Quack or quick The question before UPA

By: | Updated: 07 Mar 2012 05:54 AM

New Delhi: The
beleaguered Manmohan Singh government’s hopes of succour from the first
round of Assembly elections this year were rudely and comprehensively
dashed today as the Congress lost Goa, failed to win back Punjab,
struggled in Uttarakhand and finished a miserable fourth in high-stakes
Uttar Pradesh.

The victory in Manipur was a tiny ray of sunshine
that only served to heighten the darkness enveloping the Grand Old Party
and lengthening the shadows over its government at the Centre.

the Manmohan Singh-led UPA-II, the results could not have come at a worse
time. Tainted by mega corruption scams, hemmed in by belligerent allies,
cornered by increasingly assertive regional chieftains and widely
distrusted by large swathes of civil society, the Prime Minister was
desperate for a morale booster before facing the crucial budget session of
Parliament next week. The exact opposite has happened.

Assembly election results are unlikely to have any immediate impact on the
numerical stability of the central government (neither the Samajwadi
Party, BSP, nor the Trinamul Congress would fancy a mid-term poll right
now). But the dismal showing by the Congress could make it even more
difficult for the Prime Minister to win the battle of perceptions and
carry out the bold decisions he has kept on hold for most of his second

With the economy showing little signs of a recovery, the
Prime Minister was keen to unleash some big-ticket reforms in the coming
months such as the pending decision on FDI in multi-brand retail, tax
reforms, public sector units divestment, power and mining sector
initiatives, including a controversial push to civilian nuclear energy.

than specific decisions, however, it was imperative for the government to
change the atmospherics and arrest the state of drift it has been caught
in almost from the start of its second term in the summer of 2009.

more than two years left in office, the Manmohan Singh dispensation has
been likened to a lame-duck government for quite some time now — failing
to spell out what it stands for if it stands for anything at all.

sharp contrast to the UPA’s first term when it pushed for the National
Advisory Council-backed “aam aadmi”-centred initiatives such as
MNREGA, RTI, NHRM et al on the one hand and the Indo-US civil nuclear deal
on the other, UPA-II has lurched from one crisis to another without any
seeming sense of purpose or direction. The lack of a clear, decisive and
vocal leadership has been its bane — Sonia Gandhi has maintained a
sphinx-like silence for the most part while Manmohan Singh has been left
to fend for himself with Congress leaders treating him as a caretaker
administrator till such time that Rahul Gandhi decides to step in.

the Congress, therefore, today’s results have been doubly devastating.
The results have shown that sustained campaigns against the
“scam-tainted” Congress regime have found an electoral resonance in
state after state. But worse, the drubbing in Uttar Pradesh — where
Rahul Gandhi led from the front — has proved that he is no knight in
shining armour who can rescue the party from the clutches of the
“ineffectual” Manmohan Singh who has no attributes of a mass leader.

Congress leaders down the line have been quick to shield Rahul from blame
for the Uttar Pradesh debacle, there is deep disappointment in the party
that the combined “charm” and “charisma” of Rahul and Priyanka
failed to make any impact on the electoral outcome in Uttar Pradesh.

goodwill for the Congress and praise for Rahul’s efforts were not enough
to translate into votes in a highly competitive battleground where the
Congress parachuted a general but was bereft of foot soldiers.

Congress, which was expected to win back both Punjab and Uttarakhand,
could have blamed the central government’s policies and scam-tainted
image for its poor showing in the two states in case it had fared well in
Uttar Pradesh. But the Uttar Pradesh result, where the Congress managed to
win just a handful more than its 2007 tally of 22 seats, can be attributed
to the party’s own organisational failure — that no amount of Family
outings can paper over.

Rahul Gandhi, it is true, repeatedly said
he was in Uttar Pradesh for the long haul and his spirited campaign helped
set the stage for the anti-Mayawati mood that gripped the state. But
ironically, Rahul ended up being the best campaigner for the Samajwadi
Party. His speeches against Mayawati’s “money-chomping magic
elephant” hit home but his party was not seen as strong enough to
displace the BSP, helping the Samajwadi Party garner almost the entire
anti-incumbency vote.

In one way, the Congress’s poor showing
in Uttar Pradesh might give more breathing space to the Manmohan Singh
dispensation. Even though Rahul and Sonia have repeatedly expressed their
faith in the Prime Minister, Congress leaders have not ceased their
clamour for a Rahul takeover. That clamour would have grown manifold in
case Rahul had managed to substantially increase the Congress’s vote
share and seat tally in Uttar Pradesh.

With Rahul iterating that
he would continue to focus on Uttar Pradesh, the results notwithstanding,
the Prime Minister can concentrate on governance without constantly
looking over his shoulder. Defeat can be demoralising; but it can also be
liberating. The Prime Minister and his team can wallow in despair and
allow the “policy paralysis” of the last two years to continue —
perpetually afraid of rocking a boat that is stuck mid-stream, lest it

Conversely, with nothing much left to lose, he can take
tough decisions that will give the economy and the polity some direction
even if that means taking on the combined might of the Opposition and
disgruntled allies. It might be better to go down fighting than be a
legless duck that lasts a full term.

-The Telegraph, Calcutta

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First Published: 07 Mar 2012 05:54 AM
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