POWERLESS IN OFFICE
Time heals, but, regrettably, rather more so in proverbs than in politics. Time is rarely on the side of governments in desperate need of it. When the ship of state begins to leak, time, being a rascal, punctures a few extra holes in the hull. Any pragmatic captain knows that a limping ship must return to port or sink. But political captains tend to be counterintuitive. Loath to surrender control of the steering wheel, they head straight for icebergs in the hope that some miracle will save the crew and passengers.
The evidence against illusion is compelling. Do the math from the news floating in the air, and I am discounting the impact of Anna Hazare since conventional Delhi wisdom dismisses him as a has- been. I would not be too complacent about his silent impact, but let us leave this to one side. Examine the obvious.
If UPA had either opted for or been forced into a general election in, say, March this year, Congress would probably have won 11 out of Assam’s 14 Lok Sabha seats. After the massacres and calamities of July, it will be lucky to win three. Time has stolen seats of an already embattled party, not revived its spirits. A train accident in Nellore reminded the country that it does not have a minister for railways, at least one who sits in office. The massive blackout which was reported across the world, but was invisible to Congress spokesman Manish Tewari, generated widespread anger. Every story, from disparate corners, is threaded by one fact: Governance has collapsed.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can’t help looking helpless. He has a problem he cannot quite discuss in public but does surely admit in the privacy of his drawing room: The Congress has run out of talent. He did not promote power minister Sushilkumar Shinde to the home ministry on the very day of the blackout because he has some macabre sense of humour. He did so because he has no other option. Shinde is perhaps the only Cabinet minister left with both the experience and maturity to glide calmly into this office. His has been a quiet but remarkable journey from constable to the man in executive charge of India’s police forces. Some of the names circulating in Delhi for finance and home before Chidambaram and Shinde were given the jobs, are too embarrassing to repeat. There was a time when there were enough Congress stalwarts to fill two Cabinets. But Congress has almost systematically degraded its ranks to the point where even its chief ministers do not quite measure up to a home ministry’s needs. They could have looked towards Sharad Pawar, of course; but Congress culture forbids anything but second class jobs to those who keep it in office.
Congress did have one excellent option. Power would have been the perfect portfolio for Rahul Gandhi. The failure of his predecessors was precisely the kind of space for him to display administrative mettle, and set up his claim for leadership of the country. Someone has persuaded Rahul Gandhi that he can become Prime Minister of India if he dips his toe in the water now and then, in front of exulting television cameras, without actually going through the bother of learning how to swim.
It is not easy to govern India, or even broad parts of it. Young Akhilesh Yadav is discovering that chief ministership requires something more than a broad smile after being sworn in. The price of poor administration is steep, and extracted quickly. Rarely has any stock plummeted as fast as that of Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. He has been in office for only some 20 weeks, so he has a chance to recover, but that will not be easy. You have to rule with both hands, think upon your feet; and work around the clock. Governance is about managing people, and the first thing they want is undivided attention. Then they want decisions, particularly those that affect life and death, such as security during communal tension.
The last phase of the UPA Government will begin when the Prime Minister shifts from helpless to hopeless. He has not quite made the transition, since he thinks there is some hope left in his Pakistan visit in late November. Asif Zardari used Ajmer Sharif as a cloak; religion is Dr Singh’s excuse as well. Sentiment is no bad thing, but cosmetics do not heal wounds. They are ephemeral. The bubbles that swarmed across front pages when Dr Singh became finance minister for a month have evaporated. If any animal spirits were released, they are not yet visible.
When Dr Singh returns from Pakistan, he will have a year of real time left, if he is allowed to complete his full term. Six months are always hostage to a general election. One wonders what UPA can achieve in one year that was beyond its capacity in the previous four.
Someone has persuaded Rahul Gandhi that he can become Prime Minister of India if he dips his toe in the water now and then, in front of exulting television cameras, without actually going through the bother
of learning how to swim.