A week before the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's ninth anniversary on May 22, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh landed in Guwahati to file his nomination for a fifth Rajya Sabha term. The 80-year-old Singh is most likely to get another six years in Parliament, but for the present, the same cannot be said about the coalition government he heads.
Singh's government has been battered by controversy for months, leading to a virtual paralysis in Parliament. Key reform legislation - including the food security and land acquisition bills - is in limbo with the government facing numerous charges, the latest being bribery allegations over a Railways' post and accusations of having interfered in the Central Bureau of Investigation's functioning.To add to its woes, it is also grappling with the worst economic slowdown in about a decade. "There has been a policy famine for the last four years leading to policy paralysis. When there is no governance, the best democratic solution is an early election," says senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Murli Manohar Joshi, BJP leader Prakash Javadekar strongly agrees. "The economist Prime Minister has failed to manage the economy," he says.
When there is no governance, the best democratic solution is an early election: Murli Manohar Joshi
But this is not entirely correct. Lately, in a break from the past, the UPA government has been in overdrive to dispel charges of policy paralysis. With the window to push through key bills ahead of the next general election narrowing, the government has focused on clearing pending projects that do not need a change in law. Projects worth about Rs 74,000 crore were approved by the end of March, mostly in the sphere of energy and infrastructure. "The Cabinet Committee on Investment (formed on January 2) has done significant work in clearing projects," says Harsh Pati Singhania, Managing Director of JK Paper.
The results are showing. The government's policies on foreign direct investment
in aviation and multi-brand retail are already off the ground. Earlier this year, UAE flag carrier Etihad Airways announced plans to pick up a 24 per cent stake in Jet Airways. It is the first investment by an overseas operator in an Indian airline since the government liberalised airline investment rules last September. The cabinet has also cleared Swedish retail giant IKEA's investment plans in India. And with the passing of the Banking (Amendment) Bill last December, banking licences are now open to new players.
Although the economy is still in the doldrums, there are some positive signs. For one, inflation has eased and, for another, growth expectations are up. The Congress win in Karnataka has also boosted the party's morale at the Centre. All these have given rise to speculation that if the government is able to play its ace - get the food security bill through Parliament in the monsoon session - it may well hold general elections, scheduled for May 2014, ahead of schedule. Speculation has been rife about a general election along with Assembly polls slated for the end of the year in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram.
But the consensus among most political observers remains that it is unlikely, and not only because Lok Sabha members across the political spectrum are reluctant to face early polls. "Why would any sensible government go in for early polls when so much work is still to be completed?" says P. C. Chacko, Congress spokesman.
Party sources claim the government realises the signs of economic recovery are still tenuous and the Karnataka victory may not represent a national political trend. The UPA certainly does not want to repeat the mistake made by the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government which advanced the general election by about six months in 2004. The NDA confidently assumed there was a wave in favour of the BJP after its impressive victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh at end of 2003. Despite its confidence, it was trounced.
Instead of looking at early polls, the Congress is banking on populist measures such as the direct cash transfer scheme and the food security bill to further boost support for the party. It hopes these will work the same magic the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Rs 72,000-crore farm loan waiver did for it in the 2009 general election, bringing it a second, resounding victory. But industrialists say the government cannot afford to focus on just a few schemes for the rest of its tenure. Singhania says passing laws or approving projects is not enough if they are not implemented well.
Chacko says the focus now is on passing the food security and land acquisition bills. While the government is exploring the ordinance route for both, he says there is no consensus with the Law Department - different legal experts hold different views. "These can be game-changers for the country. But the opposition does not want these to be passed," he says. "We are in talks with various political parties to pass the food bill at the earliest."
Thus, in all likelihood, Singh will complete his second term. Even if an ally walks away or the Opposition moves a no-confidence motion, the government will muster up the numbers to scrape through. As the UPA runs its last lap before its mandate runs out, Singh's reputation as an economic reformer is certainly at stake. And the quality of his leadership could well determine whether the beleaguered UPA has a shot at a hat trick.