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UPA after 9: Nothing to declare, nothing to celebrate

Nine years later, the aam aadmi has come to identify the government with gargantuan sleaze and scams.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh delivers a speech during the release of a report on the UPA, on its fourth anniversary in New Delhi on Wednesday. PTI


When Sonia Gandhi nominated Manmohan Singh to the Prime Minister's post back in May 2004, the reaction of the entire political class was one of bafflement. More than the Opposition, veteran Congress leaders were horrified. How could she anoint someone who was a novice in politics, someone who had never won even a panchayat election? However, it was impotent rage. Sonia Gandhi's word was the law. Singh was duly sworn in as Prime Minister on 22 May 2004.

Initially, when a few veterans in the Cabinet demonstrably showed a lack of deference to the new Prime Minister, the Congress president intervened, leaving them in no doubt that she expected them to accord him due respect. As if to emphasise the point, she led the long line of Congress bigwigs at the airport to see him off when Singh left on his first few state visits abroad. And repeated the act upon his return. Initially, the equation between the PM and the Congress president was perfect. It was one of innate trust. Everyone else was expected to fall in line.

But between May 2004 and May 2013, Gandhi and Singh have veered far apart from each other. Notwithstanding the pro forma denials, the PM and the Congress president are no longer on the same page on most matters. We will return to that presently. But first the popular public reaction the surprise choice of Singh as Prime Minister had evoked back in 2004. Though equally taken aback, the aam aadmi genuinely believed that at least Singh would be able to run a corruption-free government. Since he enjoyed a reputation for financial honesty, most people believed that he would rid the system of that endemic scourge.

Nine years later, as the UPA marked its tenth birth anniversary with a low-key dinner the other day at the Prime Minister's house, the same aam aadmi has come to identify the Singh government with gargantuan sleaze and scams. It is a ghotala sarkar is how the common man views the Singh government. Whereas nine years ago they spoke approvingly of his reputation as an honest man, now they question his passivity in the face of broad daylight loot of the public exchequer by all and sundry.

In short, the only USP that Singh had when he first began his stint as Prime Minister, he has fully squandered. He may not be personally corrupt, but in the popular mind he is complicit in corruption since he refuses to do anything to prevent his ministers from dipping into the public till. "What use is such honesty if everyone else under his very eyes is looting the nation?" is the question on the lips of the aam aadmi.

Aware of the growing public disenchantment with Singh due to an unending series of scams, his apologists have taken to chiding the middle class for being obsessed with corruption. Little do these rationalizers of corruption realise that in all democracies it is the middle class which constitutes the moral core of society, holding the rulers accountable to a minimum standard of probity.

Small wonder then there is a growing realisation within the Congress that the party cannot, should not, go into the next election with Singh still in the prime ministerial gaddi. Politically, it is argued, he is now a liability. Such a view is also premised on the belief that invariably the change of Prime Minister helps in wiping the slate clean, as it were, as the new incumbent is not held accountable for the sins of his predecessor. Whatever the truth in that line of reasoning, there is no denying that the average Congress worker is now impatient for change. Digvijay Singh speaks for the party rank and file when he roots for Rahul Gandhi to take his rightful place as Prime Minister.

However, political circumstances do not seem to be propitious for the anointed heir apparent. Had Rahul established his electoral pull by winning a couple of state elections, had he shown a degree of command and authority while expostulating his world view before informed audiences, had he made a mark in the Lok Sabha, Singh would have really felt threatened. But because the 43-year-old youth leader still lacks the political savvy and basic understanding of the national and international affairs, the non-performer Singh feels secure. The TINA factor is working to the advantage Singh.

As for the UPA's achievements of the nine years in power, let us restrict ourselves to two vital figures. The rupee was still ruling at about 45 to a dollar in May 2004 and the rate of growth in 2003-04, the last year of the Vajpayee government, was a very healthy 8.1%. Now the rupee is down to 56 to a dollar and the growth rate registered in the ninth year of the UPA, that is, 2012-13, was a paltry 5%. Yes, consumer price inflation has reached stratospheric heights. The India Story, which was beginning to be heard in the world financial capitals, is virtually dead. And the twin deficits, revenue and current, are so high that the credit ratings agencies are threatening to lower India's sovereign ratings. Happy tenth anniversary, UPA.

A questionable appointment

The surprise appointment of Shashi Kant Sharma, Defence Secretary, as the new Comptroller and Auditor General following the retirement of Vinod Rai, may not be a case of setting a thief to catch a thief, especially when there is no hint of a scandal about Sharma, at least as yet. But the fact that as a senior officer in the Defence Ministry he had been a vital part of the decision-making process involving the most controversial purchase of Tatra trucks and the Agusta Westland helicopters, it ought to have automatically ruled him out for appointment as CAG. Conversely, the fact that as a bureaucrat he was a party to these deals may be precisely why he was appointed the CAG. He cannot be expected to pick holes in the very deals he had sanctioned as a senior bureaucrat in his new role as the CAG. Simple. But this shows how brazen the UPA has become in trying to put a tight lid over its scams. However, the last word on Sharma's appointment as CAG is still to be said. A conscientious citizen has challenged the appointment through a PIL in the Supreme Court.

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