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Now to finish the job

Fortunate is the ruler who has the opportunity to make laws that please his subjects. The UPA is in this position on quite a few fronts. Chanakya writes.

columns Updated: Dec 29, 2012 21:59 IST

At first glance, 2012 has been the very definition of annus horribilis for the UPA, and it fittingly ended with Lutyens' Delhi in a lockdown designed to keep the people out. The authorities' response to the gangrape of a young girl on a bus and their handling of the resultant protests - one leaden-footed and the other heavy-handed - was an apt way to end a year scarred by corruption scandals, disruption in Parliament and yet another electoral defeat in a key state.

If the grammar of the statecraft so dear to me had punctuation, it would be tempting to choose the full-stop as the most apt symbol for the year-end. The finality of it, surely, might come as a relief to some in the UPA.

But I, for one, don't see the need to be so pessimistic. First, cast a critical eye back on 2012. While the corruption imputed by the CAG and activists such as Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal was clearly more than just a big distraction, there were some clear gains. The return of P Chidambaram to finance energised - at least in the eyes of investors - an administration that had been in the grip of that deadly coalition disease, policy paralysis. Cue for headline-grabbing reforms that also promised to satiate those hungriest of wolves, the ratings agencies. The most significant: FDI in multi-brand retail.

Along the way, there was a little love lost, in the form of Mamata, the best thing that could happen to the UPA. And all the formidable political skills (and I know a thing or two about that subject) ingrained in a party accustomed to being in power were employed in winning battles over SC/ST promotion quotas.

Gujarat was duly surrendered. For argument's sake I'm going to reject the notion that winning Himachal neutralised losing such a significant state. But there are positives to take away from the loss, in an unusual way. Narendra Modi's win eases his likely ascent to national politics, making him a hot potato that the Opposition has to find a way of handling. Unless it is confident of winning a majority on its own at the Centre - and I'd be surprised if the UPA sat on its hands while this happened - he might be an entry on the wrong side of the BJP's balance sheet.

So I would suggest the most appropriate symbol for the year-end, and the start of 2013, is the question mark.

Grant an old schemer the licence normally given to poets, and I would characterise the question mark as representing a decidedly mixed past performance, and, sitting on its shoulder, future opportunity.

There comes a time in the life of a government when grabbing the bull by the horns is not just the best option, but the only one. That time came in 2012, and the UPA lunged at the onrushing animal. Now to finish the job, by going for broke in a year that offers its octogenarian PM the last chance to leave a legacy. All this, of course, with a beady eye on government finances - continue to show the resolve that has marked the move to raise diesel prices and cut subsidies on LPG.

Fortunate is the ruler, I feel, who has the opportunity to make laws that please his subjects. The UPA happens to be in this position on quite a few fronts. In 2013, the government could get passed into law key legislation like the pensions bill, which would give citizens better options and put their savings to better use building infrastructure. With elections not too distant, it would also serve the UPA well to make laws that reduce the cost of microfinance and regulate it better. The food security bill is another crucial piece of legislation and a potential vote winner, even if some Opposition-ruled states could beat the UPA to the punch by introducing their own schemes.

Direct cash transfers will start operating soon. This is a rare scheme that has the chance of being all three: populist, popular and good economics, depending on whose views you listen to. It's vital that the government irons out any kinks such as difficulty in identification and a paucity of bank accounts, runs awareness campaigns and gets the chief ministers on board. In the lingo of the times, this could be a game changer.

Good governance will make the difference between another mixed year and a good one. And there will be plenty of feedback on the way. I see the stars aligned nicely for the Congress in the Karnataka elections where the BJP is a house divided. But stiffer battles lie ahead: in Delhi and Rajasthan it will have to battle incumbency and in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, two strong BJP chief ministers.

And, job finished, when the party goes to the polls in 2014 or earlier, it needs to take one more risk: name a PM candidate in advance. Statecraft - and the party's recent experience in Gujarat, which I suspect it runs the risk of forgetting - suggest that people want to know who their leader will be when they cast their vote.

And after a year that has ended in a question mark, it's time for a clear answer.