Losing ground, fast
With Parliament set to reopen for the budget session, hectic political activity has started. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is trying to showcase his government’s achievements by declaring that it is possible to sustain 9 per cent growth rate notwithstanding the global showdown. His emphasis is on controlling inflation and its adverse impact on the poorer sections of society.
On the other hand, L.K. Advani, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, has come out with a new slogan. Hitting out at the UPA, he has redefined ‘GDP’ as good governance, development and protection. He asserted that the UPA’s policies have not helped the poor. Advani, who has always been good at coining catchy slogans, has for the first time tried to act as the Leader of Opposition. In the last four years, he and the BJP were content with organising walkouts. It seems that they were unable to come to terms with their loss in the 2004 parliamentary polls contested on the misleading ‘Shining India’ slogan.
Advani knows that the UPA’s policies are alienating the common man, a mistake that even the NDA made. He has understood that taking on the government on the eve of the budget session could prove fruitful. This is because the ruling party is not as formidable as it was in 2004 after its defeats in the recent assembly polls. Singh’s own image has taken a beating. He is being labelled as a ‘status quoist’ after he failed to reshuffle his Cabinet. The PM’s writ does not seem to be running over his own cabinet colleagues who are often found quarrelling with each other. His reluctance to take action against the erring Cabinet members and allowing them to express their views, which may ultimately hurt the Congress, will help in strengthening the BJP’s charge that he is a “weak PM”. Politicians know that the compulsions of coalition politics often render leaders helpless. But the voters see such helplessness as a sign of weakness.
The gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. If India today has five or 10 businessmen among the world’s richest, its population is also among the world’s poorest. For the poor, the argument that things will change in the next few years will not bring any solace to them. The expectations of the people are high and they want instant solutions to their problems. On the face of it, such expectations may appear unreasonable but that’s how voters think.
The PM’s image has also taken a beating thanks to the ambiguous state of progress of the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Left appears to be dictating the terms and the UPA is losing its credibility internationally. On the Ram Sethu issue, Tourism and Culture Minister Ambika Soni is only stopping it from becoming a major electoral subject. She insists that faith of the people in Lord Ram is more important than anything else. The arguments of her own colleagues in support of the project would boomerang on the party. In the UPA, it seems, no one is looking at the political ramifications of issue, and if the Ram Sethu project is pushed through, the Congress will be the loser.
Today, the UPA and the Congress are seen as an indecisive entity. The recent revamp of the state units of the Congress has put additional burden on some ministers. Water Resources Minister Saifuddin Soz has been sent to Kashmir to reign in Ghulam Nabi Azad, who is cozying up to the National Conference’s Farooq Abdullah. Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs and Personnel Suresh Pachauri has been given the responsibility of Madhya Pradesh with the hope that if the Congress wins on account of an anti-incumbency wave in the state, he could be made the CM. Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, one of the few true political leaders of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, has been assigned West Bengal. One way of looking at these changes would be that the Congress is getting ready for the polls. But the other view is that the party is going back on its one-man, one-post promise. Many of these ministers may not be equipped to deal with electoral politics. And, the burden of running a ministry and state politics will not be easy.
Earlier, Minister of State Prithviraj Chavan was given the charge of Karnataka and J&K. The party did not realise that these two states are heading for the polls and Chavan does not have any experience of interacting with the high-profile politicians of these two states. Minister of State for Urban Development Ajay Maken has similarly been assigned Jharkhand and another state when he should be looking towards poll-bound Delhi.
There seems to be no clarity on the fate of the ministers whose Rajya Sabha terms end this year. They include: Suresh Pachauri, Prithviraj Chavan, Murli Deora, Akhilesh Das, T. Subbarammi Reddy and Saifuddin Soz. Three of those assigned new jobs are from this group. The Congress will have to decide on whether leaders should be encouraged to remain only in the Rajya Sabha or after serving out a term or two contest the Lok Sabha, or opt out of active politics.
This is, of course, the UPA and the Congress’s call but problems like these will certainly put the party and the alliance under strain once the general elections are announced. Many of the Congress’s present partners may look for greener pastures. This is what Advani has been waiting for and if his probation of being the PM nominee gets extended by the RSS, he will prove to be very formidable for the UPA and the rest to handle. The Congress needs to realise this as soon as possible. Between us.