Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (L) and Congress Party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi (R) gesture as Congress President and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi (C) waves towards supporters during a party rally at The Ram Lila Grounds in New Delhi on November 4, 2012. –AFP Photo
Amid serious allegations of rampant corruption, multi-crore scandals, policy paralysis and poor economic growth, the ruling Congress-led coalition United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in India has completed four years in its second consecutive five-year term in office. The coalition showcases ‘achievements’ but the opposition highlights ‘stagnancy’ and ‘paralysis’.
Dr. Manmohan Singh — India’s prime minister and also the economic expert with an ‘honest’ image — in his report card presented to the countrymen pledged to bring the slow economy back on rails and said that those found guilty of corruption would not go unpunished.
But Mr. Singh’s critics say the government and the prime minister are in complete “denial mode” when it comes to scandals and scams. There are others who describe Singh as the “captain of a sinking ship”.
A series of corruption scandals like the Commonwealth Games scam, 2G Telecom scam, Coal-gate and Rail-gate scams have caused much embarrassment to the ruling coalition and forced the resignation and sacking of some of its cabinet ministers for their alleged involvement in corrupt practices.
Two cabinet ministers, Pawan Bansal — Railway Minister— and Ashwini Kumar— Law Minister — had to resign after corruption charges.
Gang rapes and cases of molestation against women in India’s capital have also given rise to some serious questions regarding the safety and dignity of women.
As the Congress leadership is busy highlighting ‘achievements’ of its coalition government in the last nine years, India’s news channels are covering yet another scandal – this time, spot-fixing in the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) for cricket.
India’s growth rate has taken a severe beating in the last couple of years and come down to below six per cent while the consumer price inflation continues to be in the double digits.
Corruption, scandals, slow economic growth and other issues like inflation have provided enough ammunition to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition in India, to take a dig at the UPA coalition.
While Congress was in a celebratory mood on its fourth anniversary on May 22 and hosted a grand dinner for its allies, two top BJP leaders had decided to go for an all-out attack against the government.
Senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj put a question mark over Dr. Singh’s leadership quality and claimed that the UPA has failed on all fronts. “With utter sadness I have to say that Manmohan Singh is a Prime Minister, not a leader. He is neither the leader of his party nor the leader of this country. The UPA has not been able to provide capable leadership,” Sushma told journalists in New Delhi.
Arun Jaitley, another important BJP leader, alleged that the government has misused the country’s premier investigation agency, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). “This government has only one accomplishment, that it has ruled for four years by misusing the CBI. Had it not misused the CBI against its allies, it would not have completed four years,” Mr. Jaitley told media persons while sitting alongside Sushma.
Some critics in India sarcastically describe the CBI as the ‘Congress Bureau of Investigation’.
The opposition also seems unhappy with the government’s “lack of courage” to confront China with regards to its latest incursions in Ladakh — a mountainous region in disputed Jammu and Kashmir. Chinese troops were reported to have entered up to 19 Kms within Ladakh region where they had also allegedly erected some tents. Later both sides withdrew their troops from the Depsang Valley and Daulat Beig Oldi and agreed to maintain peace and tranquility in border areas.
Soon after the aggressive and sudden military advances into Ladakh, the new Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang on his just concluded maiden foreign visit to India described India as a “strategic partner and a good friend”.
BJP’s Vice President Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi had expressed caution that the Chinese intrusion in Ladakh could snowball into a “Kargil-like” situation. “The Prime Minister has said the incursions are a localized issue. To say so is wrong. After all, what had happened in Kargil? India should give up its ‘confused and contradictory’ policy towards China and take serious measures.”
On its part, the Congress leaders accuse the opposition BJP for disrupting Parliament proceedings by preferring to stage protests against the scams instead of debating issues on an appropriate platform to find possible solutions.
UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi put her weight behind the country’s prime minister and rubbished all charges of a possible rift between Dr. Singh and the Congress leadership. “The government has the greatest respect for the Prime Minister who is carrying out his responsibilities with the greatest dignity in the face of unrelenting hostility,” she said on the anniversary event.
Like other major news channels in India, CNN-IBN also debated the fourth anniversary of the UPA with a panel of experts, which included Vinod Mehta, N Ram, A K Bhattacharya and Rudranghsu Mukherjee.
In its program ‘The Last Word’ hosted by veteran journalist and television host Karan Thapar, experts were unanimous in their criticism of Dr. Singh for his ‘strange silence’ on important matters and the Congress-led UPA for not doing enough to put a check on corruption and inflation.
The debate revolved around the question ‘Can Dr. Singh recover his political strength’?
The editorial chairman of The Outlook Group, Mr. Vinod Mehta, said, “Oh, I think it is very unlikely. The party has made it clear that he (Dr. Singh) is there only till 2014… As far as his reputation is concerned, things have gone to such a stage where the one thing that he had going for him, it was his personal integrity, there is a question mark there also. The whole thing is so extra-ordinary that people are actually thinking that Dr. Manmohan Singh may have taken money himself, which is absolutely untrue. But that is the public perception. So that is how far he has gone down.”
Mr. N Ram, former editor-in-chief of The Hindu, was of the view that Congress was heading for debacle in the upcoming general elections slated for next year. “Sonia Gandhi was combative. She did the right thing, stood by the Prime Minister. But there is a world of difference between the messages conveyed by the Prime Minister, including his body language, and Sonia Gandhi’s. But I don’t think this is going to save the Congress at all. It is headed for a huge debacle, everything points to that, opinion polls, and also every indication points to that. But Sonia Gandhi clearly came out much stronger, much clearer than the Prime Minister, who made an academic and a very dull speech (on the fourth anniversary). He was in denial. Also, Sonia Gandhi didn’t reflect the reality by saying that they are uncompromising against the fight against corruption. It is not true. I don’t know why she said it.”
The editor of Business Standard Mr. A K Bhattacharya opined that Mr. Singh had earlier taken some tough decisions but they have come too late in the day. “I think BJP’s charge against the UPA’s indecisiveness too is largely true if one takes into consideration the entire four year period, but in the last one year this government has taken some actions and decisions. They have rather come too late. And the charges of corruption are so severe that they have overshadowed the decisions the government took to bail the economy out of the current crisis.”
Experts argued that it was perhaps too late for Manmohan Singh to retrieve either his image or reputation.
R Mukherjee, opinions editor of The Telegraph, said: “Even if he (Mr. Singh) was in a position to do so he left it rather late, I mean he is running the last portion of the last lap at the moment; and he appears frail, he appears indecisive, and his image is smeared. It is sad.”
On being asked to offer their suggestions to Manmohan Singh, the panelists proposed various measures from comprehensive cabinet reshuffle- to- breaking his silence- to- reality check- to- providing opportunities to some young and fresh faces in the cabinet.
“There should be a ruthless and comprehensive cabinet reshuffle. And this expectation the nation has that young people will be given real opportunities in the cabinet, I think that should be fulfilled. He should present a government which has fresh faces, not the tired and old faces. He should also talk to the country. He should take the country into confidence and say whatever he wants to say. His silence now is absolutely indefensible. I’m not going to advise him on what he should say,” Mr Mehta said.
But Mr N Ram disagreed that any cabinet reshuffle was going to make any difference and save the “sinking ship”. “I’d say that you must come to terms with reality, do reality checks, and look at the corruption that has plagued this government, look at the cover up which is as bad as the corruption itself. Instead Mr. Singh insists on denying reality.”
The UPA highlighted 12 major themes of the government's priority, which include economic resurgence, internal security, education, health, child rights, food security, women empowerment, weaker sections and minorities, rural renewal and foreign relations. Dr. Singh also said his government was determined to fight terrorism and left-wing extremism.
The parliamentary elections are due in 2014. Many political commentators predict UPA’s downfall and maintain it would be hard for the Congress-led coalition to return to power for the third time in a row. It would be interesting to see whether the BJP’s ‘Lotus’ will shine or Congress’s ‘Hand’ continues to remain powerful and achieve a hat-trick of wins come the next elections.
Gowhar Geelani is a writer/journalist with international experience. He has served as Editor at Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) in Bonn, Germany. Previously, he has contributed features for the BBC. Feedback at (email@example.com).