Indian Decade

Congress Under Siege

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Indian Decade

Congress Under Siege

India’s ruling UPA government is struggling to shake off one corruption scandal after another. Can the BJP capitalize?

When governments are under siege they tend to feel that even when they know what they are saying is right, they still don’t sound convincing. As a result, self doubt starts to dominate their thinking – just as is happening at the moment with India’s ruling United Progressive Alliance.

This doubt was especially clear to me after interacting with senior ministers the other day. Speaking at a press conference, Union Telecom and Human Resources and Development Minister Kapil Sibal tried to clarify that he hasn’t shown favouritism to Reliance Communications by imposing lesser penalties than usual for its shutting down of its rural telephony service.

Sibal said the fine imposed on the company was in accordance with the obligations the firm faces as a universal service provider, and added that claims made by an NGO that he had imposed a smaller penalty than usual were ‘malicious, motivated and defamatory.’

The press briefing came just a day after the resignation of Textile Minister Dayanidhi Maran over his questionable conduct in the allocation of 2G spectrum when he was heading the Telecoms Ministry in the UPA’s first term.

The problem for the government is that in this siege atmosphere that has engulfed it, following a series of corruption claims, even wild allegations can look credible, and each and every decision a minister makes comes to be questioned.

You could see on Sibal’s face how desperate he was to change the subject from the claims of graft that have been flying around. It’s not that the government isn’t trying to do anything to tamp down the ongoing firestorm. It’s just that it’s working too slowly for the public’s liking. The overall silence of the ruling party’s leadership also isn’t helping.

Some NGOs and opposition parties, meanwhile, are sensing an opportunity to claw their way back to power, and so are trying to capitalize on the crisis. The barrage of criticism being launched against the government, combined with the UPA leadership’s own failure to tackle the problems it faces in a mature way, appears to have brought the government to a standstill. Indeed, it appears that just halfway through its five year term, the UPA has run out of initiative.

Conversely, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been in disarray since it lost power in 2004, seems suddenly to be showing signs of life. If the ruling party can’t break out of its current funk, it may soon find the BJP breathing down its neck.

It shouldn’t be like this for the government – there are numerous credible claims of corruption against the BJP, but the Congress Party seems unable to push back effectively. The recent Cabinet reshuffle was supposed to breathe new life into the government, but it was widely seen as a disappointment. And anyway, some fresh blood isn’t going to be enough to dispel public anger over the slow response of the Congress leadership in tackling corruption.

Manmohan Singh is going to have to demonstrate genuine political courage if he wants to ensure that opposition attacks don’t stick. Now more than ever, Singh and his beleaguered government are in desperate need of some bold thinking.