Corruption, scandals like the 2G scam and Commonwealth games scam in the past year have seen a precipitous fall in the standing of the Manmohan Singh led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. The UPA government is experiencing a midlife crisis. These developments are reminiscent of the political situation in the country in the mid-80’s when Rajiv Gandhi was the country’s Prime Minister.
In October 1984, Rajiv Gandhi had won a historic national mandate winning 404 parliamentary seats, surpassing all expectations. By early 1987, Rajiv Gandhi’s government was hit with the Bofors corruption scandal which consumed Rajiv Gandhi politically and practically ended his dream political run.
Switch to 2009. After winning a surprisingly large election mandate, Manmohan Singh government is experiencing a similar fate. Thanks to its murky deals and a spate of corruption scandals, the UPA government’s image is beyond redemption and the moot question now is whether the UPA government manages to complete its full term of five years to last till 2014.
Easy Come, Easy Go
The dictum that “what comes easily also goes away easily” seems to aptly describe the Congress Party’s plight today. Perhaps, it is a human tendency not to try hard enough to preserve something that one gets easily. Both the 1984 and 2009 are ‘easy’ and unexpectedly large mandates for the Congress Party. And on both the occasions, the Congress Party had literally thrown away the mandates by acting in a brazen, arrogant and irresponsible manner. Even though a gap of 25 years separates these governments, the party’s responses, reflexes and methods employed in dealing with the corruption scandals both these governments are similar.
The similarities could be due to the pivotal role played by Sonia Gandhi in both the governments. In 1984, she was the wife of the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and now she is the Leader of the UPA coalition. Sonia Gandhi is credited by her party for bringing the Congress to power in 2004 when the BJP seemed set to retain power at the Centre. She has done this by striking alliances and wooing even small regional players like Ramvilas Paswan and Shibu Soren. And, after coming to power, Sonia Gandhi did everything possible to keep the UPA-1 government in power for all of five years.
Fear of the BJP
It was the fear of the return of the BJP to power that made Sonia Gandhi desperate to halt the BJP’s reign at the Centre. Once again, it was the fear of the return of the BJP that forced the Congress Party to adopt dubious means in drumming up an artificial parliamentary in the 2008 confidence vote majority through the infamous “cash for votes” scam. But after 2009 Lok Sabha polls in which the Congress performed way beyond its own expectations, the Congress began to feel that the BJP was no longer a force to reckon with and that party’s reign at the Centre would continue even beyond 2014.
It was this overconfidence that has made the Congress Party brazenly corrupt and when these corruption scandals came to light, rather than respond to them in a sensible manner, it has begun to resort to repressive measures. Stonewalling Opposition’s demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) into the 2G scam for months, delaying arrest of A Raja and Suresh Kalmadi, midnight crackdown on Baba Ramdev’s supporters and in the ill-advised arrest of Anna Hazare at dawn and sending him to Tihar jail are some of its desperate and repressive actions.
All these and similar actions over the past few months have cost the Congress Party dearly and the party has now become a hate symbol for large sections of the electorate which supported it in the 2009 elections. The manner in which the Congress Party is acting today is reminiscent of the Congress Party’s conduct during the Rajiv Gandhi’s reign; post the eruption of Bofors scandal.
Politics abhors a vacuum
The Congress Party’s over confidence stemmed from a mistaken belief that there is no viable alternative to it at the Centre. Unfortunately for the Congress, it has not learnt any lessons from the past. Party veterans like Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were defeated in polls not because a strong opposition existed at the time. Politics abhors a vacuum. If one party vacates a political space, it will be filled by somebody else. The anti-Indira wave of 1977 and anti-Rajiv wave of 1989 were essentially negative mandates against them and parties that have the viability have encashed the popular discontent against them.
If the past is any indication, the Congress Party is set to incur huge losses in the next Lok Sabha polls and all its rival parties are likely to benefit from this negative mandate. It would be the BJP in a number of states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Chattisgarh, Delhi etc., LDF in Kerala, BJD in Orissa, regional parties in Andhra etc. etc.
If there was one leader who lost out heavily in the Anna Hazare episode, it is Rahul Gandhi. His “youth appeal” has taken a big knock, thanks to his disastrous performance in Parliament on the Jan Lokpal’s agitation. By saying that Anna Hazare’s methods are a dangerous precedent for democracy, Rahul Gandhi appeared to go against the overwhelming public support for the anti-corruption crusader. Rather than becoming part of the solution to the Jan Lokpal problem, Rahul Gandhi appeared to be complicating the problem by suggesting a “game changing” solution of according constitutional status to the institution of Lokpal that would take many years to fructify.
With its mishandling of the anti-corruption movement, the Congress Party led UPA government is increasingly appearing like a patient in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). It requires a quick diagnosis and an urgent surgery to be able to survive. If it succeeds, it may last its full term. But if it is not able to pull itself together and loses power mid-term, the fading charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and its loosening hold on the levers of power might mean that the party will not be able to regain power any time soon.
(The author is a noted political analyst.)