Manmohan sails fine, but coalition on shaky ground

By M.R. Narayan Swamy


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New Delhi : India's ruling coalition begins its fourth year Tuesday with the reputation of its Prime Minister Manmohan Singh riding high, but scoring poorly on the one plank that catapulted it to power: better life for the common man.

As the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) looks back on the three difficult years that have gone by, even Congress party ministers and MPs, not to talk of critics, admit there is great dissatisfaction over spiraling prices of the very basic essentials. That alone is costing the multi-party coalition dearly notwithstanding its achievements – some visible and some not so visible.

"The economic reforms have not become all inclusive, and the government hasn't done anything to make them inclusive," political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan told IANS. "Most of the movement on that front has been symbolic. If there is going to be an undoing of the UPA, it will be this."

A Congress minister in the Manmohan Singh government who did not want to be identified by name admitted that millions of poor and even middle class didn't seem to be happy with the government on the price front.

"I will be frank, this is a major concern for us," the minister told IANS. "The government talks about high GDP but this won't win us support in any election. Fancy malls and a booming IT sector are all okay. But what about high prices of groceries and vegetables?"

Yet, amid this dark shadow, the country's first Congress-led coalition government has reasons to be happy.

For one, Manmohan Singh, 74, is only the second head of a Congress government to complete three years in office outside of the Nehru-Gandhi family. And this even though he is not a career politician and is still seen mainly as a bureaucrat and economist.

That image of the man is the government's strength – as well as a weakness.

Manmohan Singh, who unleashed radical economic reforms as finance minister to P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1991-96, irreversibly changing India's face, also enjoys high respect in the eyes of all as a man of integrity. And with UPA head and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, widely regarded as the real driver of the government, he enjoys a chemistry that is so vital for successful governance – and to provide much-needed stability despite a badly fractured parliament.

It also goes to Manmohan Singh's credit that he has managed to run a government of reforms with the support of the Stalinist Left without compromising greatly on the basics of the liberalization policy.

After three full years, despite the many contradictions within the UPA coalition and the desertions by three regional parties, Manmohan Singh stands tall vis-à-vis other party leaders sans Sonia Gandhi. There is no other challenger in sight for his post in the Congress.

The prime minister has taken forward the peace process on Kashmir and with Pakistan albeit haltingly, built stronger relationship with China as well as much of the world while deepening strategic ties with the US, with a path-breaking civil nuclear agreement to open the way for nuclear power in an energy-starved India most likely to overcome the many obstacles.

Besides an employment guarantee scheme for the millions of rural poor, the Right To Information Act (RTI), a weapon meant to peep into government secrets, has been UPA's most positive gift to India.

But thanks to the sky-bound prices of essential commodities, the opposition has plenty to attack the government with.

"Life is miserable for an average Indian today," insisted Harin Pathak, a former central government minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "Ultimately, a government's performance should be gauged from a common man's perspective, not from the rise or fall of stock markets."

He went on: "Today 300 million people in the rural sector cannot spend more than Rs.9 per day and another 300 million in urban areas cannot spend over Rs.18 a day. Around 260 million live below the poverty line. Is this the achievement of the past three years?"

While providing oxygen to the government, the Left remains deeply unhappy vis-à-vis the government, on both economic and foreign policy issues. Even after three long years, the UPA has only a love-hate relationship with the Left.

Tathagata Satpathy of BJP ally Biju Janata Dal, son of Nandini Satpathy, once a close associate of Indira Gandhi, echoes Marxist concerns when he accuses the government of toeing Washington's line. "It is doing whatever is dictated by the US."

Analyst Rangarajan warns that the UPA's greatest threat comes from the growing gulf between the government and four social classes: the poor, the middle class, the minorities and farmers. "If things continue like this, the prospects will be grim."

Mani Shankar Aiyar, the plain-speaking minister in the government who holds three portfolios of Panchayati Raj (grassroots governance), youth affairs and sports, rings the "alarm bells" for the government unless it balances "growth with equity".

In a television interview, and a few months ago speaking to the Confederation of Indian Industry, Aiyar says that while 9.2 percent economic growth is to be lauded, the government will be in trouble unless its benefits percolate to the masses "and not just the classes".

He says the government desperately needed a "course correction" in its last two years, and says that he was speaking in his capacity as a "conscience keeper" of the government and had voiced his views in the cabinet as well.