NEW DELHI: India’s ruling Congress party, which began 2007 on a high note, is suddenly floundering as it faces a string of local poll losses, high inflation and the resurfacing of an arms bribery scandal, analysts say.
“These are indeed difficult times for Congress,” said political analyst Rasheed Kidwai, India’s oldest political party that began the year buoyed by a clutch of opinion polls suggesting a surge in its popularity.
But hard times struck in February, with the Congress losing ground to the Hindu nationalists, first in municipal polls in western Maharashtra state, and later in assembly elections in northern Punjab and Uttarakhand provinces.
The reverses in Punjab and Uttarakhand shrinks the number of states under Congress control from 15 out of 29 in 2004 to less than 12 in 2007, Kidwai noted.
Considering the losses on 27 February, a leading business newspaper said that the Congress has lost its ruling party status across the north, west and central India.
Piling pressure on the pro-reform federal government, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is inflation which at a two-year high of 6.63% is taking the sheen off 9% economic growth and angering India’s poor masses.
On 27 February, Punjab state’s outgoing Congress chief minister Amarinder Singh and Premier Manmohan Singh admitted inflation may have contributed to the poll defeat.
Analyst Kidwai described the poll results as “a wake-up call for the government, which came to power (nationally) in 2004 on the slogan: ‘The Congress party is with the masses´.
“The party has suffered a bad jolt. Now all eyes will be on Sonia Gandhi to see how she tackles this crisis,” said Kidwai, referring to Congress.
Besides high inflation, Kidwai said poor planning and a lack of strategy had contributed to Congress’s dismal showing.
The Congress party’s loss has served to energise the “lacklustre” BJP opposition, said a leading newspaper.
“It will put the party (Congress) at a psychological disadvantage as it prepares for the April-May polls” in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, which is considered politically crucial, it added.
Analysts said it would also strengthen the hand of the Congress party’s Communist allies.
“It is a happy situation for the Left now, as they can drive harder bargains on economic issues,” Kidwai said, citing voter disillusionment with the Congress’ market reforms.
Compounding the Congress’ woes was the resurfacing in February of a 20-year-old arms bribery scam involving Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi.
All put together, “it has given the opposition a bunch of issues to corner the government,” said commentator B.G Verghese.
“The Quattrocchi incident could have been better handled,” Verghese said, referring to the detention of the Italian for allegedly taking bribes to swing $1.3 billion arms deal in favour of Sweden’s Bofors in the mid 1980s.
Ottavio Quattrocchi was held in Argentina on 6 February under an Interpol warrant issued by India in 1997. But the government failed to announce or act on the detention for two weeks and Argentinia freed Quattrocchi on bail on 23 February.
The developments caused a political furore in India, with an aggressive opposition accusing Premier Singh of trying to avoid bringing justice to Quattrocchi because of the businessman’s old friendship with the Gandhi family.
Both houses of India’s parliament were adjourned for several days as the opposition blocked proceedings to protest the issue.
“This was definitely avoidable. The Congress shot itself in the foot on this one. The peculiar manner in which the government went about dealing with the issue makes them seem guilty by association,” Verghese said.