It is clear that the focus of political attention in New Delhi has shifted to the forthcoming Indian presidential elections. As ever, lawyers are readying themselves for an exposition on the delicate role of the president in the constitutional fabric. For a beleaguered Congress-led UPA government, this change in the political focus promises to bring it relief from the usual slew of ill-tempered headlines it has been accustomed to. With each day, as the prospect of the UPA nominee Pranab Mukherjee to be elected as the president by the legislative college strengthens, the government seems to be hoping for a turnaround in its public image too. Yet, given the UPA’s track record of wasteful expenditure, policy paralysis and a spate of corruption scandals, it may be wishful thinking to believe that the Indian public will be easily swayed. More than the presidency, the UPA urgently needs to focus on a bold agenda for governance and reforms to have any chance of securing a third term in office.
Two headlines over the past month serve to highlight the gap between the UPA’s stewardship and public expectations that accompany it. First, at the recent G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, came the announcement that India has pledged an additional contribution of $10 billion to the International Monetary Fund in connection with efforts to stem the euro zone crisis. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted: “As a responsible member of the international community, it was our bounden duty also to make our contribution.” Be that as it may, such grandstanding on the international stage does not always find favour with domestic constituents. The electorate may legitimately wonder whether such largesse overseas can be justified at a time of rising fuel prices, inflation and economic uncertainty at home.
Second, the news that the ratings agency Fitch downgraded its current outlook on the Indian economy to ‘negative’ should also provide a sobering reminder to the government of the pressing challenges that lie ahead. The downgrade came just days after Standard & Poor’s warned that India could lose its investment grade status. With the economy growing at 5.3% in the March quarter of fiscal year 2012, slowest rate in nine years, amid a ballooning fiscal deficit, it is clear that tough choices will have to be made.
Against this backdrop, the likely installation of the UPA’s nominee in Rashtrapati Bhavan purports to be a glorified political pageant – a temporary distraction from the serious business of governance and the substantive concerns of ordinary voters. The UPA may feel tempted into indulging in a bout of self-congratulatory zeal over Pranab Mukherjee’s candidacy, but it will do so entirely at its own peril.
The big question remains whether the UPA will be able to summon the willpower to take difficult structural decisions that lie ahead? On current evidence, that seems doubtful. Politically speaking, the Congress party finds itself at a low ebb. Poor results in the Uttar Pradesh and Punjab assembly elections earlier this year highlighted the inadequacies of a centralized machinery in New Delhi and the failure to empower a grass roots level organizational strategy. A disastrous performance in the Delhi municipal corporation elections in April also reflected the disillusionment felt by an urban electorate at the direction the party is headed. Whether at a central level or at a local level, the message from the voters has been far from positive. If the alarm bells haven’t been ringing at the party’s headquarters on Akbar road, they should do so now. Mere token bouts of ‘introspection’ after each debacle may be an easy option but they are no substitute for drastic changes.
Despite these ominous electoral signals, all may not yet be lost for the UPA. To begin with, there are still two years left for the next general elections. In politics – as in life too – much can change in twenty four months. It means that the government still has a reasonable degree of time within which it can strive to demonstrate its competence and credibility. Second, the lack of sympathy for the UPA has yet to translate into widespread support for the NDA. Leadership issues within the opposition BJP are far from settled as was evident at the party’s recent national executive meeting in Mumbai which descended into a hotpot of conspiracy and bickering. Nor is there any significant momentum behind a revival of a motley ‘third front’ either.
That said, if the UPA wishes to seek a third successive mandate, it should forge on with badly overdue structural reforms to reinvigorate the economy. Younger faces need to be given front bench responsibility too. Inertia may be tempting but voters are not likely to reward a government cocooned in a policy paralysis. It is boldness that can strike a more persuasive chord with the electorate. As the bard famously observed: there is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Whether the UPA can grasp this fundamental lesson remains to be seen in the months ahead.
Rishabh Bhandari is a lawyer based in London. He also writes on subjects that include British and Indian social, political and economic affairs.