New Delhi: In a signal to the opposition and its critics, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government showed that it has a clear edge in the numbers game for the crucial presidential election by including Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad in the third anniversary celebrations of the coalition.
With the UPA government facing criticism from the opposition as well as economists for “governance paralysis” and a series of corruption scandals, getting its candidate elected as the next president will give the Congress and the coalition a welcome breather ahead of what is likely to be a stormy monsoon session of Parliament and before the next round of assembly elections.
The talking point at the event hosted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his Race Course Road residence was the inclusion of both Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad on the dais and later being seated adjacent to coalition chairperson Sonia Gandhi at dinner.
Significantly, Manmohan Singh sat on a different table along with cabinet colleagues P. Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee.
Others on the dinner table included representatives of allies Trinamool Congress, National Conference and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. A united UPA together with support from the SP and the Left parties would clearly tip the advantage in favour of the Congress candidate.
Mulayam Singh made clear that he favoured the ruling alliance’s nominee to succeed Pratibha Patil, who completes her term in July. “One condition, he should not be a bureaucrat,” he told reporters at the dinner hosted by Prime Minister Singh.
In their speeches, both Prime Minister Singh and Gandhi struck a defiant note on the performance of the government, which is also facing criticism for the depreciating rupee and failing to curb inflation.
Stressing India’s 7% economic growth despite the adverse international environment, Singh said, “Sustained high rates of growth during the UPA government’s tenure have enabled us to pursue our agenda of inclusive and equitable growth.”
Pointing out the achievements of the UPA for the ”aam aadmi”, Singh listed the decline in poverty, increase in agricultural growth rate, farm wages, record foodgrain production, universalizing primary school enrolment, success of the rural employment guarantee scheme and India’s growth into the second largest telecom market as major milestones.
“Despite these real achievements, there are uncertainties and a large unfinished agenda before us,” Singh said. “Difficult decisions” were needed on spending and revenue mobilization. However, he added, “Some people have questioned the sustainability of our growth process. I recognize that we face pressures on our balance of payments and that the fiscal situation needs careful management.”
Taking on the opposition for its criticism of the UPA government, coalition chairperson Sonia Gandhi also defended the government. “Often our political opponents have been very sharp and aggressive in their criticism and have levelled irresponsible accusations. But we have maintained our dignity, prestige and humility. We are quite confident that the responsibility entrusted on us by the people has been fulfilled,” she said in her brief address in Hindi.
However, the Prime Minister admitted that there has been a high degree of public frustration and anger on the issue of corruption. “I wish to assure our people that we are working sincerely to address this issue through both legislative and administrative measures,” Singh said, adding that legislation for an anti-graft ombudsman or Lokpal is before parliament.
“We are trying to ensure exemplary punishment to the guilty while also ensuring that public servants feel secure in taking bona fide decisions that are in the national interest,” he said.
Reminding the gathering that just two years are left for general elections, Gandhi and Singh pledged that the government will “work with a renewed determination to pursue” the tasks before the government. Gandhi said, “The verdict (of election) will not be based on our promises, but on the work we do. This is an opportunity to reaffirm commitment to the welfare and progress of our people.”
In its report UPA Government Report to the People 2011-2012, the government listed its achievements under 12 different heads including social inclusion, economic resurgence, internal security, governance and civil society.
The UPA, which was re-elected in 2009, has been mired in a series of controversies and scams including the financial irregularities in allocation of second-generation (2G) telecom spectrum, the organization of the October 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games, and the Adarsh Housing Society Scam where residential apartments meant for widows of the 1999 Kargil war were distributed by diluting the norms of membership to senior politicians and bureaucrats in Maharashtra. It has also come in for severe criticism for failing to check the price rise and a slowing economy. The dip in the government’s popularity was evident when the Congress party was routed in three out of five states that went to the polls early this year including the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh.
Meanwhile, the opposition parties attacked the UPA government on the third anniversary of its second term. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the government may fall anytime, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said the government was “failing on all fronts”.
“The government claims to have a total majority of 272, but the actual figure seems 227 as even its allies are not happy with it,” said BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain, referring to Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee reportedly not attending the dinner hosted by Singh over the delay in finalising the financial package for West Bengal.
Meanwhile, the Marxists criticized the government on inflation, rising unemployment and corruption. “In the three years of UPA-II rule, not a single step has been taken on any front to alleviate the burden of the people. The government is in a state of drift,” politburo member Sitaram Yechury told reporters. “It has failed on all fronts. That is the actual balance sheet of three years of UPA-II.”
With general elections due in 2014, an ABP News-Nielsen survey released earlier this week suggested that if polls were held now, the BJP would win 28% of the vote as opposed to 20% for the Congress. “In an interesting revelation, only 69% of those who voted for Congress during the 2009 polls are still intending to vote for it if elections are held now,” said a release by the news channel. The survey covered 28 cities.
PTI contributed to this story.