India Abroad, 30 Dec. 2010 – Sheela Bhatt
As prices of everyday goods make the common Indian weep, Sheela Bhatt takes stock of 2011’s to-do list for India’s government
Nobody in India wants to really celebrate the advent of the New Year – except people with thick skin.
As a besieged country and a tainted government move into 2011, Indians are buying onions at a price unheard of in their lifetime: Rs 60 a kilo, or $1.2 for 2.2 lbs. The price of sugar is nearing a bitter Rs 55 a kilo, or $1.1 for 2.2 lbs. Land, the most costly item in India, is generating political scandals, fuelling social strife, launching mass movements and dashing a million dreams of owning a “sweet home.’
Life is getting tougher and brutal. Indians don’t need an astrologer to tell them that life is going to get more difficult in 2011 – and that all they can do about it is raise their tolerance threshold. The Indian urban middle class and the poor people, who voted for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s economic ideas and Sonia Gandhi’s aam admi (common man) politics in 2007, are now seriously questioning the duo’s government.
The country is readying to make its displeasure known in the coming state elections; except in Kerala and Assam, the Congress party is likely to eat humble pie – if it can afford the price of the ingredients.
Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful person among over-1.2 billion Indians, faces multiple challenges that will directly affect her ambitious plan of pushing her son Rahul Gandhi into India’s governmental power setup.
Just check out three serious decisions she will have to take in the first quarter of 2011. Right now, India’s parliament is stalled due to the Opposition parties’ demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the 2G spectrum case, in which airwaves were sold to big mobile telephone service providers at throwaway prices in 2007-2008. If her government’s federal Budget is to be passed, then Sonia’s backroom boys will have to either break the unity of Opposition parties demanding the JPC before February, or get the regional parties like Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party or its rival the Samajvadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav to support her government. The BSP and the SP will extract their pound of flesh, and there is a political price to pay – weakening the Congress party’s ground position in the politically key state of Uttar Pradesh.
Otherwise, Sonia Gandhi’s government can fall. Many regional parties outside the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance, however, are ready to come forward as saviors of India’s grand old party. No politician wants a general election so soon. But, the entire exercise will make Sonia’s government more vulnerable to political blackmail.
The demand for a separate state of Telangana is another pressing issue in which the Congress party is hopelessly trapped. Andhra Pradesh – of which Telangana is a part – is a Congress party stronghold that has helped the party come to power in New Delhi twice. The demand for Telangana is highly sensitive and politically volatile. People of Andhra Pradesh are ferociously divided over the issue. Sonia Gandhi’s leadership is falling short of understanding and responding to the problem’s complexities – forget about finding a solution.
For years, Sonia has evaded declaring whether she supports the proposed division of Andhra Pradesh. The demand for Telangana is reaching its climax; by March, Hyderabad will come to a boil. It’s a loss-loss situation for Sonia. Before any more people die over the divisive issue, she will have to take political steps. And time has already run out for her to take a stand on the issue.
Third – and the most important – issue before her in 2011 is making drastic changes in her government, in the top leadership of her party and in the state units to arrest the fast-sliding image of the 126-year-old party. The charges of corruption are sticking, say her party men and her critics. All her government seems to be doing is thwarting the allegations of corruption – not the corruption in the system.
The scams linked to the UPA government remind Indians of the Bofors howitzer gun acquisition scam that tainted her husband’s clean image in the late 1980s. In the first year of the second decade of the new millennium, Sonia will have to think of some novel way to deal with coalition partners – like she did in her stunning election victories in 2004 and 2009.
India’s democracy is at a stage where it desperately needs some framework, some do’s and don’ts, in running coalition governments. Sonia will have to think of ways to make coalition government work.
It’s no small event that the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left parties have found common ground over the corruption issue to take on the Congress party. In the days of 24/7 news channels and of the uncontrollable World Wide Web, one doesn’t need a great uniting moral force like Jayaprakash Narayan or a rallying point like V P Singh to spread the anti-government message in India’s nooks and corners.
If Sonia Gandhi is not able to refurbish her party’s image, it is possible that 2011 may prove the 2G spectrum scandal a more potent political weapon than even Bofors.
And once the Congress party slide begins, it will no doubt affect Sonia Gandhi’s highly successful career graph after taking over as party chief.
She will have to reshuffle the federal cabinet to give an illusion of change, at least. She will have to bring in smarter manipulators and mass leaders in the party to take on the spin of the Opposition parties. And she will have to give clear signal that she wants the government to act against corruption.
The BJP is also mired in controversies and land scams in states. But the Congress party under Sonia’s leadership has more to answer on the issue – because her political identity is solely linked with the aam admi, who is at the receiving end of her party’s six-and-a-half-year rule.
Indian journalist P Sainath’s report December 26 said, “At least 17,368 Indian farmers killed themselves in 2009, the worst figure for farm suicides in six years, according to data of the National Crime Records Bureau. This is an increase of 1,172 over the 2008 count of 16,196. It brings the total farm suicides since 1997 to 216,500.’
Is anybody listening? Is anything really changing in India?
The fundamental problem is the dichotomy between Sonia’s common man-centered political posturing – her party rode to power in 2004 after running ad campaigns in almost all major newspapers that countered the BJP’s India Shining campaign with the question: What did the common man get? – and the dealings of her party, her government and her prime minister’s economic ideas.
The leaked Niira Radia tapes showed how sleazy fixers are operating behind the scenes in New Delhi. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh only reflected on the legality of phone tapping – not on the content of tapes that were so damaging to him, his government’s and his party’s image. The prime minister – of a party that claims to exist for the common man – only advocated the case of the rich who are petrified of getting their phones tapped. Does it match with Sonia’s concerns against the grave issue of graft?
But then again, Sonia has affected her own image – by overlooking the arrogant way her government imposed P J Thomas as India’s central vigilance commissioner despite protests by Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj.
When the Left-leaning activist-physician Dr Binayak Sen was held guilty of sedition charges on nonsensical grounds by a lower court in Chhattisgarh last week, India’s Law Minister Veerappa Moily only spoke against retired chief justices who slammed the Sen judgment. Does the verdict and Moily’s posturing match with Sonia’s policy of supporting socially liberal issues through the National Advisory Council that she heads?
India’ evolving democracy needs bridges – between the people who are enjoying its fruits, and the people who are demanding justice from the system. Sonia’s government and her party have failed to lay a single foundation for any such bridge.
She has successfully slotted herself as being sensitive to the poor, marginalized people and as sympathetic to the minority. She has got votes and tremendous power due to this politically correct image since 1999. 2011 is the right time to repay the people who have voted for her. She should remove the image that the UPA is mollycoddling moneybags who fund her party and ignoring the sufferings of the people who voted for her.
For the first time ever, in 2011, her voice for the aam admi will carry lesser weight than before – because of the stark realities, despite the government tom-tomming the 8 percent growth rate, which the Indian economy and its people’s perseverance is gifting her party.
For Prime Minister Singh, 2011 will be more difficult than even Sonia. He is directly in the firing line. He stands accused of looking the other way in the 2G spectrum scam. His formidable global reputation is at stake. Just read what The Economist has to say in its latest issue: “Even Mr Singh, who is generally seen as a saintly technocrat floating above the fray, has been dragged down into the muck. Most unusually, the supreme court chided him last week. His sin was to act too slowly against his coalition partner. Congress, lacking a majority, relies on (former Indian telecommunications minister) Mr Raja’s party, the DMK (Dravida Munethra Kazhagham), for parliamentary support.’
Two powerful ministers in the technocrat prime minister’s cabinet, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Home Minister P Chidambaram are scuttling each other’s actions in running the government. Commerce Minister Anand Sharma is aiming at his predecessor Kamal Nath, who confronts serious charges of corruption in another graft case, called the rice scam.
A bigger divide is brewing between two groups within the Congress party. One group comprises the old guard, who have become fat cats under Sonia’s leadership and are part of the all-powerful Congress Working Committee, while another group is slowly gathering strength under the leadership of her son Rahul Gandhi. It’s a fight of traditional and slow-moving versus the intrepid leaders – and the battle has just begun. Congress party veteran Digvijay Singh leads the audacious front to take the party to the next level where Rahul Gandhi can be escorted in. This irritates the old guard big time.
But do not harbor misconceptions that 2011 will be the year of doom for the UPA government or the Congress party. The UPA has more than three years of power left to salvage itself. More importantly, the Congress party is not alone in the murky business of politics and political mismanagement. December 29, BJP President Nitin Gadkari stunned the country when he tried to defend his party’s corruption-ridden government in Karnataka, led by Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa. Gadkari said the Karnataka chief minister’s decision of taking land out from the reserved category and gifting it to his son is “immoral, but not illegal’. He even tried to compare corruption.
“What has happened in Karnataka in the land acquisition,’ Gadkari declared, “is much less compared what was done by (former Karnataka chief minister and present Indian Foreign Minister) Mr (S M) Krishna, (former Karnataka chief minister H D) Kumaraswamy and (former Karnataka chief minister) Dharam Singh. I agree that to take the land out from the reserved category and allotting the land to one’s son is immoral, but not illegal.’
Is immoral acceptable? Can such a person take up the cause of the average Indian, who is a victim of the system and is unable to pay bribes to get things done?
And therein lies hope for Sonia – in the tainted country of 2011 and the pan-Indian lust for grabbing land.