When Sonia Gandhi returns to India, she will find that her government’s credibility has been shot to pieces in her absence.
In particular, she may have to take an early call on bringing in Rahul to a position of prominence in government to arrest the decline in the UPA’s fortunes. She thus has to choose between two risks: making Rahul PM before 2014, or seeking a new mandate at a time when anti-incumbency is rising steadily. Team Manmohan, however, cannot deliver.
The process of decline had begun long before she had left for Sloan Kettering – with scams tumbling out of the UPA’s cupboard at regular intervals. Less than half-way through its second term, the alliance has lost its way. Lack of faith in the leadership is so high, and the credibility of its top ministers so low, that it is difficult to visualise this government performing at even half the normal efficiency.
Consider the top guns of the UPA.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reputation is in tatters. There is almost no one anywhere who thinks he handled the Raja and Kalmadi corruption issues well. No one is willing to buy his arguments on coalition pressures, and that he bears no blame for the things that went wrong over the last 12 months. Almost everyone believes that the division of power between him and the party president has done more harm than good. His government's handling of the Anna agitation has been universally panned. So Sonia has a lameduck PM to start with.
Pranab Mukherjee’s reputation has taken a knock. With the economy heading downhill, his stewardship of the finance ministry does not look good. There is every chance that his budget targets will be missed this year. Worse, with a former Sebi board member alleging that he was in cahoots with business interests (Sahara, Reliance, MCX, etc), his credibility has also taken a solid knock. He is the government’s main trouble-shooter, but Sonia ultimately does not trust him since he staked a claim to the top job when Indira Gandhi was assassinated.
AK Antony’s defence ministry is now at the centre of a major embarrassment. Antony’s handling of the current Army Chief’s age issue – Gen VK Singh will have to retire a year early because of doubts over his date of birth – has sullied his image. It has given rise to suspicion that his hand was forced by other powers, especially when Singh has a reputation for probity and was cleaning up the army establishment. The army leadership is unhappy with Antony’s decision, and Singh himself has filed a statutory complaint on the decision to make him retire in 2012 instead of 2013. Worse, the defence ministry under Antony seems to have revived the practice of paying commissions on defence contracts by calling them business charges.
P Chidambaram, for all his savvy, is in the doghouse. He has made little headway against the Maoists anywhere. Worse, he mishandled the Anna agitation by allowing (or directing) the Delhi police force to put him in Tihar jail and then claiming it was their own decision. Rubbing it in further was his old foe J Jayalalithaa, who alleged that he had actually lost the last election and made it through fraud.
Kapil Sibal put his credibility on the line at the telecom ministry by trying to defend Raja’s spectrum auctions. He convinced nobody by making the ridiculous claim that the government lost nothing by failing to hold a proper – and above board – auction of telecom spectrum. He also did not earn any plaudits for reducing the penalties imposed on Reliance Communications, which unilaterally terminated its rural telephony services. Sibal was also a major factor is the breakdown of trust between government and Team Anna members in the joint drafting committee for the Lokpal Bill.
Sharad Pawar has been a singular failure as agriculture minister. Food inflation has been the biggest contributor to overall inflation, but Pawar did not distinguish himself with any initiatives to raise farm productivity – the key to bringing down inflation when social security schemes like NREGA were pushing up demand for food. The Food Security Bill will come a cropper if food production is not raised dramatically. Pawar was also widely suspected of being responsible for the 2007 wheat import scam.
Veerappy Moily failed to project the government well in court. He was expected to achieve great things in the law ministry. But his ministry was repeatedly hauled over the coals by the courts – on its handling of the 2G scam, on its handling of the black money cases – and the government repeatedly lost face.
Clearly, a government with its entire top team facing a credibility crisis, has only two options left: a change of guard or a new mandate.
The other alternative before Sonia is to seek a fresh mandate. Without that, she will find it difficult to pull India out of the ‘slow-growth-no-reforms-low-governance’ situation brought on by Team Manmohan's incompetence.