The Ides of February

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: Feb 15 2011, 04:49am hrs
One challenge with analysing the situation in which the UPA government finds itself in its second term is that you cannot find any real parallel, or comparative reference point, for it in our political history. Governments have run aground early in their tenures despite comfortable majorities (Rajiv Gandhis in its third year, and Janata probably from the moment it was sworn in). But those were different situations, and first-term governments. This is a coalition that only emerged stronger through a tenuous first term, and has lately lost its way.

The government is locked in mortal combat with the opposition, an inevitability, but it has visited UPA 2 much too early. It is caught in withering arguments with, or over, key institutions. In this case, notably, the judiciary.

Just a year back, the debate was about how to cleanse the judiciary of increasing corruption. But now, the political class and the executive have ceded so much moral ground that the judiciary chides them almost every day. Of course, the Supreme Court has risen in stature with the rise of a tough, no-nonsense Chief Justice in S.H. Kapadia, but that is not the only reason this newspaper listed him on the top of this years national Power List ( It was also an acknowledgement of the changed balance of power, where the executive and the political class had lost so much credibility, and the higher judiciary had moved in to fill that space. Every evening it is the judiciarys admonitions to the government that make the headlinesand even if this newspaper has most respectfully cautioned the higher judiciary against ruling by obiter dicta rather than judgments, and of the perils of playing to the sab-chor-hain gallery, the fact is, it is finding popular applause.

If you were a UPA leader you would ask why should it be so when their government has been brave enough to jail one of its own ministers. But popular opinion would give credit for this to the Supreme Court instead, under whose pressure some cleansing has begun. And yet, so peculiar is UPA 2s predicament that it is now caught in yet another hopeless argument with the same court on the CVCs appointment. Hopeless, because whether P.J. Thomas wins or loses, the government would end up looking silly, cynical and, either way, weak.

Surely the Congress partys first instinct, fighting fire with fire, has backfired. Its nuancing of the telecom scam under a new, and personally clean, minister has not convinced anybody. Some humility would have served the government better: of accepting something truly awful has happened and is being sorted out by a newly empowered CBI under an unforgiving Supreme Court, so lets all watch this space. The totally bull-headed rejection of the oppositions demand for a JPC, even at the cost of losing one Parliament session and threatening another, has only increased its own difficulties. Hopefully, that is being sorted out in a new mood of pre-budget session realism.

You can read out a sermon to the opposition as well. Just what do you expect to gain by so upping the ante so early in the tenure of a Lok Sabha Do you want an election already But the opposition will be the opposition, and it is its basic instinct to play spoiler. Why, instead, did the Congress need to raise the temperature of combatwith the BJPto such a high level in a year when it is not going to lock horns with it in any state election Of course you need to underline your ideological commitments, but you have to choose your moment. Also, if you think to be seen in constant combat with the BJP is the only way to get back the Muslim vote, you have learnt nothing from the Bihar election.

Finally, the UPA 2 has been cursed by its own inbuilt contradictions and conflicting ambitions, and for once the allies take no blame for this. The essential contradiction, of the centre of gravity of UPA 2 sitting not in the government but in the Congress party, which, it seems, has begun celebrating its victory of 2014 too soon, still persists. It gets even more complex when the most powerful Congressmen prefer to sit in the party office, strengthening the impression that it is not exactly their government, but has been outsourced to loyal mandarins.

But there are still more than three years to go. The prime minister says often enough that a public office is like holding public trust. You cant have it and do nothing with it. You cannot go into a sullen, cant-do-anything/ do-nothing/ what-can-I-do mode. You cannot do this particularly now, when our messy politics is threatening to damage the India story that the entire world has been celebrating and that you began to script exactly 20 years ago.

The bitter truth is, the India story is now under threat. It may have been the second India-theme year at Davos within five years, but under the hoopla, the mood was sober. There were more questions about India than excitement. About corruption, governance deficit, inability of the government to fulfil even old reform commitments made in Parliament, about shifting, inconsistent government policies, the likelihood of a change of leadership and, most tellingly, about top Indian corporates shifting their balance sheets overseas.

And there is no need of conspiracy theories here, because these doubts are all rooted in facts, the most telling of which are a 60 per cent fall in FDI this year, and now our stalling manufacturing. That is what our stock markets have been telling us, bucking the rising global trend.

Can UPA 2 regain its balance and authority Can it protect the India story, and thereby the legacy of two decades of reform You could argue that it is still possible. But then it has to try changing the headlines from tonight. No squabbling ministers, no party-government conflicts, no fighting with institutions, and finding a modus vivendi with the main opposition so at least some long-pending legislation can pass. It is a good thing that the prime minister has begun to speak out on some key issues lately. It would help if Sonia and Rahul broke their silence too. The budget fortnight is usually the best time for a government to change the headlines. And nobody knows that better than the prime minister, and his most astute and exceptional cabinet colleague, the finance minister.