The by-election results are a pointer to the negative feelings gaining momentum against the Manmohan Singh government.
IS IT a case of mid-term blues for the Government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or is there something more serious afflicting it? Whatever it is, there is near unanimity that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance is in a mess essentially of its own making.
An indication was available last week when the ruling alliance lost four by-elections in as many states.
Newspaper headlines captured the popular mood in crisp headlines, though the authoritative national daily, The Hindu, put it best: “Four winners, one loser.”
And that loser was Singh’s Congress Party. The rout in the by-election, coming in the wake of a public hue and cry over various corruption scams, did not really surprise anyone.
However, it was the humiliation of forfeiting the security deposit in the Parliament by-election from Hisar in Haryana that surprised everyone. The two-time Congress winner from the same constituency failed to attract the necessary 10% of the total votes polled to retain his security deposit.
The fact that there was a Congress government in Haryana and that Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and other Congress bigwigs had camped in the constituency seemed to have not impressed the voters.
The regional party of former Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chauthala came a close second while the seat was won by the leader of the new outfit, Haryana Janhit Congress, Kuldeep Bishnoi, who was backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The by-election win is likely to seal the long-term alliance between both parties.
A significant factor in Hisar was the open campaign against the Congress candidate by activists belonging to the anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare. Members of Team Anna had held public meetings, exhorting people to defeat the Congress as the party was not sincere in creating a strong anti-corruption ombudsman (Lokpal).
Though Team Anna was divided on taking sides in the electoral game, dominant opinion veered towards the view that there should be no hesitation in appealing to the people to choose the lesser evil among the candidates in the fray.
No less shocking was the outcome in the Khadakwasla Assembly constituency in Maharashtra. A long-time bastion of the Nationalist Congress Party leader and Union Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar, the seat was wrested by the opposition BJP.
The Assembly segment being part of the Baramati parliamentary constituency, a pocket-borough of Pawar, the defeat of the NCP candidate is seen as a verdict against the ruling Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra.
The other two by-elections too went against the Congress Party. In the Daraunda Assembly constituency, the ruling Janata Dal (U) candidate inflicted a crushing defeat on the candidates of both the Congress Party and the Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD) of the former chief minister Laloo Yadav.
The constituency was part of the Siwan parliamentary seat which was the preserve of the RJD muscleman, Shahabuddin, who had won it three times before passing it on to his wife upon his conviction in a murder case. Clearly, he no longer held much terror among the voters.
Much significance was attached to the Congress’ loss in Andhra Pradesh’s Banswada Assembly constituency, in the Telangana region. The victory of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti candidate is seen as an endorsement of the demand for the division of Andhra Pradesh. The on-going agitation for the creation of Telangana by dividing Andhra Pradesh received further boost from the Banswada verdict.
Taken together, the by-election results bode ill for the ruling UPA. Mired in corruption scams and troubled by record inflation, the results underline the popular mood against the ruling coalition.
The lacklustre leadership of the prime minister has not helped either. Manmohan is no longer the darling of the educated urban middle-class. His failure to prevent corruption scams among his ministerial colleagues has also worked against him. There is a growing impression that he takes the path of least resistance while his ministers create mayhem.
Typical of the tendency of the PM to procrastinate, in the hope that with the passage of time problems will solve by themselves, is the prolonged trouble in Andhra Pradesh over the demand for the creation of a separate Telangana State.
The central government flip-flopped even as pro-Telangana groups brought the state to a virtual halt, stopping road and rail traffic and shutting down educational institutions. Elected representatives in the state and central legislatures resigned their seats to support the demand for a separate state but the Prime Minister would neither accept nor reject it.
Though a professional economist by training, Singh no longer wins high marks for managing the economy, either. The relentless rise in prices, especially of essential food items, has hurt the ubiquitous aam aam (ordinary man), which was supposed to be the mascot of the ruling UPA.
Furthermore, the share markets are running far below their historic highs, with the foreign institutional investors pulling out vast sums of money. Above all, the Indian currency has devalued by over 10% this year alone against the US dollar.
No longer does one hear talk of a double-digit growth from government economists now. A reasonable target is no more than a 7.5% growth in the current financial year, and even this is disputed by independent economists.
A major reason for the sharp slowdown is the policy paralysis in the Government. The process of second-generation reforms has been virtually abandoned.
Small wonder, then, that there are voices being heard within the Congress Party that Manmohan ought to be replaced by someone who can deliver and lead in his own right.
However, the reluctance of the Congress’s heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, to occupy the prime ministerial position has allowed Manmohan to carry on despite his non-performance.
Re-elected to power in May 2009, the Government has nothing to write home about in the first half of its second five-year term.
But for want of a clear alternative, Manmohan continues. The Congress leadership will find it hard to put off a decision after the mid-2012 elections in five states, including in the all-important Uttar Pradesh.
At best, Manmohan can hope to continue in the saddle till then, but there can be no denying that his nominator, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, has reason to be worried with the growing unpopularity of the Prime Minister.