The stunning and unexpected victory of the United Progressive Alliance in the national election is likely to be a double-edged sword for Manmohan Singh.
He is now, at last, free of the pressures that the Left and several other allies put on his outgoing government between 2004 and 2009, even as Jurassic ideology (in the case of the Communists) and plain old-fashioned loot (in the case of many regional allies) overpowered national interest. The next government, dominated by a confident and rejuvenated Congress party, will have more freedom to pursue its policy agenda.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
But the government will also have fewer excuses to offer if it loses its way in the next five years on key tasks such as economic reforms, internal security, defence of the realm and protecting Indian interests in international negotiations. That is what we mean by a mandate that is a double-edged sword: A clear mandate means fewer encumbrances as well as fewer places to hide in case of failure.
There will also be a high-wire balancing act to be performed. Business leaders, economists and stock market investors hope that a re-elected Manmohan Singh government will push through further reforms to bring the economy back on the fast track. There is a lot to be done here—from putting the government’s finances in order to pushing stalled reforms. We only hope that the new government pursues liberal market reforms rather than falls prey to the captains of crony capitalism.
There will also be a different set of pressures from the party machinery that believes policies such as the rural jobs scheme and the farm loan waiver won the Congress this election. There could be pressure on Singh to push for more such programmes—or worse, to abandon fiscal prudence and avoid tough decisions on agriculture and labour markets. There will be pressure to live up to election promises and deliver sops such as rice at Rs2 per kg. The Prime Minister knows that high growth is the ultimate antidote to poverty, but the reforms needed to fire such growth cannot be introduced by the stroke of a pen. Political sagacity will need to complement technocratic skills. P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee showed the way when they were in charge.
Such creative tension is perhaps inevitable in a country as large and complex as ours. And we do not pretend that there are easy ways to manage this tension. Our belief is that the best moment to pursue an ambitious programme on the economy, defence and internal security is right now, when confidence levels are high and young leaders such as Rahul Gandhi are in a position to lend full support to Singh.
There is the burden of high expectations to be met.
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