Who will deny that 2011 has been the Congress party’s annus horribilis? From a party that actually enhanced its position in the 2009 general elections, it was, by 2011, a shambolic collection of politicians trying to play politics. Remarkably, however, 2012 offers hope, not because the economy will suddenly recover, but because of a possible conjunction of events that could be triggered by a good showing in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, as well as a victory that would wrest power in the assembly elections in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
When you look back at the year you may wonder what the party was up to. It was true that the chronicle of this tragedy had been foretold in 2010. It began with the IPL controversy that cost Shashi Tharoor his job. In April, reports of possible corruption in the 2G scam deal took on life with the Radia tapes going public. The key point in these tapes was the shenanigans that accompanied the reappointment of A Raja as telecom minister in 2009.
In June 2010 when the auction price of the 3G spectrum went over Rs 60,000 crore there was a dawning realisation as to how the country had been had in the allocation of 2G spectrum by Raja in 2008. The CAG report on the allotment of the 2G licences was tabled in the Lok Sabha in November 2010. It held Raja responsible for violating guidelines and indulging in favouritism leading to a loss of an astonishing Rs 1.76 lakh crore by mishandling the allocation of the 2G spectrum. The rest is of course easily remembered—the arrest of Raja, his associates and the DMK’s Kanimozhi.
The spectrum allocation scam may have been huge, but it was given a run for its money by the Commonwealth Games scams which also played out through the year with investigations yielding evidence that a great deal of corruption took place in the organisation and conduct of the games.
The cavalier manner in which the government viewed these issues was apparent from the episode relating to the appointment of PJ Thomas as the Central Vigilance Commissioner. The selection of the CVC is done by a panel of three, including the leader of the Opposition. At the meeting to discuss the appointment, the leader of the Opposition, Sushma Swaraj, cited a pending chargesheet against him for a scam in Kerala. But she was overruled by the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister. The spirit of the three-member panel is that the decision should be unanimous, but by ramming through the appointment, the government was displaying its couldn’t-care-less attitude. The tawdry outcome of the story was that the Supreme Court quashed Thomas’ appointment, leaving a lot of egg on the UPA’s face.
But can 2010 explain the extraordinary events of 2011? It is a measure of the reluctance of the Congress-led government to check such activities that A Raja, Kanimozhi and Suresh Kalmadi were only arrested early this year after the corruption issue had fissioned. It began in April 2011 with Anna Hazare’s fast that compelled the government to negotiate with his team on a Lokpal Bill. The civil society uprising so addled the government that it decided to treat another wannabe anti-corruption crusader, Baba Ramdev as a VIP, perhaps with the hope of using him against Hazare. Then, in an equally addled decision, it decided to crack down on his protest.
The charges of corruption were a body blow for the party. It is no secret that Raja was reappointed to the telecom ministry over the objections of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and at the insistence of party chief Sonia Gandhi. The Congress party chief is also responsible for the whole Lokpal fiasco whose origins can be traced to her decision to revive the National Advisory Council (NAC) which acts as a civil society interface of the government.
It is the decision of the NAC to take up the Lokpal Bill that probably triggered Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan and Co to get Anna Hazare into the picture. The NAC’s latest is the Food Security Bill whose consequences will only be known in the years to come. But if the past is any measure, it will only increase the scale of corruption hugely since money is to be made in procurement, storage and distribution of foodgrain. More foodgrain procurement, means more money to divert into dirty pockets.
The denouement of the Lokpal issue is still playing itself out. The UPA is not covering itself with glory by mindlessly surrendering all to the Hazare activists. Take for example the issue of SC&ST reservations. Some minor parties put up the demand in the all-party meet and the Congress tamely accepted this. Clearly, the Lokpal monster is something we will have to slay sometime. The powers that are being accumulated into one entity will unbalance the constitutional scheme and sooner, rather than later, a corrective will have to be applied.
The issue has poisoned the entire system. Parliament has virtually stopped functioning and Anna Hazare seems to have become an oracle who has views, firm views, on any and every thing. Far from being apolitical, Hazare is displaying a robust political appetite. Who knows we may have a future president-dictator in waiting!
The UP assembly election offers a point of inflection for the fortunes of the Congress and the UPA. It has had the virtue of getting young Rahul Gandhi off the fence and into the hurly burly of the political process. Till now he was content with guerrilla strikes where he would land up spending a night in some Dalit home or communing with some rural folks somewhere. Now, the Congress scion has clearly put down his own stake in the coming UP elections. This means that he, personally, stands to lose or win, not some party functionary.
This is a good thing, and it should be said at the outset that defeat, too, will serve him well in terms of experience and maturity. The more interesting issue, however, is just what would constitute “victory” in the UP context. Most observers say that if the Congress can get 100 seats, the broad number of assembly segments that it won in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, it would be a spectacular showing. Indeed, some 50-75 seats would definitely constitute victory.
Besides UP, Punjab and Uttarakhand, elections are expected in Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Manipur. The Congress would have to try hard to lose in Punjab, Himachal and Uttarakhand. In Gujarat, Modi remains strong, but he has been around for a decade and has enemies within and without his party. Wresting three states from the Opposition and doing well in the strategically important state of UP will give the party a huge psychological boost.
More important, it will establish Rahul Gandhi’s political credentials and put him firmly in track to assume larger responsibilities. So, far from the end of the world of Mayan prophecy, 2012 could well mark a renaissance for the Congress party.
Mail Today December 21, 2011