Ahead of India’s independence on 15 August, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru uttered the immortal words that it was the country’s “tryst with destiny”. That historic oration is something the 125-year-old Congress party should recall when yet another Prime Minister from the party’s ranks goes to the Red Fort to unfurl the tricolour to the spine-tingling rendition (at least for me) of India’s national anthem on its 64th independence day.
Using the emotion of the moment, the Congress should truly ask itself as to whether it has stayed the course that Nehru set out or has it wasted all the social capital that the party garnered in leading the fight for independence using a unique tool: non-violence. Assume, for a moment, that we set aside the years of the emergency (after it decided to hang on to power through the use of force) or its dubious association with the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 in the aftermath of the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh bodyguards. (We do so, because including this in any analysis adversely skews an assessment of the country’s oldest political party.)
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Instead, we focus on the period following its return to power at the Centre in 2004 at the head of a coalition of parties—a first for the Congress.
The honest answer: the Congress seems to have lost its way. It dared the country to dream and then disappointed by struggling to deliver a basic public good: governance. This has been most acute in the last 15 months.
While its first term in office at the head of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) beginning 2004 was an honest accident—even the most die-hard Congressmen never expected such an unfavourable verdict for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition— its second term had this air of certainty about it after the Congress surprised everyone by managing to win 208 seats.
That’s the highest number of seats won by any party in a coalition and it gave rise to a sense of optimism as Rahul Gandhi, the youthful heir apparent to the political mantle, was seen as the architect of the electoral victory. The political momentum and the country’s new-found economic gains, accruing in part to an entirely new set of stakeholders, set the stage, as it were.
However, 15 months later, the Congress-led UPA hardly looks the coalition that it promised. Not only has it not been able to deal with the pernicious problem of inflation, its image has taken a severe beating in the aftermath of the scandals associated with the infrastructure to host the Commonwealth Games. Add to it the visible neglect demonstrated by some of the key cabinet ministers—mostly because they are preoccupied with extracurricular activities—and the missteps in handling challenges to internal security such as the ongoing crisis in the Kashmir valley. In short, the state of drift and disappointment is palpable.
Worse, it has by its politics of bad timing probably put the clock back on the single biggest piece of tax reforms—the single goods and services tax (GST). In a nutshell it would for the first time economically unify the country by providing a uniform GST; a process that is expected to give the country’s economy an extra 1.5% of growth. There is, however, now considerable doubt as to whether GST would pan out as planned or, more importantly, be in place by March.
The BJP, for reasons legitimate or otherwise, believes that the Centre has unfairly targeted Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. While it will be next to impossible to prove causality, there can be no denying that, provided the opportunity, the BJP has chosen to play spoilsport; it has raised the flag of protest with part of the GST package that proposes to take away the rights of states to impose taxes—to be fair to the UPA this is part of the architecture that seeks to provide a uniform tax regime throughout the country and is not necessarily designed to disenfranchise the states.
It has in short been a missed opportunity. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who holds an enviable record in terms of the number of years served on the job and his deep association with the country’s modern economic history beginning in 1980, could, if his party and government had delivered, actually have used the moment to exhort the country to greater heights. Instead, he will go through the paces of an otherwise important ritual. A pity because it could have been so much more.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org