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Friday, March 16, 2012

Singh's challenge in defeat

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — Until ten days ago, it seemed certain that Rahul Gandhi, the 40-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, would soon be anointed to succeed the tiring Manmohan Singh as prime minister of India.

But as the late former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson noted, a week is a long time in politics, and the devastating defeats of India's ruling Congress Party in elections in Uttar Pradesh, the country's largest state, and in Punjab and Goa, are a body blow to Rahul Gandhi's ambitions.

The defeats offer a bigger challenge to Manmohan Singh. He must finally assert himself as economist, economic and political reformer and human being who cares about India — or see the whole reform process that he has superintended destroyed by the greedy locusts of corruption, thuggery, privilege and wholesale political incompetence.

Direct connections between national politics and what happens in India's state elections are not always easy when states are increasingly swayed by local sentiments. Ever since the time of Rahul Gandhi's great-great grandfather Motilal Nehru, the Nehru-Gandhi clan has claimed Uttar Pradesh, commonly called "UP," as its home. Various family members hold their national parliamentary seats in UP constituencies.

The UP elections were seen as the triumphant public bloodying of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party secretary general for the past four years, whose march to the public spotlight is taking an uncommonly long time.

Give him credit, though: He worked tirelessly and visited more than 200 of the 403 constituencies, making speeches, offering good sound bites and trying to show himself as a son of the local soil. He warned that other politicians "will promise you whatever you want to hear. They will also change the color of the sky if you want to hear that." But he failed.

Congress was trounced and humiliated, winning only 28 seats — up slightly from 22 in the previous UP assembly — and came in fourth. The Dalit chief minister Mayawati (only one name) was swept from power, falling to 80 seats, in the landslide to Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, a left-leaning party representing backward castes. Yadav, chief minister three times before, took 224 seats in a victory that critics see as a victory for hope over experience.

Rahul Gandhi charged that Yadav's bicycle, the party's election symbol, had set off three times before and been punctured before reaching its promised destination. He also claimed that under Yadav, UP people got electricity bills but only a few hours of power every day.

Yadav's previous rule had become a byword for cronyism, but UP voters judged that he was not as bad as the egocentric Mayawati, who became India's richest chief minister with a penchant for erecting statues to herself. And they could not trust the Congress party, which, for all Rahul's energy, was not well-organized and relied, in UP, on tired old politicians. Yadav also had a new weapon in his Australian-educated son Akhilesh, who actually campaigned by bicycle, while promising free computers to students in UP.

UP matters. The Gandhis and Singh cannot wriggle away and pretend that this was a little local difficulty. The state has 200 million people and is the center of India's Hindi-speaking heartland. It has supplied eight of India's 13 prime ministers, and is a touchstone for the progress, or lack of it, that India is making. To his credit, Rahul Gandhi accepted responsibility.

But the defeat leaves the government in a fix. India's economic performance is faltering. More important, a spate of corruption cases involving public figures and huge sums of money shows deterioration of governance. There is a sense of drift in tackling key questions of infrastructure, education and investment, as well as a failure of economic and social projects to combat entrenched poverty and deprivation that rob India of its dynamism.

Prime minister Singh must get a grip, knock heads together, stop excusing himself by saying that he did not know what was going on in the corrupt areas of his government, and put economic reforms on track. This means finding allies at the center and making alliances in the states.

He has always been self-effacing. My cynical Indian friends claim that Singh is window-dressing, a bland incorrupt face that provides respectability and cover while dark games go on behind the scenes. I may be in a minority, but I believe in Singh's commitment to India and in his determination to wipe away the tears of poverty and deprivation that still darken millions of Indian faces. He is a cautious man who opened the door to reforms in the first place when, catapulted into the job of finance minister in 1991, he discovered there was nearly no money in the kitty to pay essential import bills.

Old bureaucrats like Singh also have a strong belief in public service and in the role of the state — rather than greedy private enterprise — in taking the lead running key sectors of the economy for better public benefit. Recent evidence from countries like India suggests that corrupt bureaucrats in cahoots with privileged businessmen have been the biggest barrier to change, lining their own pockets at the expense of the public.

Singh must remember that he is prime minister and must show leadership. The government cannot afford to limp lamely on after UP. He should set a goal of retiring just before or just after the next election, due in 2014. Bring Rahul Gandhi into the Cabinet with an important portfolio to learn about governing. By all means try Rahul's sister, Priyanka Vadra, in a backroom party job, but warn Sonia Gandhi and her two children that India is too big and complex to rely only on a dynasty. Look for others who dream of a shining India; the country is not lacking in talent.

Immediately, Singh should strengthen ties with Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to put reforms on a fast track, including abolishing economy-enervating subsidies, implementing an effective anti-poverty plan and instituting fiscal reforms.

The other option would be for him to retire. No one could begrudge him that. He will be 80 in September. He has been an outstanding public servant for 40 years. It would be a pity though if he retires without making a bigger effort to fulfill his and India's dreams.

Kevin Rafferty was executive editor at the Indian Express newspaper group.

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