Sunday, April 04, 2010

UPA2 has a bad case of teen acne

UPA2 has a bad case of teen acne
By M J Akbar

2010 is still in its adolescent phase: is that the reason for a sudden rash of acne on the government’s face? Nothing serious, nothing incurable; just a sense that life would be so much better without the itch and cream-resistant spots. In January, the government looked invulnerable. March became a month of stumbles and at least one spill on a banana skin.

Stepping carefully into April, Dr Manmohan Singh spoke to the nation on the undeniable virtues of compulsory education, a commitment that is possibly six decades overdue but welcome nevertheless. His sincerity was apparent (he is a professor, after all) but one wonders why his speechwriters are chained to trite phrases, impervious to the magic of change, possibility and new ideas. Think about it: the mobile phone can become the latest driver of literacy. Aspiration as much as need is taking the mobile to villages. Its functions include SMS, which requires literacy. Technology and its relationship to the market can be so easily harnessed into a vision of upliftment.

Did this speech also have something to do with the sudden reassertion of Mrs Sonia Gandhi into governance space?

Mrs Gandhi has been the architect of two general election victories; her role as party chief and silent front-bench MP was incompatible with her real status. During UPA1, she used the National Advisory Council (NAC) as the parent of social policy, with government as its nurse. Implicit was the unmentioned recognition of Dr Singh as an apolitical Prime Minister who needed support systems from the political class. Egos can get easily ruffled in such a balance of power, but one of Dr Singh’s remarkable characteristics is the ability to keep his ego so effectively disguised that no one is totally sure if he has one.

Dr Singh’s ego is still heavily veiled, despite the fact that the lottery winner of UPA1 has evolved into the unquestioned Prime Minister of UPA2. But his government has been prone to problems and drift. Oddly, while Dr Singh is more assertive with bureaucrats, he has become meeker towards politicians. Hands-on and hands-off are calibrated very carefully in the capital. NAC2 does not strengthen Mrs Gandhi because no one questioned her power before she revived it. It does, however, weaken the UPA2 Prime Minister, who should not need support systems after six years in office. Perception is an important element of power, since reality is opaque. Delhi reads body language far more astutely than any script. The Prime Minister has complained about empty chairs at Cabinet meetings. This is not because missing Cabinet ministers are busy serving the nation with their last drop of blood. They simply do not care.

Would they have been absent from a Sonia Gandhi Cabinet meeting?

Dr Singh has been bled by the fact that three initiatives identified with him -- Indo-US relations, peace with Pakistan, and economic reform -- have stalled. Pakistan has snubbed India on terrorism and laughed its way to American and Chinese banks and arsenals. Obama gave dinner to Dr Singh and strategic partnership to General Kayani. China has offered advice to Delhi and two nuclear plants, with 82% financing, to Islamabad, even as it tries to pick up the Iranian gas project and turns it north via Pakistan with a $2.5 billion investment. Dr Singh stalled the Iran-Pak-India gas pipeline to appease Washington; Pakistan has no such fears.

For five years Dr Singh accused the Left of sabotaging economic reforms. Well, the Left has sabotaged itself; where are the reforms?

The Congress, necessarily sensitive to public opinion, has launched a guerrilla war against the government’s civilian nuclear liability bill, currently trapped between a rock called Parliament and a hard place called the American nuclear industry. A resurrected NAC confirms the distance between party, which has to win elections, and government, which has to run the country. Its members, personally chosen by Mrs Gandhi, will function as a virtual politburo, setting a populist agenda and challenging the executive to find the resources, management skills and delivery systems for implementation.

Is it too early for Mrs Gandhi to worry about an election scheduled for 2014? She is clearly trying to bridge the gap between confidence and overconfidence. The women’s bill strengthened the party but weakened the government. Lalu Prasad, expert at mordant similes, notes that it takes only four people to carry a corpse to the burning ghat and he has four MPs. The government is not in danger, merely hobbled by an uncertainty that will be exploited by the Opposition during every Parliament session. It is never too early to worry.

The banana skin was the spat with Amitabh Bachchan. The Congress pontificated while people were laughing. When you have acne, you do tend to get cross when a smile may be all that is necessary.

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