A crisis of legitimacy

A crisis of legitimacy

This is India’s season for scandal. But that’s not quite all. A grave crisis of legitimacy afflicts the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. This is due, in very large part, to the absence of leadership in government and in the political system. There are no signs of this abating anytime soon.

If matters continue to drift, history may mark this as the tipping point—when matters turned from bad to worse. The country, after years of coasting along on autopilot, did not get the leadership it needed at a critical juncture. The spectrum allocation case, in this context, is only the latest link in a chain that began much earlier.

Consider the nature of the drift: There is a clear line that joins the 26/11 Mumbai attacks with the spectrum issue. There are other markers along this path of deterioration—the slow-burning crisis in Jammu and Kashmir that boils over every now and then being one example. Each of these episodes has been marked by the absence of the kind of decisive leadership that was needed to control the situation. The response to 26/11 has been defensive and tepid. Kashmir, as always, has been left to its own devices. The 2G spectrum issue has played out before the eyes of aghast citizens, who’ve helplessly watched the plunder of resources controlled by the government in their name.

During the recent troubled history of its tenure, the government has taken no steps to communicate with citizens or reach out to them in a meaningful manner, either through the press or directly. When it came to taking action, the government’s steps were reluctant and halting. In this, it was always calculating a step ahead: Instead of doing what was right, the UPA government was always worried about the advantages the opposition would garner if it took decisive action.

The result was that action— whatever little of it the Manmohan Singh regime did take —was almost always late and looked more in the nature of an afterthought. The departures of Shashi Tharoor, Ashok Chavan and A. Raja are all cases in point. Had the government been pro-active in the first place, all its worries about the consequences of getting rid of the corrupt and the compromised would have not existed in the first place. Indian democracy is robust and the average citizen intelligent enough to realize when the government is sincere and when the opposition is indulging in criticism devoid of merit. But the UPA does not have any faith in the average Indian.

Which brings us to another aspect of the functioning of Prime Minister Singh’s government: the arrogance of power. Minister after minister, leader after leader, keep making statements that insult the intelligence of citizens. There are far too many instances of such behaviour and citing particular incidents is invidious but one recent example is worth illustrating: The statement of Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh on the threat to the life of the slain Mumbai police officer Hemant Karkare from right-wing Hindu organizations. This was a patently partisan comment meant to garner political mileage from a sensitive issue, one that wounded all Indians, irrespective of their religious belief. It was made in the full glare of television cameras, before and after inconvenient facts emerged. Yet, the individual concerned refused to back down. This was even after people at large had convinced themselves that there was more than a hint of suppressio veri in the proceedings.

This is where the country’s leadership has to step in, be it Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. There is no sign of either one doing so. Singh’s attitude is marked by professorial detachment, something that a prime minister cannot afford in a country such as India. Gandhi’s preoccupation has been the survival of the UPA government. The result is that a wide swath has been left open for ministerial discretion, or indiscretion for that matter. Ministers say and do what they please. There is little check over their performance and still lesser control over the promises they make, ones the people know they will never be able to fulfil or never intend to. Keeping ministers in check is difficult in normal times and more so in a coalition government, but the UPA’s ministers tend to treat their departments as personal fiefs, mocking the idea of the collective responsibility of the cabinet.

That is the substance of the drift. It is for everyone to see.

In this, the prime minister’s first and last line of defence has been his personal honesty and integrity. No one disputes that. But after five-and-a-half years at the helm of India, that shining banner has frayed into a tattered standard. The question is not about him or his honesty but what his ministers do; what do his partymen do; the inability of his government to carry out key, nay the very basic, tasks of governance. In this and much else, Manmohan Singh, in spite of his lofty credentials and even higher expectations, has been found wanting. In calmer moments, he will do well to reflect on what needs to be done to stem the rot that not only threatens his government but also the present and future of the country.

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