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Is this the last of economic reforms for a long time?
February 09, 2007
It seems like it was just yesterday that Sitaram Kesri's car rolled up to the gates of Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the then Congress president informed a stunned Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma that his party was withdrawing support from the Deve Gowda ministry. Actually, it was just under 10 years ago that this drama took place.
Nobody is quite sure who wrote the letter that the Congress president read out to the President. (Rumours persist that the author is currently a senior member of the Manmohan Singh Cabinet.) But that curious and rambling document alleged, among other things, that the United Front had failed to support the cause of secularism in the then recently-concluded Punjab Vidhan Sabha polls (which were swept by the Akali Dal and the BJP).
There is a nagging sense of history repeating itself today. Once again, Punjab is in the throes of election fever. And once again the Congress president and the prime minister of the day don't seem to be singing in chorus.
'Secularism', that much abused term, is not the cause today. The bone of contention is economic policy. The prime minister and his team feel that Special Economic Zones are a necessary tool for progress; the Congress president wants the government to have second thoughts.
The prime minister and his advisors believe that Foreign Direct Investment in the retail sector is a good thing on the whole; Sonia Gandhi has written to say that she has her doubts about Wal-Mart entering India courtesy of a deal with Bharti.
Everyone knows that it is nonsense to speak of a 'balance of power' between Sonia Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh. In the eyes of a true Congressman, Priyanka Vadra's infants probably carry greater weight than the unfortunate man who was catapulted into the prime ministership.
Please don't dismiss that as pure sycophancy, there is sound political reasoning behind it. As one Congressman said, "How can we trust him to lead us when he failed to win a Lok Sabha seat even in South Delhi?" (The reference is to the 1999 General Election, when poor Manmohan Singh was beaten in a constituency that is home to many of globalisation's winners.)
Given Dr Manmohan Singh's unfortunate history of forays into electoral politics, it is surprising to see that the Congress hopes to use him as a vote-catcher in Punjab. Astonishingly, Sonia Gandhi herself seems to be taking a back-seat in the assembly elections. (Rahul Gandhi is absent altogether!)
We all know that the Congress is playing the Sikh card for all it is worth, and none too subtly at that. The party is drumming away on the fact that it has given the nation its first Sikh prime minister (as well as an Army chief of staff who is a Sikh), and that it hopes Punjab shall now repay this generosity. I don't know if this ploy shall be successful, but it does tell you a few things about the state of the Congress in Punjab.
First, it is a tacit admission that the ruling Amarinder Singh ministry did nothing of note over the last five years. This is not exactly a surprise; as I recall, the Congress won just two of Punjab's 13 Lok Sabha seats in the 2004 General Election. Dr Manmohan Singh has his work cut out if he wants to overturn that legacy of drift.
Second, Sonia Gandhi has apparently decided that it makes sense to put some distance between the (possible) losses in Punjab and herself. Her own team even appears to have decided that the prime minister shall make a wonderful scapegoat if the voters of Punjab turn away from the Congress. This might explain the curious timing of her letters to Dr Manmohan Singh, setting forth her veiled warning about Special Economic Zones and Foreign Direct Investment in retail.
(It also puts to rest all the brouhaha about Rahul Gandhi's abilities as an election manager. Last year, as you probably recall, the Congress was touting him as its great hope after that stage-managed by-election in Rae Bareli following the theatrical resignation 'on principle' of Sonia Gandhi after the office of profit allegations.
But the Nehru-Gandhi scion has not ventured outside his home-turf since then. Forget Punjab, has Rahul Gandhi made a splash even in Uttar Pradesh outside the Amethi-Rae Bareli area?)
The crucial difference between 1997 and 2007 is that the prime minister and the Congress president belong to the same party. There is, therefore, no danger of anyone driving forth from 10, Janpath to Rashtrapati Bhavan on Easter Sunday this year. But what the Punjab elections threaten to do is to widen the gap between the party and the government, with economic reforms being a victim in this squabble.
If Dr Manmohan Singh bucks the odds to lead the Congress back to a second term in Punjab, he will cast aside his image as a man who cannot win elections. That will make him very unpopular with the circle around Sonia Gandhi, who opted for him over all the Congressmen in the Lok Sabha precisely because he could never be a 'threat'. But if the anti-Congress trend continues from 2004, Congressmen will lay the blame at the prime minister's economic reforms.
With Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat also holding assembly polls in 2007, have we seen the last of economic reforms for a long time to come?