Amulya Ganguli sums up one year of the United Progressive Alliance's second coming. A new series to mark the political event:
The Manmohan Singh government's first term created the illusion that the Congress party had finally been able to develop and implement the concept of division of power between the party and government.
The ever-prevalent tension between the Congress president and the prime minister, which used to be a feature of Congress rule earlier, had apparently given way to an unusual rapport between Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. While the latter focussed on running the country, Sonia concerned herself with organisational affairs.
That this show of harmony did not reflect the reality has now become evident. It is possible that Sonia was biding her time. She was only waiting for the Congress's electoral gains, evident from its crossing of the 200-seat mark in the Lok Sabha, before deciding to make her presence felt more forcefully. In the process, she seems to have shattered another illusion -- that she took a decision only after broad-ranging discussions within the party.
It would be wrong to say that there were no signs of discord during the government's first term. The most contentious of them was the difference of opinion between the prime minister and the Congress president over the nuclear deal with the United States. In fact, Sonia nearly scuttled the deal before Rahul Gandhi intervened to save it. The other, relatively minor, divergence of views was on the rural employment scheme. That Manmohan Singh, as an economist, would not have agreed to a project which would mean spending crores of rupees without creating any permanent assets was only to be expected.
Sonia's stance, however, on both the nuclear deal and the employment scheme was based purely on immediate political calculations without any thought to long-term consequences. Her opposition to the nuclear deal was intended to keep the Communists on board so that the government's majority would not be threatened. She didn't know at the time that the comrades were not all that indispensable. But she didn't care that, along with the Left, China and Pakistan would be delighted if the deal fell through and Indo-US relations remained what they were in the days of the Cold War.
Sonia's 'socialistic' line on the employment scheme and on loan waivers for farmers was also solely populist in nature which turned a blind eye to economic considerations. Rahul Gandhi, however, voiced his second thoughts on the loan waivers when he said that such handouts could lead to bankruptcy. That Sonia continues to force the government to formulate policies with the objective of keeping the party in power irrespective of the after-effects is again in evidence.
For a start, she pushed through the women's reservation bill in the Rajya Sabha only to keep its date with International Women's Day, when it was obvious that there was no consensus on the subject. Her objective was to win the support of the Communists and a section of women and the middle class. The backtracking began, however, immediately afterwards when Pranab Mukherjee had to assure the disgruntled Yadav trio of Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh and Sharad Yadav that an all-party meeting would be called to discuss the issue.
But Sonia's most portentous foray into areas where angels fear to tread is with regard to the introduction of caste in the census enumerations. That the government was clearly unwilling to take this dangerously divisive step was evident, first from P Chidambaram's observation that the census officials have no expertise in the matter and, secondly, from Manmohan Singh's comment that the issue will be considered by the Cabinet.
But Sonia again persuaded the ever reliable Pranab Mukherjee to announce the fateful step. By doing so, Sonia was able to win over the 'social justice' group of Yadavs, who may now forgive her over the women's bill. In any event, the bill is unlikely to become law in the near future.
As in the case of the nuclear deal where Sonia wanted to retain the outside support of the Communists, her playing of the 'caste in census' card was intended to persuade at least two of the Yadavs -- Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh -- to continue to back the government from outside. It is also worth noting that both the decisions on the women's bill and on caste were taken without wide-ranging discussions in the party and outside, causing a small section of Congressmen to say, sotto voce, what was once unthinkable -- that her foreign background makes her unable to gauge the ramifications of the caste issue.
What is evident from these expedient manoeuvres, however, is that the trademark cynicism of the old Congress is back along with its opportunistic flaunting of its fake socialist credentials. It is possible that the long years which Sonia spent with Indira Gandhi made her learn both these tricks. Unfortunately, however, she is playing these games at a time when India and the world have changed.
Indira's Garibi Hatao slogan worked when the Berlin Wall was still standing. Today it is recognised as a sham. Yet the fact that Sonia retains her faith in her mother-in-law's faux socialism was evident from her praise of the bank nationalisation of 1969 in the aftermath of the recent worldwide financial crisis.
If socialism was Sonia's only obsession, one might have regretfully waited for the country's return to the Hindu rate of growth. But the Congress's other trait of cynicism is also up and running, as is evident from the manipulation of the Central Bureau of Investigation to further its partisan purposes.
A fallout from this ploy was Mayawati's decision to stand by the government during the Opposition-sponsored debate on the cut motions. Evidently, the message has gone out to her that the government will not let the CBI pursue the disproportionate assets cases against her too vigorously.
What this cosying up to the Dalit czarina also means is that the Congress itself has undercut its heir apparent Rahul Gandhi's efforts to rebuild the party's base in UP.
Another facet of the Congress's cynicism was to let the scam-tainted Telecommunications Minister A Raja continue in office. Like keeping Mayawati on board, the turning of a blind eye to the allegations against Raja helps the Congress to keep the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam on its side. The latter knows that it cannot withdraw support lest the CBI officer who was transferred for trying to unearth Raja's secrets is reinstated.
At the same time, Sonia does not seem to mind that the entire episode shows Manmohan Singh in a poor light. First, it hurts his image of probity and, second, Raja's continuance in the Cabinet shows that it is the DMK, and not the prime minister, who decides who will be the minister.
UPA II, therefore, is proving to be even worse than UPA I.
Any hope that the Left's absence will enable Manmohan Singh to push ahead with the economic reforms has been dashed by Sonia's replay of Indira's phony socialism. But an even greater danger than the stymieing of reforms will be a toning down of the anti-Maoist offensive, as the comments of factotums like Digvijay Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyar suggest.
After a long time, the Congress was being led by politicians of conviction like Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram. But it is again returning to the bad old days of manipulating vote banks -- the Left one day, the Mandal brigade the next, the Dalit czarina on the third -- to stay in power.
But the mistake which Sonia is making is that the middle class today is much more active and voluble than in Indira's and Rajiv's time. Tricks like shooting down the Shah Bano judgment to please the fundamentalist Muslims and opening the Babri Masjid gates to please the communal Hindus, as Rajiv tried, will no longer work.
It is best for Sonia to let her inner voice tell her to retreat to the background and let Rahul gradually come to the fore to stand by Manmohan Singh.