By Amulya Ganguli
The assembly election results are not all good news for the country, the government that leads it and states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab.
While the setbacks suffered by the Congress mean that the Manmohan Singh government will be unable to take any bold initiative on the reforms front, the scene will continue to be uncertain in Uttar Pradesh despite the majority secured by the Samajwadi Party (SP) although the outcome is expected to favour stability and purposefulness.
But the reasons for the pessimism about Uttar Pradesh are, first, the fact that the SP hasn’t won so much by the dint of its own merit as on the rebound from the huge disenchantment with the last Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government, especially among the upper castes and Muslims. And, secondly, because the signs of the SP’s old behavioural flaws became evident even before the results were announced when the party’s workers went on a rampage in Jhansi and subsequently in other towns.
True the SP leaders, and especially its rising star, Akhilesh Yadav, are aware of this damaging trait in their outfit and will undoubtedly try hard to restrain the cadres. But, just as a similar promise by Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal has not been noticeably successful, it is hard to say how effective Akhilesh will be in dousing a propensity for which the SP has long been known and which led to its resounding defeat five years ago.
Besides, Akhilesh is an untested leader who is surrounded by old war horses who may be difficult to tame and who probably know of no other way to be politically effective except via the flaunting of money and muscle power – the familiar roads to success in the Hindi heartland.
It will be several weeks, therefore, before one will know whether the electoral verdict is a boon or a bane for the state. In any event, even if the violence subsides, the first stint of Akhilesh in the government in whatever capacity will come under scrutiny.
In Uttarakhand, the virtual tie between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has facilitated the scope for horse-trading now and in future, which means that no government will be able to settle down.
Although Parkash Singh Badal’s government in Punjab does not face the problem of unruly cadres or the threat of defections, its negative feature is of a different nature. Having come to power with promises of freebies such as atta-dal, electricity and water, the state government is likely to make a mockery of fiscal discipline, setting a bad example even for the centre where Pranab Mukherjee’s confession about spending sleepless nights over subsidies will acquire a darker hue.
It is only Manipur and Goa which are likely to remain trouble-free for the time being with the Congress and the BJP respectively running stable governments. But it is not possible to be too sure of Goa, where the 40-member legislature tends to evoke a comment from tourist guides about ‘chalis chor’ vide ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’.
But, even as the states go their own way, the focus will be on the government at the centre. Battered and bruised as it has been over the last one year with accusations of scams and policy paralysis, it will have to find a way to avoid being seen as hobbling towards the finishing line in 2014. Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s assurance that there will be no change of prime minister will only be a mild relief to Manmohan Singh since Rahul Gandhi’s second failure after Bihar in 2010 to rejuvenate the Congress in Uttar Pradesh has ruled him out any way.
Having had to deny twice last year that he was a “lame duck”, the prime minister will have to ensure that he will not have to issue a third refutation. The best way to do so will be to opt for big ticket reforms. But with one ally, the SP, having become more powerful than before and thereby further emboldening a second, the Trinamool Congress, the government will hesitate to take a major step. It now probably realises the mistake it made when it backtracked on the introduction of foreign investment in the retail sector in the hope that the post-poll scene will be more propitious.
Had it taken the step earlier, especially since the initiative has Rahul Gandhi’s support, it may have been able to call the Trinamool Congress’ bluff. But the government’s ideological conviction was not strong enough to overcome its timidity. It is now probably too late for the government to shed its diffidence or muster sufficient courage to explain to the parties wearing regional blinkers the indispensability of market-oriented policies. But, unless it does so, it will suffer the humiliation of being pushed around by contemptuous partners, which will undermine its political credibility.