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A wasted year: The common man's woes only increased

May 20, 2010 16:37 IST

Manmohan SinghIn first year of the UPA-2, non-performance is visible in all areas of governance, writes Virendra Kapoor.

If you asked the aam aadmi if there was anything to celebrate at the end of one year in office of the United Progressive Alliance-II government, the answer would be a big yawn. The ubiquitous aam aadmi never had it so bad. His staple dal-roti has become so costly that he has had to cut down on the family's monthly rations.

Never mind the rising costs of electricity, petrol, cooking gas, public transport, schooling etc. Besides, the law and order situation even in the big metros has worsened further in recent months. In short, the Congress-led coalition has failed to protect the interests of the very aam aadmi in whose name it had won the second successive mandate.

Indeed, the non-performance is visible in all other areas of governance. After winning the second term in office, it was hoped that Manmohan Singh would emerge from the shadows of the Congress President Sonia Gandhi, and conduct himself as a leader in his own right. But, then, he has got where he has being self-effacing and modest.

A lifetime's habits are unlikely to change at this late stage even if the manna from heaven in the form the prime ministership of the world's largest democracy literally fell in his lap.

In a newspaper column, author and historian Ramachandra Guha compared Singh with India's second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. It is quite off the mark. For one, Shastri was a politician of long standing. As an understudy of Nehru, he was the natural choice for heading the government following the death of the former. Yes, initially Shastri did evoke ridicule in some quarters but that was not due to his performance as prime minister.

It was his physical stature which caused titters whenever he figured in the obligatory documentaries screened in cinema halls. However following the 1965 war with Pakistan, such ridicule stopped as Shastri gained political stature in his own right. As against Shastri, one has been waiting in vain for six years for Singh to acquire that status in the popular mind.  

So, Singh continues to be the non-leader he was when sheer destiny first catapulted him into the prime ministerial gaddi in May 2004. The failure of the prime minister to acquire a stature of his own has had a deleterious effect on the quality of administration. For, when the constitutional head of government is a cipher and is obliged to take orders from someone outside the government, his authority stands duly undermined.

Given that the exigencies of coalition politics had inevitably freed ministers belonging to the allied parties from the obligations usually enjoined upon them by the Cabinet system of government, the scant importance Congress ministers accorded the prime minister in matters of governance has further emasculated his authority. To begin with, the peculiar arrangement of government formation wherein the real power vests in the party chief is infelicitous to the smooth functioning of government.

Yet, if the UPA-I gave a relatively better account of itself, a lot of credit must go to the Leftists who provided it stable ideological moorings. With the luxury of enhanced numbers, and without the stern monitoring of the Communists, UPA-II was supposed to act far more decisively in implementing its electoral promises. But from the word go, the prime minister has faltered at every step.

Whether it was the stand-off before the ministry formation with the DMK, or the allocation of portfolios, the impression created was one of a weak and wavering leader who was entirely clueless about the ship of State he was obliged to steer by sheer default. On their part, the Gandhis were not ready yet to ascend the ~gaddi~ formally that they considered theirs by right because the chosen heir, Rahul Gandhi, was still not through with his `discovery of India.'

The question, therefore, that must be asked is as to why the nation must suffer for want of an effective leader, a leader in his own right, who can command the ship of the State with a degree of authority. As things are, it looks as if Singh is assailed by self-doubt that he is a mere caretaker meant to keep the prime ministerial ~gaddi~ warm till the anointed one can take his rightful place.

The resulting confusion shows in official decision-mak ing. So, you had the Women's Reservation Bill introduced with great fanfare in the Rajya Sabha and duly passed with the willing support of the BJP and the Communists. But those who had pushed the prime minister to take the bill to the Rajya Sabha so that they could take credit for having it passed on the centenary of the International Women's Day -- and could be shown by an obliging Doordarshan being facilitated by hordes of women from the party stable -- did not help the PM in finding a solution to the logjam over it in the Lok Sabha.

Likewise, there is stalemate over the proposed food security bill, the latest bee in the bonnet of the jholawalaas who have emerged as the chief mentors of Sonia Gandhi. Even within the government there is no consensus on the actual number of the below-the-poverty-line families, and on whether the free monthly ration should be 25 kilos or 35 kilos.

Again, the nuclear liability bill, without whose passage the prime minister cannot roll out the controversial Indo-US civil nuclear deal, is mired in controversy, though the government has tricked the opposition by sending it to a parliamentary committee headed by a Congressman.

Of course, the biggest disaster is the anti-Maoist policy. After the Pune terror attack and the systematic slaying of the police and paramilitary jawans by the Naxals, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram no longer struts his act as arrogantly as he had done till only the other day.

It is notable that the prime minister has not said a word edgeways even as Digvijay Singh, Sonia Gandhi and other Congress biggies have weighed in with `considered' opinions on the home minister's initial all-out confrontation with the armed guerrillas. The prime minister's stony silence is all the more shocking given that only a few months ago he had described the Maoist insurrection as the 'biggest internal security challenge' to the country. In what is a clear admission of failure of its pro-active policy, the central government has now taken to shifting the onus for taming the Naxal challenge to the state governments.

Or take the terrible political management of Manmohan Singh. He continues to shoulder the deadweight of the tainted Telecom Minister A Raja without mustering the courage to at least move him to a less lucrative charge. After the ejection of the voluble but error-prone junior minister for foreign affairs, Shashi Tharoor, the PM has had to contend with the frequent indiscretions of the Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh.

Then there is the Sharm-el-Sheikh faux pas and the flip-flop on the resumption of composite and not-so-composite dialogue with Pakistan. The failure to pursue an independent foreign policy so that our national interest, say, in the case of Iran vis-a- vis hydrocarbon security, could not be jeopardised.

Yes, on the positive side you would say that the economy is still growing at a decent clip. It is. But it is no thanks to the government. Our economy was never heavily export-reliant. So it was able to withstand the global financial tremors after the Wall Street collapse better. Besides, the famed entrepreneurial energies of Indians were in full play the moment the government vacated space and stopped messing around with business and industry. However, remember that during the year no further progress was made on structural reforms, or in opening up key sectors of the economy like insurance, health, defence, etc.

Honestly, there is nothing to gloat about the performance of the government these past 12 months. Yet, in spite of it being a wasted year, with the government having nothing to show except that it survived somehow -- even if that meant blackmailing the Yadav duo of Mulayam and Lalu and that eponymous mountain of Maya called Mayawati -- the prime minister faces no serious threat from the opposition. It is because the opposition seems to be in a bigger mess than even the UPA.

If the UPA leadership is uninspiring, so is the case with the leadership of the opposition, with a second-rung leader from Nagpur thrust as the head of the main opposition party.

For sure, the government would muddle through in the coming months as well till the strange arrangement devised by the family to keep the gaddi warm for Rahul Gandhi is terminated.

Meanwhile, the aam aadmi can continue to put up most stoically with the humungous rise in the prices of his staple food.

Virendra Kapoor