Government’s resolve will be tested in coming weeks (Comment)

Even as the Manmohan Singh government has shown some enterprise by jailing a few of the accused in the recent scams, it still seems to be sleepwalking through its term of office.

There is no sign of energy and determination in the pursuit of policy objectives in the political or economic fields. All that it seems to be doing is to fend off the continuing challenge from civil society activists, including the threat of yet another fast by their leader, Anna Hazare.

Otherwise, the government seems unwilling or unable to stop the slide, whether it relates to low investment or high inflation. The only intermittent signs of activity are not from the government but from the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC), which has its own set of civil society do-gooders who have been formulating various legislation such as those on food security and communal violence.

But, even in this respect, there is an evident conflict of ideas between the prime minister’s preference for market-oriented policies and the NAC’s emphasis on social welfare measures reminiscent of Nehruvian socialism.

What is more, it is the latter which is apparently gaining ground, considering that the government has taken no steps at all to advance its own agenda of economic reforms, which were started by Manmohan Singh as finance minister in 1991.

Yet, two decades later, as prime minister, he is seemingly unable to move forward with the reforms despite the absence of the Left in the corridors of power, as between early 2004 and the end of 2008 when the communists withdrew support to the government over the India-US civil nuclear deal.

The reason why the reforms have stalled, much to the dismay of domestic and foreign investors, is apparently the resistance from the still active ‘socialists’ in the Congress party and in the NAC. If the government is unable to overcome the opposition, it is because the scams have sapped its will power and moral authority.

Arguably, if the reforms had been vigorously pursued, the upturn in the economic situation with the investments flowing in would have done a great deal to dissipate the present atmosphere of doom and gloom. It would have also deflected some of the flak faced by Manmohan Singh for his limp hand on the steering wheel.

But the allegations about the reforms having encouraged crony capitalism and turned the country into a banana republic, as made by a respected industrialist like Ratan Tata, have seemingly unnerved the government. The Left, too, has lost no time in saying that contrary to the belief that corruption will end with the scrapping of the licence-permit-control raj, the dominant role played by the private sector since 1991 has raised the level of sleaze.

The only saving grace at the moment is the shooting down by the Congress itself of the ill-advised attempt by a few admirers of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to push Rahul Gandhi’s case for becoming prime minister. There is little doubt that if such suggestions continued to be made, Manmohan Singh’s position would have become even weaker.

Considering that the prime minister himself told his last press conference that he intended to complete his term, the speculation that he may not continue till 2014 is now expected to peter out. The Congress must have realized that changing horses at a time of policy paralysis and a confrontation with civil society was not the best option.

The next test of the government’s resolve will be the challenge posed by Anna Hazare and Co on the Lokpal bill, especially the Gandhian’s decision to go on his third fast on the issue of corruption if the terms of the bill do not satisfy him. However, after the initial display of nervousness, the government and the Congress appear to have firmed up their stance. They now seem to be preparing to push the official bill through parliament and prevent – even forcibly, if necessary – Anna Hazare from restaging his earlier hunger-strike in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar area.

If the government is able to hold its ground on these two points, it might appear less shaky than what it does at present. But, to recover its poise, it will have to secure the support of the opposition parties for its version of the Lokpal bill. And this will only be possible if the legislation is not as insipid as the one it proposed before the beginning of civil society’s agitation.

There is little doubt that bringing the prime minister under the ombudsman will help the government to garner a wide measure of support. Such a step will also show that the government and the party are not as hidebound and impervious to public opinion as is made out by their opponents.

(25-06-2011-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

IANS