New Delhi: Political opponents of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) say the ruling coalition, particularly its main constituent the Congress party, is trying to deflect national attention from more pressing issues such as the economic slowdown by concentrating its rhetorical fire on terrorism ahead of the general elections.
Since November’s terror attacks in Mumbai, which left at least 183 dead, Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi has repeatedly accused a neighbouring country, an obvious reference to Pakistan, of trying to weaken India.
Political game? A 27 November photo of the Taj hotel in Mumbai. India has blamed terrorists based in Pakistan for the three-day attack on its financial capital, which left at least 183 people dead. Arko Datta / Reuters
On Sunday, Gandhi told a rally in New Delhi that virtually kicked off the Congress party’s election campaign that terrorism was a major challenge facing the nation, warned neighbouring countries not to mistake India’s patience for a sign of weakness and vowed to deliver a “befitting reply” to forces abetting terrorism.
Gandhi noted that the Congress had lost two favourite leaders to terrorists—a reference to her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi and husband Rajiv Gandhi, both former prime ministers. “Only that party can fight terrorism which derives support and power from each and every section of the society,” she added. “Congress is the only party of this type.”
Gandhi said the Congress, unlike the Opposition, does not believe in making political capital out of the fight against terror. Ironically, the UPA’s political opponents say that’s exactly what the coalition is doing by highlighting the issue of terrorism. They accuse the UPA and the Congress of sidestepping a slowing economy, rising joblessness, and the impact of the recent accounting fraud at Satyam Computer Services Ltd.
“The Congress is issuing some statement every day on terror, hoping that would benefit it (in the elections),” said S. Ramachandran Pillai, a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “By doing so, it is also trying to divert attention from issues like the economic recession, agricultural crisis as well as the recent controversy over Satyam Computer.”
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), agrees with Pillai.
“The government is merely trying to divert attention from other important issues. Joblessness is on the rise...the government has actually failed the people,” said senior BJP leader Santosh Gangwar.
Kamal M. Chenoy, professor, School of International Studies at Delhi’s Jawahar Lal Nehru University, warns that the terror rhetoric could be dangerous.
“The NDA (National Democratic Alliance) is harping on terror and the government is responding to it. This is dangerous because when you talk of it, the issue of Pakistan comes up and then you are implicitly doing war-mongering... It is merely worsening prospects of improvement in Indo-Pakistan relations... It is a part of the government’s strategy to keep the BJP in a mess in its own area—terror.”
A search for keywords “terror” and “terrorism” on the official website of the Press Information Bureau, the public relations arm of the government, throws up at least 30 results while a search for “recession” and “unemployment” gives only five and two results, respectively. A search for “Satyam” throws up barely four results.
India’s labour ministry reported a decline of half a million jobs between October and December. Layoffs and job losses have become common as firms struggling with slowing demand try to cut costs.
In December, L&T Komatsu Ltd, a joint venture between Larsen and Toubro Ltd and Singapore-based Komatsu Asia and Pacific Pte Ltd, informed the government that it would lay off 365 people. Around the same time, Federal-Mogul Goetze, one of the country’s largest piston manufacturers, submitted an application to sack 1,800 workers at its plant in north Bangalore. These are just two examples.
Mint had reported on 6 January that even as inflation slowed to half of its August peak, the inflation rate of food articles continued to rise. The annual inflation rate for cereals (between August and December) rose from 6.53% to 9.5% and that for pulses rose to 13.25% from 5.31%.
To be sure, the UPA and the Congress have supporters who say it’s unfair to read political motives in the statements against terror given the importance of national security.
“The government is issuing statements on various things. It is just about what people are noticing,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think-tank. “Every ministry would put out statements relevant to its area of work. The government has been talking about various issues like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the stimulus package and so on. It is time the country stops worrying about the discourse. The government would obviously pay attention where needed.”
Bidyut Chakrabarty, professor at the department of political science, Delhi University, said: “It is an important issue and cannot be brushed under the carpet. It is the most important issue in India right now... The government may like to capitalize on the Mumbai attack, but it will not be decisive in the long run.”
According to Tom Vadakkan, media secretary of the Congress party, the government is taking every step possible to deal with all issues facing the nation. “Where does the question of diversion arise?” asked Vadakkan. “We just reduced the prices of petrol. Inflation is also under control. Every step is being taken to deal with the problem of job losses. The Satyam issue is being dealt with at the highest level. We are not shying away from anything. If we do not talk about it (terror issue), then the Opposition will accuse us of not being bothered about internal security...” “It is their (BJP) agenda... they have lost out on their credibility and are now talking out of sheer frustration. By accusing us (of using diversionary tactics), they are in fact trying to divert attention from all these issues,” he added.