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Union budget will start the clock on Congress

Union budget will start the clock on Congress
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First Published: Mon, Feb 04 2008. 12 00 AM IST
Updated: Mon, Feb 04 2008. 12 00 AM IST
The Congress party has been betraying worrying signs following its defeat in the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly polls. Fearing another possible defeat, the party is now trying to postpone the Karnataka assembly polls, scheduled for April-May. What should the Congress do to stay ahead in the race for power in the next Lok Sabha polls? Here is a list of issues it must ponder over.
Honest governance
People of the country are sick of corruption and are craving good and effective governance. With a leader like Manmohan Singh with his unquestionable integrity at the government’s helm, the party should have had a strong advantage. But, his personal image of being a weak prime minister — amply demonstrated by his failure to push the Indo-US nuclear deal, on which he staked his prestige — will prove to be a major deterrent. This perception will only get more accentuated, particularly when he is pitted against a strong leader like L.K. Advani, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate. Whether Singh can become more assertive and ‘independent’ in the months ahead will have a major bearing on the prospects of the Congress.
Curb price rise
The party had promised a government for the common man, or aam admi, but skyrocketing prices are breaking the back of the common man, particularly in urban areas. Notwithstanding the impressive inflation statistics of the Central government, which must be making finance minister P. Chidamabaram proud, prices of many commodities have risen sharply. While this is part of a global rise in foodgrain prices, what would be watched closely is whether Chidambaram, who often points to record tax collections, will give some relief to the common man in this year’s Union Budget. This will go a long way in improving the prospects of the party, especially in urban areas.
No appeasement
The Congress’ communal budgeting initiative, whatever its intentions, has the potential to knock off the party’s base, as such initiatives are resented by the people. The party will be pushing such initiatives at its own peril. The Congress has also been seen as soft on terror. To stave off this accusation, the UPA government should implement the Supreme Court judgement in the Mohd. Afzal Guru case over the attack on Parliament, as the BJP did exploit this inaction as an issue in the Gujarat elections. This issue will haunt the party again in the Lok Sabha polls.
Tango left
The urban middle classes perceive the left front as a negative force that is stalling all reform and progressive measures. The Congress must show it has the gumption to pursue its own reform agenda, lest it becomes an unattractive electoral choice to the reform-minded urban elite.
Farm crisis
The agriculture sector is in the throes of a crisis, while agricultural minister Sharad Pawar is busy managing the nation’s cricket affairs or struggling to arrange for costly imports of agricultural commodities. As per official statistics, as many as 17,060 farmers committed suicide in 2006; one-fourth of these are from Pawar’s home state. Whether the government has any plans for agricultural revival as it enters the final year of its term will be keenly watched.
Failed initiatives
Initiatives such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP) and Bharat Nirman have not produced the desired results due to faulty implementation. The government has invested huge funds, but the results are not commensurate. With time running out, the government needs to ensure these start working well.
BSP factor
The growth of the Bahujan Samaj Party, and its role as a spoiler, has the Congress worried. The BSP’s growing support
in states as far as Karnataka is a threat, though the brewing resentment against Mayawati’s government in Uttar Pradesh will come as good news to the Congress. As her domestic troubles mount, Mayawati would need to focus on her party in UP but her impact will be felt.
It is a long way to go for the next general election but the Congress will need to wake up and push the envelope, starting with the Union Budget, to stay in the reckoning.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development and Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at ­thebottomline@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Feb 04 2008. 12 00 AM IST