Developments over the past week clearly show that the Congress-led UPA government is increasingly looking like a bumbling regime that is beset with signs of insecurity and confusion.
At no point in the past three years or so that it has been in office has the government come across as so unsure of itself.
Three developments, just over the last few days, hint at the Congress’ bravado of a great comeback in any early Lok Sabha election turning into a chimera.
First, the government’s somersault on “there is no Ram” affidavit in the Supreme Court, is simply reflective of the party’s fear of incurring the wrath of the Hindu electorate at a time when the party fears the loss of Muslim votes from its “George Bush is our best friend” song of recent months.
Still, amid a bad bungling on the issue, there was an attempt among some Congress leaders to give credit to party president Sonia Gandhi for the forced withdrawal of the affidavits. But it is a very obvious attempt at protecting the party—and Gandhi—from the usual “foreign-born” leader attacks that will restart once the election season gets underway. If the withdrawal isn’t enough, some Congress leaders would prefer finding a convenient lightning rod.
Normally, it would be law minister H.R. Bharadwaj, whose neck would be on the line but some within the party suggest that the minister’s role in Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi saga actually makes him somewhat more indispensible to the party leadership. That could very well be the reason that minister for culture Ambika Soni becomes the fall guy. The UPA government has tried to buy itself three months to cool tempers by informing the Supreme Court that it will re-examine all objections to the project. No matter what, the BJP is sure to oppose the project, now that it has gained an unexpected political currency. The government will have to significantly rework the project or abandon it. While it might get some relief, that will be temporary as the larger issue will be exploited and haunt them when early elections for the Lok Sabha are called, as some observers are betting on, in early 2008.
And for the BJP, while the Ayodhya issue was divisive in nature as it pits the majority Hindu community against Muslims, the Ram Sethu issue is relatively uncontroversial, perhaps with some exceptions in states such as Tamil Nadu where the party has not much to lose anyway.
The affidavit fiasco was preceded by insensitive and perhaps unnecessary comments by Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and Union minister for textiles Shanker sinh Vaghela that farmers of Vidarbha are lazy, deceiving in nature and have themselves to blame for their sorry plight and, therefore, committing suicides.
Irrespective of the reasons, these comments make a mockery of a genuine tragedy as some 5,000 lives have been lost in Vidarbha alone because of suicides. The Congress party let off its two leaders lightly and, again, this decision will likely come back to haunt it, not just in Vidarbha, but, in many other states were farmers are facing problems.
The third significant error involves the wheat imports mess. Under attack from both the Left and the right for the alleged irregularities and proposed import of wheat at almost double the procurement price paid to Indian farmers, Sharad Pawar is running from pillar to post to highlight the inevitability of high-cost imports, blaming the previous BJP-led NDA government for its faulty export policies.
In a six-page letter to parliamentarians, Pawar has tried to demonstrate why he alone is not at fault. If the Opposition can, as it likely will, deftly make this into yet another bungled issue when it comes to the Congress and the common man, the mishandling of wheat imports has the potential to snowball into another, major anti-Congress campaign issue.
It is evident that the UPA government is betting—and blundering along the way—on early elections, hoping the rug will be pulled under its feet, potentially giving it a moral high ground. Much of the government’s confidence about its re-election prospects stems from confidence that the BJP is in disarray, especially in states where the party is in power.
There is some truth to that assessment but the government’s recent actions have given a “godsend” opportunity to the BJP to reassert itself. With the Left holding firm on the nuclear issue, the past few weeks have left the Congress in a situation where neither early polls nor staying in power in a weakened manner is particularly a good option.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org