to continue the practice. In UPA Two, as the disapproval of his own party colleagues began to show, a cabinet minister said, he left it increasingly to Pranab Mukherjee — now President — to lead at cabinet meetings. If In UPA One, he looked to allies such as the Nationalist Congress Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal to “balance” Congress colleagues, in UPA Two, he began to look for “friends” within the cabinet to deal with his increasing isolation. Above all, he is a bad communicator.

Now, as the elections draw near, the government has launched an advertising campaign to fill that gap. One film opens with a smart, young woman accepting an “achiever award” at a glittering ceremony and then cuts to her childhood in a village where, thanks to the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana, she is able to study in the evenings. When she finishes at the top of her class, a government post-matric scholarship sees her benefiting from an education at one of the new IIMs the UPA has created, before she wings her way back to her village to set up an enterprise that will provide her fellow villagers much needed jobs.

Entitled “The India Story,” the story in the ad clearly mirrors Dr. Singh’s dreams for the youth of this country. He has always attributed his own rise, from a village to South Block, to education. The UPA, as it celebrates its ninth anniversary, has its task cut out: as 2014 approaches, can it make this the India Story rather than the one that has been playing out on TV screens?

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