Singh’s No King
- Slump in economy undercuts prime minister’s USP as original reformer
- Barrage of scams under his watch leaves his image of integrity in a total shambles
- Urban middle class, a key driver in Congress’s 2009 showing, drifting away in droves
- Roadblocks in path of food bill, direct benefits transfer et al ties up Cong poll hands
By now we can only presume that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is used to staring at the abyss. Blase enough, in fact, for a spot of gallows humour. Some of that is surely in order, what with the spooky comedy of errors unfolding around him. Nothing, of course, can relieve his sense of a bad ending. Embers of coal line his metaphoric hell, clouds of despair block the sun. No solutions appear nigh, only a counting of the days, where each new one seems to bring with it a new defeat. Mercifully, an end is in sight to this sorry tale: it can only be dragged on till mid-2014, presuming the shaky regime lasts the course.
Yet, going by form, it will not manage that without a fresh set of woes each month. This month’s quota is among the strangest. Quite mysteriously, files linked to the most serious scam to dog Manmohan’s second innings—Coalgate—have vanished. And worse, the matter has come to light during a critical session of Parliament when significant legislation could have been passed. “Strange forces are at work,” says a source in the PMO.
Even the PM’s biggest critics maintain that “it would be insanity for him to order the disappearance of files, and also quite out of character”. A veteran Congress leader, therefore, offers this analysis, “Don’t underestimate the clout of the coal mafia, they’ve been around from the days of the British Raj. They can get anything done....” A key BJP leader is flummoxed: “The files have vanished like how witnesses ‘disappear’ in the district courts and the case is dismissed.”
So whodunit? No one really knows although the needle of suspicion points to the Congress politicians who benefited from the coal allotments. Others talk of bureaucratic duplicity and sabotage, especially as there are reports that copies of the files are with the CAG. What is known is that the Supreme Court, which is monitoring the investigation, will come down like a ton of bricks on the government if the files are not rediscovered, and soon. PMO sources are at pains to say that “none of the files pertaining to the period when the PM was in charge of the coal ministry are missing”. That is small consolation, for there is no denying the coal scam has reduced to ashes whatever was left of his reputation. (Some months ago, the SC came down on former law minister Ashwani Kumar for trying to manipulate the said investigation; another tongue-lashing is likely if the files do not reappear before the next court date of August 27).
Yet the PM must plod on. That’s the impression emanating from the highest office of the land. The PM is “hard at work” meeting economists and planners on both sides of the ideological fence, at a time when, as an insider puts it, “the bank appears to be going bust and the economy is crashing with a thud”. So serious is the situation that one proposal under serious consideration is the issue of sovereign bonds, not just to nris but to Indian citizens as well. The PM, meanwhile, is out of India for a chunk of September, departing for the G-20 summit as soon as the Parliament session ends and later to the UN general assembly. In October, a trip to China is also on the cards although it has not been announced.
The unkindest cut for Manmohan, says an insider close to him, is the fact that only a debris of his image survives in the eyes of the middle class for “there is no denying that the man who was the architect of the middle class dream is now seen as the biggest symbol of its failure”. Manmohan knows the buck must stop with him, although a black joke suggests that at the current rate it is crashing it might not even stop there.
What is both revealing and intriguing is the belief now— coming from the highest levels of this regime—that “80-90 per cent of the corporate class is hedging its bets on the opposition...and as the markets collapse this sentiment is increasing”. This even as in the current arithmetic the idea of a Narendra Modi-led dispensation seems implausible.
A well-placed source in government also believes that the ‘sabotage’ has come from two sources during the second term of Manmohan Singh: “On the one hand, you have bureaucrats fighting petty battles and also trying to dunk a ship they believe is sinking. On the other, you have the vicious battles of industrial houses. If one gets anything seen as beneficial from the government, rivals go to any length to undermine the policy and the ruling dispensation.”
In Delhi, therefore, there is an air of despondency hanging around the regime. Particularly as at the time of writing, Parliament was stalled and it was debatable whether the government could bring in the food security bill. Currently, the Congress knows it has lost the urban support it enjoyed in 2004 and 2009. Its hopes are pinned on rural India this time, which it argues is indifferent to such weighty matters as the collapse of the rupee against the dollar.
Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley disagrees and says it’s too late for anything to help this regime. He says: “All the indications are that this is adding up to a big anti-incumbency election. In such an environment, it is only inevitable that a new constituency will be created for the opposing side.” SP leader Kamal Farooqi too admits that “the PM’s image has suffered badly although our party continues to support the regime from outside. The image of Manmohan being a financial wizard has gone completely...he’s failed miserably on that front.”
With the situation such as it is, the Congress is quite desperate to at least pass the food security bill. And that desperation is showing. Inevitably, the Opposition also smells this fear and is trying to extract its pound of flesh. Particularly as there is a strong section in the BJP that in any case would like to sabotage the legislation (although it must appear not to be doing so). There are still some days for that strategy to be attempted although the majority view is that somehow or the other, in the din and chaos, the UPA will overtly and covertly beg, threaten, coax and cajole to try and introduce the bill.
That would be a true reflection of the time and age we live in. But perhaps the even more revealing insight about the possible chaos we are headed for comes from the fact that for all the spectacular failures lying at his feet, there are still some in the Congress who say a third term for Manmohan is a possibility should the party have to lead the next government. This lot argues that there is no victory and defeat, there is only arithmetic. Sentiment, political or economic, is irrelevant. It is only survival, one day at a time, that counts.