( Some one has termed Dr Manmohan Singh as a night-watchman, a low order batsman who is sent higher up in the order to keep the play going till the next day, even if he is one, he is serving a useful function)
There is something in democratic politics that makes governments run out of breath in about year four of their term. An election not only provides correctives to the political process, it also gives the politicians renewed stamina to run the next course of four or five years. On May 16, the proverbial slate would have been wiped clean. Old alliances would have been dismantled and newer ones put on the drawing board, past slights will have to be forgiven, or put away in a safe place at the back of the mind.
The Congress has repeatedly emphasised that they will continue with Dr Manmohan Singh. The BJP had, earlier, categorically declared L.K. Advani as its prime ministerial candidate. Even so there was the brief wobbly moment when the politics of succession of the octogenarian leader was played out, even before he had become prime minister. Whether Narendra Modi’s name came forward as the move of a pawn or a king is unclear, but the last word has yet to be said about this.
By May 16, old issues, too, would have receded, to be replaced by new ones. One of these is the Indo-US nuclear deal. Though it was not an issue in the elections it has left a residue of bitterness in the CPI(M)- Congress ties. The BJP has made vague noises about renegotiating the deal if it comes to power. However, we are not sure what specific clauses they wish to renegotiate. Nor do they seem to be aware that Mr Obama is pushing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. Any reopening of the 2008 agreement could end up with the US imposing more conditions, rather than offering any new concessions.
As is its nature, the election result will be as much a referendum on the government of Dr Manmohan Singh as an election of the regime that will rule us for the next five years. A positive outcome could well see Singh back in the saddle because the Congress party has declared that he remains their prime ministerial candidate. Should the numbers not favour the party, Dr Singh could recuse himself so that the party can put forward another
The Manmohan Singh government came to power through what was seen as the shock outcome of the 2004 general elections. There were a number of issues — the Sino-Indian border negotiations, the India-Pakistan peace process and the Indo-US nuclear dialogue — that were premised on the near-certain return of the NDA. In that sense, the path of the country’s foreign and security policy was clearly laid out, and by and large, the UPA played to the script.
But the UPA also came to power with the belief that it needed to buttress Indian secularism, battered by the years of BJP rule, as well as to provide a corrective to the economic policy of the NDA that had, in their view, focused on “Shining India” and ignored the aam admi. In many ways the UPA has succeeded in achieving these objectives.
The period 2004-2009 has been singularly free of large-scale Hindu-Muslim communal riots that have disfigured the Indian polity. Indeed, communal violence has scarred almost every government going back to Indira Gandhi — Nellie massacre of 1983, the Sikh pogrom of 1984, Bhagalpur killings of 1989, 1992-93 riots in Ahmedabad, Surat, Mumbai, Kanpur and Malegaon riots of 2001and the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat.
The UPA has also managed to take the first tentative steps towards creating a social safety net. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has offered the promise of some kind of a job for the poorest of the poor, for at least some part of the year. The extension of the OBC quota to higher education has inadvertently led to a vast expansion of the higher education infrastructure in the country. The Right to Information Act is a pioneering piece of legislation to provide transparency — where none existed — in the government’s work.
The 2004-2009 period has seen the highest rate of economic growth the country has ever seen since its independence, though the global trends have now slowed it down. But a more important consequence of growth has been the increase in the revenue receipts of the government which went up from Rs 230,834 crores in 2002-03 to Rs 486,422 in 2007-2008. The average annual growth of revenue receipts of the Central Government was of the order of 16.2 per cent.
This has enabled the government to undertake vast expenditures related to the NREGA, the loan waiver of Rs 70,000 crore for farmers in 2008-2009, and fund ambitious schemes for eradicating illiteracy, the mid-day meal scheme, the schemes for enhancing rural and urban infrastructure and, in recent months, the various stimulus packages. Those who sneer at economic growth as a means of poverty alleviation would be hard put to explain where they could have come up with those sums in the absence of a flourishing economy.
The UPA government’s report card must be seen from the perspective of its political circumstance. It did not have a majority in Parliament and it spent its last year quarreling with its Left ally. Then, unlike the past, the Prime Minister was not the leader of the party. In that sense he operated with reduced authority. Yet, as the record shows, it is unfair to call Dr Manmohan Singh a “one issue” prime minister, or for that matter, a weak leader.
The Left learnt, to its cost, the stubbornness with which the PM pushed a policy he believed in — the Indo-US nuclear deal. Prakash Karat’s recent revelation confirms this. According to Mr Karat, the PM single-handedly faced down his own council of ministers and party and refused to sanction the dismissal of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s government in UP in 2006 because he felt that the move was politically wrong.
Those in government can recall several such instances that bring out the exceptional qualities that Dr Singh brought to the PM’s office, qualities that are not easy to come by even in a billion strong country.
Later this month, the country may end up with the old prime minister, but the issues he confronts will be new. These are the ones that have emerged in the six month hiatus that the country was compelled to take because of the elections and the ones that have emerged through the process of elections. Domestically, the need to shore up growth in the face of the global melt-down is an obvious challenge. Globally, we have witnessed a distinct upward movement in the world order by China, and the proportional slide back of the US. This has implications for India.
It also could have important political consequences. The Left's major critique of Singh was that American imperialism had gained ascendancy in New Delhi. The last six months have seen an America deeply wounded by the collapse of its financial system and a new president who has shown no special inclination towards New Delhi.
In such circumstances, the Left must decide whether they want to continue pursuing the American chimera, or back the Congress once again to take on the most important domestic political challenge — the shift of the leadership of the BJP towards Narendra Modi.
The Congress has made it clear that it would want Manmohan Singh to serve as Prime Minister for some more time, if it can form the government. Rahul Gandhi’s emergence as a full-fledged leader is an indicator that the new order is already here.
There is nothing pejorative in terming Manmohan Singh as a “night watchman”— the batsman of a lower order who is sent up to guard the wicket till the play resumes the next day. He has already played his heroic innings, though you can be sure he can still wield a useful bat.
Appeared first in Mail Today May 9, 2009