Less than a year after the elections, is the government adrift? I won’t say its coming unstuck but it’s hard to deny that its run into a sea of troubles and the hand at the wheel seems uncertain. The danger is that turbulence, if not properly handled, can occasionally result in an unfortunate crash.
Compile the startling facts together and the picture that emerges is disturbing. In Parliament, the budget is threatened by a plethora of cut motions with the Left and the BJP willing to jointly support whichever comes up first. That alone is ominous. In addition the Women’s Reservation Bill is stalled by objections raised by both allies and opponents and the Nuclear Liability Bill is lost in limbo somewhere between declared intention and ability to deliver.
Outside Parliament, the home minister’s strategy for fighting the Maoists is drawing blood from within his own ranks. If Dantewada wasn’t bad enough, Digvijay Singh and, even, Mani Shankar Aiyar have now turned their guns on him. Mamata, his cabinet colleague, claims there are no Maoists in Bengal and that P. Chidambaram, through his joint operations, is facilitating armed CPI(M) cadres to set up camps. The PM’s gag order is blithely and blissfully flouted. Chidambaram alone is silent.
Inside the Cabinet, the differences between ministers are beginning to look like rifts. Jairam Ramesh, the environment minister, has annoyed Sharad Pawar, Kapil Sibal and Prithviraj Chauhan by his handling of Bt brinjal, clashed with Kamal Nath over clearances for roads and, allegedly, forced Shyam Saran’s resignation over climate change. Meanwhile Sharad Pawar stands isolated and unsupported because the blame for inflation is pinned on him alone. Now, as a result, the Congress and the NCP are sniping at each other as well.
Within this wide picture, let’s focus on two specific figures and one outcome. First, Mamata. She spends more time in Calcutta than in Delhi. When the fire at Park Street broke out, the CPI(M) actually claimed she was personally conducting the fire brigade operations!
But when she’s in Delhi her energy is spent more in opposing the government’s plans than furthering them. Not only is she an obstacle to the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, she’s also a problem in sorting out land acquisition. She frequently makes the government look incoherent and the prime minister weak.
Second, Shashi Tharoor. With a regularity that defies belief — in fact, provokes amazement — he’s repeatedly embarrassed the government. But if his tweets about “cattle class”, visas, interlocutors or his prolonged stay at the Taj were indiscrete and foolish, the implications of the present IPL controversy are far more disturbing. Whatever the rights or wrongs, Tharoor has frequently made the government look silly but now threatens to make it appear corrupt as well.
Third, Sharm el-Sheikh. Perhaps the lapse of time may have dimmed memories whilst other events may have overtaken this one but it was — and remains — a careless, self-inflicted wound. It’s left the government with a complex that it cannot shake off, its given Pakistan a decent scoring point and the press a handle to criticise. Worst of all, its eroded the prime minister’s confidence in steering the relationship with Pakistan. Today his diffidence shows.
On their own, these are not crippling problems. But together they suggest ham — handedness and ineptness. They depict a government that has lost direction and lacks leadership. Of course, this perception can be changed. But someone has to change it. Who? And is he or she willing to act?
The views expressed by the author are personal