A year is a long time in politics, two years is an infinity. That is the time the Congress party has to refurbish its tattered image and seek a renewed mandate to rule by 2014. Whether or not this happens depends on whether the party leader, Ms Sonia Gandhi, has learnt the right lessons from the debacle in Uttar Pradesh. And whether she is willing to allow Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to unleash the 'animal spirits' of the economic system which remains inherently sound, albeit under functioning. The real issue, of course, is whether the PM can infuse "animal spirits" - confidence, and in the case of the United Progressive Alliance, selfconfidence- in the government.
Just how difficult that task is going to be was apparent last week when the Ministry of Finance bureaucracy sought to undermine the PM's efforts to rationalise the tax avoidance rules. Instead of hearing what the PMO was saying, the MoF decided to run with the disastrous agenda that it had set for itself at the time of the budget.
The one lesson that emerges from the experience is that if you leave bureaucrats to run things for themselves, they tend towards arbitrariness and authoritarianism. The essence of the budget proposals on tax compliance meant a return to the 'inspector raj' of the V.P. Singh era, and no one thought twice about imposing it on the country in the year of 2012.
The Congress should thank its stars that the CWG and 2G corruption bombs exploded when they did in 2009 and 2011, and that the Anna Hazare movement emerged, grew and imploded in 2011. A great deal of passion on the issue has already been spent. In that sense the latter half of 2012 and the coming year offers a clean slate as it were upon which the Congress should be rewriting its future.
But, if two years is a long time in politics, so is the distance between a wishful thought and its realisation. And one of the big problems that the UPA confronts is that it is a divided house and that the division goes to its very apex. Party supremo Sonia Gandhi believes that the only way to attract voters is by doling out food, healthcare, jobs and education. This is a monstrous perversion of what people really want- equality of opportunity to get ahead in life, a life of dignity where you get reasonable recompense for your labour and a hand up in times of distress.
On the other hand, you have the "trickle down" specialists who believe that economic growth is everything and if you are chugging along at 9 or 10 per cent rate, there will be sufficient trickling down to the aam admi, along with a vast amount of revenue to the government coffers, to politically benefit the party.
In a certain way this is true. It is on the basis of the high growth rates of the period 2002-2008 that the country was able to afford NREGA, the farm loan waiver and, social welfare schemes, as well as a high level of investment in infrastructure and defence.
The dissonance at the top reflects itself in the working of the government with ministers hedging every decision with an eye on 10 Janpath.
To move ahead now and to restore the rhythm of the economy and self-confidence to its politics is the task the government confronts. To do this requires a clear understanding between the party supremo and the prime minister. There is little space left for the older, UPA-1, style of functioning where each deferred to each other's pet schemes and proposals, and tried to stay out of the other's way. There is need now for a unified sense of purpose and effort.
Ms Gandhi needs to ask herself hard questions about the electoral outcome in UP. Essentially it brought out the hollowness of the kind of long-distance entitlement politics that the Gandhi family espouses, but it also undermined her systematic plan to bring her son into the centre stage. Today when people do sums, they find it difficult to believe that the Congress will even cobble up triple digit numbers in the next Lok Sabha. And this from a party which was able to increase its tally from 145 to 206.
So what the party and the government require in the next 20 months is to act with a united purpose. The overall responsibility for this lies with Sonia Gandhi. But the task of delivering on policy belongs to the PM. No one doubts that he has one of the finest teams of economists advising him on the steps that need to be taken to move ahead.
But this huge structure of the government of India cannot be moved by just dreaming up schemes and proposals. Things must happen on the ground- whether it is the speeding up of the roadconstruction schemes, delivering coal from the pitheads to the power stations, getting the private sector to put down money on new projects or attracting foreign direct investment.
Is this doable? The record of the UPA-2 would suggest no, indeed, many people would say that only a miracle can now revive the UPA's fortunes. But politics is full of miracles and turnaround stories. That is because politicians have a very sharp survival instinct. An inadvertent consequence of the recent political upheavals-the UP election and Pranab Mukherjee's presidential venture- has been that it has ensured that Dr Singh will be the prime minister till the next election. Even he knows that a term beyond that is not feasible.
The survival we are talking about is that of the Gandhi dynasty. What is at stake really is their future, and hopefully they have understood that by now.
Mail Today July 3, 2012