Few would deny that prime minister Manmohan Singh’s address to the nation from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort on Independence Day was a damp squib. Not that his earlier addresses were examples of great oratorical skills or of inspiration for the youth but this time Dr Singh was neither confident and combative nor positive and forward-looking. It seemed he was going through the motions of his address because he had no choice but to deliver it.
Here was a beleaguered prime minister who knew only too well that he was being perceived to be an utter failure in his second successive stint, that his biggest asset — his personal integrity — had been completely overshadowed by corruption of the highest order of his government and who was being looked upon as being so spineless that he had devalued the high office that he held by his subservience to Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
When he spoke and harked back to the over six decades since independence, he seemed blatantly partisan towards the Congress party and within the party to the Nehru-Gandhi family. As his bête noire Narendra Modi was quick to point out, the likes of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri and of course Atal Bihari Vajpayee were not thought worthy of even a passing reference while he sang predictable paeans to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
The other distinguishing feature of Dr Singh, his erudition and practical understanding of economics, was also in danger of being mocked at with the Indian economy in a shambles, at least partially due to appalling mismanagement by his government. A day after he delivered his sermon and patted himself on the back for successes during his second stint, there was a major embarrassment in store for him when the Bombay Stock Exchange index fell a whopping 749 points, the rupee plunged to its lowest ever and the price of gold zoomed to ` 30,000 per 10 grams.
Whatever Manmohan Singh seems to do to encourage foreign direct investment ends up leading the country nowhere as confidence in the economy stands at a low ebb and scepticism pervades the scene both within the country and abroad.
At least for now there is no light at the end of the tunnel as the Manmohan Singh government wrestles with various problems that are a combined consequence of bad governance and unfavourable international conditions.
There is little hope that the next government after the mid-year elections in 2014 would be a vast improvement over this one. If recent opinion polls are anything to go by, the regional parties, most of which are obsessed with regional as opposed to national interest, will improve their tally at the cost of the Congress and the BJP.
Investors abroad are not oblivious of the broth that is on the fire. With a whole galaxy of parties waiting to jump on to either the Congress or the BJP bandwagon, the underlying sentiment is to extract the maximum benefit from whoever comes to power at the Centre.
One has only to look at the UP example where the sand mining mafia is ruling the roost and the upright officer who tried to bring them to book is cooling her heels after the Akhilesh Yadav government suspended her from service, to understand that mafias of all sorts are making hay under the very nose of governments in a permissive democracy that has failed miserably as a form of government.
Even the pretence of propriety has been given up. One shudders to think how a government of regional parties would be for the country. There is no knowing whether the reins would remain with the Congress or pass on to the BJP or onto a regional party. But it would require a strong leader to ward off pressures from alliance partners in a coalition.
Price rise will continue to be the biggest challenge for the country and the more the emphasis on subsidies and on redistribution, not production, the deeper the country would slip into debt. For the last several years there has been little thrust towards increasing the size of the cake. Populism has indeed taken over.
So completely dominated by Congress president Sonia Gandhi is the present dispensation led by Manmohan Singh that any expression of opposition from Congressmen to the populist food bill which is Sonia’s pet baby is virtually unthinkable.
In the bargain, the public exchequer is in poor shape. There is virtually no capital formation worth the name taking place in the states. Projects are not moving beyond the drawing board and while foreign institutional investors have deserted the stock markets, investors who once thought India was the most promising destination for investment are now hedging their bets, waiting on the sidelines to see when and if at all things improve.
It was India’s economic muscle that a few years ago brought the nation to the centre stage and today it is the vanishing strength that is propelling the others to treat India with disdain and a casualness that is frightening. Dr Singh will be remembered by posterity for the manner in which a brilliant economist allowed himself to be manipulated to shed all fiscal prudence to dole out huge subsidies culminating in a food security bill that brought an already-tottering economy to its knees for electoral considerations.
It was small wonder then that Narendra Modi was able to tear into Manmohan Singh, taking on his address to the nation in a manner in which nobody until now has done with a prime minister’s I-Day address.
Those like Lal Krishna Advani may take a dig at Modi for having broken convention by criticising the prime minister witheringly in his I-Day address but the fact remains that what Modi said was not wrong.
Here is a prime minister who has let the country down like no other not because he was not well-endowed to understand that he was the epitome of bad governance but because he showed lack of spine and was unwilling to stake power for the good of the country.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a veteran journalist and author.