Manmohan Singh and Congress Take Charge Again

Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee members celebrate Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's second term following his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi on May 22. (Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

For the second time in five years, the term renunciation of office has come to stay with India's first political family, the Nehru-Gandhi's. The 2004 elections that threw up a fractured verdict saw Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party and chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (U.P.A.), refusing to accept the post of prime minister despite many within her party and allies imploring her to take it. Instead, she gave it to Manmohan Singh.

The story has been repeated after the just-concluded parliamentary elections that saw the Grand Old Party of the Indian politics come back with a strong showing in the 545-member Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament). Like his mother, Rahul Gandhi has now turned down Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's offer asking him to join his cabinet during his second term.

Rahul, 38, who is the general secretary of the party and its youth icon, has refused, saying he prefers to work for the revival of the party across India and to focus on bringing young people to the mainstream who can generate a quality change in the lives of millions of people across the countryside. "Elections come and go but I will continue working for the party. I hope to give good place to the youth in politics."

Barely did the Congress touch the 200-seat mark in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections when the first noises began. Jyotiraditya Scindia, who won from Guna in Madhya Pradesh, went live on television asking for Rahul Gandhi to be made Prime Minister.

The demand was on the verge of turning into a chorus when Sonia Gandhi stepped in to put an end to it. Emerging from her official residence, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh beside her, she firmly scotched the speculation. "Dr. Singh will remain Prime Minister," she said. "Rahul has said this time and again. I have said this and so has the party."

Many of the winning Congress Party candidates have admitted that the loan waiver schemes for farmers and the innovative wage forum for the rural workers worked wonderfully for them, in many cases even overriding the caste factor.

Addressing his newly sworn-in cabinet colleagues, the prime minister said on May 23, "We have made a number of promises and we have promises to keep." In doing so, he was harking back to India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who often cited the last stanza of Robert Frost's immortal poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" that runs thus:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.

Nehru was known to often cite the last two lines of the verse as he unveiled his vision for India's development in the early days of the country’s independence.

The newly named Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee says that every effort will be made to lift the Indian economy out of the current slowdown and that the regular budget will be presented in due course. "The Indian economy remains resilient," the veteran Congress leader told reporters at his residence. "All economic issues will be addressed. My priority is to put the economy back on track. Various efforts will be made to insulate the Indian economy from the adverse impact of the financial meltdown."

The government has prepared a slew of reforms to be implemented within the hundred days in infrastructure areas like civil aviation, roads and highways, telecom, petroleum and natural gas, power, and banking and commerce.

Analysts predict that the reforms will not be as dramatic as in the 1990s when Manmohan Singh was finance minister in Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s cabinet. The main thrust of policies will strengthen and extend ongoing projects in areas like rural development, employment generation and skill development.

The Congress in its poll manifesto promised 25 kilos of grain at Rs 3 per kilo for poor families and will be forced to implement it.

Foreign investors looking for an open-door policy by the new government, now that the constraints imposed by the Communists in the previous regime are gone, may be in for disappointment. It will be a slow and cautious process.

Many of the newly elected lawmakers, especially from the Congress ranks, have emphasized that their win was mainly due to two government planks that were implemented, though reluctantly by the government: the loan waiver and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (N.R.E.G.A.). They said that these were the clinching factors for victories in many constituencies, which in many cases even neutralized the caste factor.

"The N.R.E.G.A. and the loan waiver scheme created a wave for Congress," says Nirmal Khatri, who won from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh state.

All Congress MPs were unanimous in saying that it looked as though the indebted voters were voting for the party with a sense of gratitude for the flagship programs. Soon after the 2004 polls, the Communists made support for Congress conditional on emphasizing rural development, social spending and poverty alleviation. Congress agreed to these demands more out of compulsion and less out of conviction.

About 40 million small and marginal farmers in India have been relieved of over Rs 716.8 billion debt under the government's loan waiver scheme, announced in February.

The N.R.E.G.A. and farm loan waiver is akin to the "garibi hatao" (remove poverty) slogan that Indira Gandhi used to regain power in Congress with a magnificent win in 1971. The only difference between the N.R.E.G.A. and garibi hatao is that the latter was a mere slogan whereas the former is already legislation passed by parliament. While garibi hatao received spectacular response from the rural masses, especially from the rural landless people, similarly, the N.R.E.G.A. has energized the whole of rural India.

One of the aspects of the new parliament is that the number of MPs in the 25-40 year age bracket is 82 in a house of 545 members, almost double the number from the previous Lok Sabha. The youngest member is Hamdullah Sayeed, 26, elected from the Indian Ocean island of Lakshadweep, while the oldest is Ram Sunder Das, 66, elected from Hajipir in Bihar.

Of the "Youngistan" (Youth in Hindi), the Congress, due to the Rahul factor, has the biggest chunk with 27 new faces.

The 2009 election is widely recognized as the coming of age of Rahul. He addressed
106 rallies, covering as many as 230 constituencies, and emerged as the busiest campaigner for his party. By comparison, Sonia addressed 68 rallies covering 140 constituencies.

Indeed, this election season has seen the maturing of the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, who is widely expected to assume the office of the prime minister at the time of his choosing. In 2004, he began tentatively, and though earnest and well-meaning, seemed without the acumen and skill necessary to negotiate the treacherous terrain of politics. Analysts wrote him off. And his 2007 campaign in Uttar Pradesh state legislature assembly polls was a huge failure. The Congress' miserable showing in that election set the party further back in the state, where it was already at the very bottom.

He took a gamble by fielding his own candidates in many constituents in India's largest state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends eighty MPs, the biggest chunk in parliament. His gambit paid off with his party winning 21 seats, up nine from 2004 polls. The Congress contested a limited number of seats.

Gandhi's next project is democratization of the party. He finds the absence of inner-party democracy an absolute paradox in a country that swears by its democratic system. Gandhi's core team of workers has experimentally introduced inner democracy in the Youth Congress in Punjab and hopes to extend it to other States.

As the Congress general secretary told journalists, "Today all our political parties are designed in a way that empowers people whom the leader likes. Why is it that we have a democratic system to run the country but have no democracy within political parties?"

When journalists pointed out the irony of the democracy experiment coming at the instance of someone who was himself from a political family, Rahul admitted that it was indeed a paradox that he should be advocating democracy. But, he said, "What should I do? I have got this opportunity. I could say I don’t want it. I am saying I want to use it to do something positive."

For a person perceived as "a weak prime minister" by the main opposition Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) during the election campaign, Manmohan Singh has stood his ground as his stature keeps growing, both among the common man and Corp. India, for his honesty, humbleness and worldview.

B.J.P.’s chief election strategist Arun Jaitley concedes that calling the prime minister "weak" did not work as "people sympathized with him."

The broad message of the just-concluded polls was clear: performance scored over identity politics, inclusive agenda scored over communal agenda, and regional parties demonstrated they can have their space along with national parties, if they deliver.

Analysts cite the fact that voters in many states preferred a national party to non-performing regional parties. In the instances of Uttar Pradesh, where Chief Minister Mayawati's BSP got only 21 of eighty seats, and Bihar, where Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal-United made a big sweep with twenty of forty seats.

In the results of the fifteenth Lok Sabha polls, declared May 16, the U.P.A. emerged as the largest coalition with 261 seats in a house of 545 and the Congress as the single largest party with 206 seats. The last time the Congress won more than 200 seats was in 1991 when its tally was 232.

This is not the first time that voters have acted wisely. They rejected Indira Gandhi in 1977 for her oppressive Emergency regime (1975-77), and the failure of the party to throw up a tall leader after Rajiv Gandhi helped in the rise of the B.J.P. with its combative pro-Hindu agenda. But, as the latest electoral outcome shows, xenophobic politics have short shelf life.

Similarly, the Left has suffered a precipitous fall from its sixty-odd Lok Sabha seats in 2004 to 24 now. What is more, its strongholds in both Kerala and West Bengal have crumbled. The setback in West Bengal is all the more devastating for the Marxists because their thirty-year rule in the state is facing crisis with a possibility of the Left losing the assembly elections scheduled in 2011 as well.

Arrogance of the leaders and rampant corruption led to the defeat of West Bengal's ruling Left Front in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, acknowledged a senior minister. "Our arrogance proved our undoing," Communist Party of India leader and Minister for Water Resources Investigation and Development Nanda Gopal Bhattacharya said.

In contrast to these ideologically driven parties—one hoping to provoke and use Hindu animus against the minorities for its success and the other banking on a dead doctrine—the Congress presented a picture of reasonableness.

Though the B.J.P. ruled for six years from 1998-2004, its main failure has been to replace its tallest leader, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who used the language of persuasion and moderation, including his attempts to initiate a peace process with Pakistan by undertaking a bus journey to Lahore.

Back in Delhi after his defeat in Rampur, one of the two Muslim faces of the Bharatiya Janta Party, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, confessed that the B.J.P. losing seats in the crucial north Indian states was mainly due to the hate speeches against Muslims by Varun Gandhi, the mid-campaign discovery of the virtues of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate and the strident and negative campaign against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The Congress is now on a comeback trial. It now seems to operate through a troika with levers of powers controlled by Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi. They also have a competent and experienced ministerial team comprising, among others, of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Home Minister P. Chidambaram and newly inducted S.M. Krishna as Foreign Minister in the new cabinet.

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