It is a grave failure of sorts that on the day, August 15, when India celebrated its 66th year of independence, millions of its people languish in poverty; a million others don't have access to clean drinking water; and many are deprived of basic necessities such as education, proper facilities for transportation, electricity etc. Despite having more than 40% of its population under 18, India has one of the highest unemployment rates among youth today in the world. The Human Development Index of some states is worse than some of the countries in Sub Saharan Africa. There is a huge gap between the male and female literacy rates in the country as shown by the preliminary census data of 2011. While the population is exploding, the resources and the means to ensure a dignified and comfortable life are fast shrinking. Even though the country claims to be an IT powerhouse, internet proliferation is less than 10%. School dropout rates have assumed an alarming proportion and have reached 52%: by the time a child has reached class VI-VII, he/she is most likely to have dropped out. The mother of all horrors is the continuing prevalence of untouchability as shown by the continuing coverage of Video Volunteers in association with Tehelka.
However, none of this was mentioned in the speech that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave this Independence Day. After becoming only the 3rd Prime Minister ever to host the tricolor at Red Fort for the 9th time, after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi respectively, Manmohan Singh showed no signs of tackling these issues head on, and instead re-iterated his oft-repeated stand on weeding out corruption and ensuring probity in daily life. The uninteresting, bland and lacklustre banter that followed had him using the same rhetoric that he has been using for the last nine years.
This boring monotone has become a regular feature of the Manmohan Singh era. The past two years have seen his government bungle on a lot of sensitive political issues, both in the parliament and outside. Beleaguered by the fickle-minded nature of his less than trustworthy allies, his government has had to face serious embarrassment over policy issues that he otherwise would like to have implemented. For instance, the government had to put the introduction of Foreign Direct Investment in Multi Brand Retail on the backburner due to the constant threats and stiff opposition from its mercurial ally Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of Bengal and the leader of Trinamool Congress (TMC) - a key constituent of the United Progressive Alliance. In addition to this, the government also had to face embarrassment from the unlikely quarters of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), after its chief Sharad Pawar and another member Praful Patel, who hold key cabinet positions at the centre, tendered their resignation when Pawar got miffed at being denied the position of No. 2 in the cabinet. This was due to its previous incumbent Pranab Mukherjee being elected and elevated to Rashtrapati Bhavan. A lot of cooing and cajoling followed, after which both ministers withdrew their resignations. However, the government already had egg on its face.
As if this intra-government tussle wasn't enough, the UPA has also come to face heavy criticism for the draconian laws that it has been contemplating or has already passed. In May 2012, a bizarre controversy erupted when some Members of Parliament raised objections on a half a century old cartoon that was already being printed in state commissioned NCERT textbooks of Political Science. Claiming that the cartoon was demeaning to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the founding father of India's constitution, the members demanded that the cartoon be immediately struck off from the textbooks and a review committee be set up to scrutinise any further illustrations that appear in textbooks, since these ones portrayed politicians and bureaucrats in a bad light. In spite of the vocal protestations of public-minded intellectuals, the committee (called the S.K. Thorat committee or jokingly, the Cartoon Committee) was created. The committee, working in a high handed manner, refused to include the protest notes of its various members in its work as annexes, and published the exact kind of report that the government desired. The whole episode not only left a question mark on the veracity of such committees, but was debated in the mainstream newspapers for many days for having set up a dangerous precedent detrimental to the documentation of history.
However, the main plank on which the incumbent government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh won its second term and returned to power in 2009 was that of economic vitality. Two years before, India looked poised to become the next superpower, clocking more than 8% GDP growth amidst worldwide recession. However, today, that plank lies broken in pieces. One after another, the world's three leading rating agencies have lowered India's growth forecast to less than 6% annually. The constant depreciation of the rupee against the dollar sapped investor confidence and the markets continued to tumble. Rampant inflation, fall in export growth, a ballooning fiscal and current account deficit and, more importantly, the dithering and uncertainty over important policies such as GAAR have snatched the prestige and promise that India held to foreign capital two years ago.
One of the main reasons for this dramatic turnaround, from a popularly voted government to a coalition of parties that everyone wants to throw out of power, has been Mr. Singh's own inability to clear out his backyard. One after another corruption cases have fallen out of the government's cupboard, making a mockery of the aura of transparency and probity that followers of Mr.Singh once exhorted him to have. After claiming the careers of his various cabinet colleagues, the serpent of corruption has finally found its way to Mr. Singh's door, with his name being implicated in the latest coal scandal. This, if proved true, will be the biggest scandal of the century, surpassing the 2G scam by many lakh crores. Consequently, the popular anti-corruption movements lead by social activist Anna Hazare, Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev and their respective teams may or may not have succeeded in achieving their desired goals, but have certainly gnawed away at the credibility and legitimacy of the government which has come to be known as the 'consortium of the corrupt'.
The government still seems to be lurching from one crisis to another, unable to figure out its way from the mess of its own creation, despite the numerous big and small cabinet reshuffles that it has undertaken. This fact is evident from the recent debacles that the Congress has faced in the state assembly elections all over the country. More worrisome is the fact that the government does not look to be in the mood for sorting out its problems. It is instead content in its self-glorification, by making the aam aadmi count the handful of welfare schemes that it has launched since it came to power.
However, it would be an injustice if one was to blame Mr. Singh for the entire situation. It is not a secret that Mr. Singh has never enjoyed a free hand at choosing and managing his own government. The opposition has constantly been accusing the ruling party of dysfunctional-ism owing to the existence of two parallel power centres. The Congress President Mrs. Sonia Gandhi is suspected to call some of the shots in the government and steer matters of public policy from time to time. However, last week, the proof of this was published by The Economic Times. In the article, the newspaper claimed, that Mrs. Gandhi had written to the Prime Minister at least once a month over the last two years, guiding him in matters of public policy. This has resulted in Mrs. Gandhi being given the appellation of the 'Super PM'.
The government seems to be dependent on its untrustworthy allies for getting key legislation passed. However, these key legislations are in direct contravention of the programmes and constitution of these allies, who will lose public support if they lend their support to these policies. The public, in general, is concerned with food, housing and clothing, even if that comes by these parties breaking away from the word of their manifesto. So it looks up to the government to work its magic. And so the classic game of interdependence continues.
As I write these words, the discourse on public policy within the government seems to be at a standstill. Several important bits of legislation lie pending before the parliament for approval. There seems to be no consensus within the government over the crucial steps required to kickstart the economy and boost investor confidence. There is critical shortage and untenable delay in the physical infrastructure required to restore the balance of the economy. Everyday, parliament is being disrupted over issues that can be coolly and calmly discussed and whose solutions can be arrived at without losing precious time. Unfortunately, there seems to be no attempt from India's leaders to reverse this state of affairs and improve the conditions of the country.
The government today resembles a sick man restricted to his bed. He is unable to move with his eyes fixed on the hands of the clock, counting his last days and waiting for the last breath to escape from his lungs before he departs. Either the man must recover, or someone should take his place.