Sunday, February 10, 2013

Is Rahul able and capable?

Is Rahul able and capable?
M.J. Akbar
The Times of India
10 February 2013

Nothing happens in a waiting room. 2013 is the waiting room for 2014. Do not expect too much excitement. Time will disappear through the passage of the predictable, occasionally diverted by a faint dread of what might happen once the great surgeon of democracy, the voter, gets his scalpel on the body politic in a general election.

A huge yawn greeted Mulayam Singh Yadav’s statement that there could be elections in September this year rather than March next year. Yadav’s support is crucial to the present government’s survival, and even a few months ago the shrill buzz provoked by this claim would have rattled window panes in every television studio. But no one took him seriously. He has become the boy who cried wolf and then laughed precociously at his little joke. The only people predicting a 2013 election are a few astrologers, and they have been around the block once too often.

In real terms it does not much matter whether elections are held early or on schedule. Patience is a democratic virtue. Voters take time to decide, but once they have done so they do not easily change. Politicians who see public opinion drift away always encourage the self-sustaining hope that some last-minute miracle will ensure survival. Bengal’s Marxists were palpably surprised by their defeat in the last Assembly elections, when no one else was. The famous British dictum that a week is a long time in politics is often repeated. It is equally true that a year can be a short time.

Voters know already that Dr Manmohan Singh is the last of the past. They are searching for the first of the future. If you cannot understand why Narendra Modi gets a rapt audience at a Delhi college, turn to the duller news items. We now learn that, despite the long sequence of illusion strung by UPA’s nominated cheerleaders, the Central Statistics Office predicts that GDP will grow at only 5 per cent in the coming year, the lowest in a decade and down from 6.2 per cent in the previous year. But, poor as this is, it is less politically harmful than the conclusions of another government body, the Institute of Applied Manpower Research, a think tank of the Planning Commission. It reported that despite becoming the world’s fourth largest economy, employment was not growing either in India’s non-agricultural sectors or overall. It described the Indian story as “jobless growth”.

The young like statistics as much as anyone else, but what they really want to read in newspapers is advertisements for jobs. Delhi’s college audiences believe that Modi can engineer and encourage the industrialisation that will create jobs, and has confirmed his credentials in Gujarat. That, in their lingo, is “awesome”.

The voter’s question about Rahul Gandhi is uncomplicated: what precisely has he achieved to justify a claim to become Prime Minister? Genetic entitlement is passé. Rahul is 42 but has never held a job in either the private sector or public life. A fitful presence in Parliament, interspersed with long holidays abroad, does not constitute a job. Rahul could have become a minister at any time in the last eight years, and proved he was competent, as, to take one instance, Sachin Pilot has done. Rahul has campaigned , sometimes with his sleeves rolled up, but that is not quite executive experience. And after three decades as a family borough, life for the poor in his constituency, Amethi, is far below voters’ expectations. The voter is influenced by facts, not claims.

It is a myth that the young are only searching for youth in a Prime Minister: they also want proof of competence. Age is less important than ability. When the young want glamour they go to the movies, not to Parliament.
This of course is only one factor in that complex potpourri called an Indian election; Modi’s increasing appeal, to state the obvious, still has to cross the acceptability barrier for many voters. The parliamentary system is not as personality-driven as the presidential, so local variations will throw up their own patterns.

The big danger for UPA lies in the possibility that government could lose sense of purpose in a year of drift. Politics does not offer the luxury of a gap year in governance. Schemes that were meant to kindle embers are already wandering in limbo. The Budget could provide a fillip, but finance minister P Chidambaram has a problem: there is simply no money left in the treasury for drama. Even defence is probably heading for a cut.
A waiting room does, however, provide both opportunity and time for prayer. UPA ministers should pray very hard that onion prices do not go berserk in February 2014.

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