The best way to describe the current state of the Manmohan Singh government is the way the journalist Martin Johnson analysed the England cricket team of 1986, as it headed into a gruelling Ashes series after straight losses to India, New Zealand and the West Indies. “There are only three things wrong with the English cricket team,” he wrote in The Independent after seeing England crash to yet another tour game defeat, “they can’t bat, they can’t bowl and they can’t field.”
As this government’s miseries and self-inflicted wrong turns mount up, it is difficult to think up a more apt metaphorical description. The latest embarrassment of the U-turn on FDI in retail only underscores that this is a government in paralysis: unable to think coherently, incapable of arguing its case reasonably, and incomprehensibly unwilling to manage its politics. The Congress is in free fall, unwilling to put its own house in order, leave alone the art of political management with its allies and the opposition.
Few would have imagined in 2009 when Manmohan Singh came back to power with a renewed mandate that half-way into his term his government would be so adrift, and he such a lame-duck prime minister in his second coming.
The prime minister stuck to his guns on the nuclear deal, why could he not do so for the FDI decision, if it was so important for the next stage of reforms? In what is now becoming a pattern, the government’s leading lights are again in some sort of a sulk, unable to understand why no one understands them. Yet, both the timing and the method indicate that they have no one to blame but themselves, with even the basics of political management having eluded them.
Irrespective of the policy arguments in favour of FDI in retail, to spring such a game-changing move in the middle of a contentious Parliament session, with no back-room dialogue with the opposition, no prior wink-wink with its allies and not even a clear signal of intent from the Congress party itself meant being set up for failure. If the Prime Minister and the party’s high command were so serious about this then they should have done their homework, worked out their political arithmetic and choreography and then stuck with it. Instead, what was meant to be a conversation-changing political move has ended up in sheepish disaster, further cementing the perception of a rudderless ship at sea in turbulent waters.
To some extent, all democracies have a fantasy in which they impute their elected leaders with more power than they actually have. In reality, power is always circumscribed by the exigencies of the existing system and by political limitations, but the illusion of power is crucial for any leader. Legitimacy is inextricably linked to the perception of control and momentum. Once the spell is broken, mistake piles upon mistake and even things that seemed to work before, appear differently from a new vantage point.
In the UPA’s first innings, the arrangement seemed to work: Manmohan Singh as the technocratic manager who simply had to keep the engine running, Sonia Gandhi as the keeper of the flame and the one who dealt with the messy politics and Rahul Gandhi as the young blood preparing for his new role.
In the UPA’s second innings, the spell has been broken. Sonia Gandhi has receded into the background, hobbled perhaps with her illness, the Prime Minister remains in a permanent sulk unable to command the support of even his ministers and Rahul Gandhi seems permanently absent or in his own UP-shaped bubble.
With the old guard tired and spent and its new guard diffident, the Congress is on its way to a crash-landing. With governance stuck in a kind of stasis unknown since the United Front days of Deve Gowda and IK Gujral, the question is how much it will cost India.