Twin verdicts: clean up fast Tough lesson from victory

The Telegraph

MANINI CHATTERJEE

New Delhi, May 8: The Congress today won a decisive victory in Karnataka after a gap of 14 years and seized upon the win as a welcome shower in the midst of a prolonged drought that has sapped the Grand Old Party of much credibility and scorched its government in Delhi with scams upon scams.

But with the Supreme Court’s strictures against the Centre’s handling of the coal allocation investigations coming on the same day and the question mark over the fate of two discredited cabinet ministers still hovering in the air, no one was quite sure whether the gust of cool breeze from the south of the Vindhyas portends better days to come or would prove as ephemeral as a passing summer cloud.

In and of itself, the Karnataka verdict could not have been sweeter. Not since 1999 when the Congress won 132 seats in the 224-member Assembly has the Congress managed to come anywhere near the halfway mark in a state that was once considered a bastion.

That the Congress has managed to perform so well despite the shroud of gloom and doom attached to it nationally shows that all is not lost for the party, especially in areas where it has strong roots and a relatively robust organisation.

But more than its own handsome tally of 121 seats this time, the bigger reason for the Congress’s cheer is the complete decimation of the BJP, its arch national rival, in Karnataka.

The BJP had made history in 2009 by forming its first state government in southern India, and many regarded Karnataka — much like Gujarat before it — as the ideal saffron laboratory that would marry Hindutva with a vibrant development agenda.

The main reason for the BJP’s rout is the exit of its erstwhile “tallest” leader in the state, B.S. Yeddyurappa, who was forced to quit as chief minister on account of corruption charges.

The BJP’s failure to provide a clean government and the ugly infighting that made the “party with a difference” acquire the label “a party wracked by differences” have also dented the main Opposition party’s campaign against the Congress’s corruption.

A third reason for the Congress to crow is the failure of the much-vaunted “Namo” magic to make even the slightest dent in Karnataka. True, Narendra Modi did not campaign extensively in the state but he does not seem to have made any impact even in the urban strongholds where he addressed big rallies towards the end of the election campaign.

But while the Congress is making much of the fact that the people of Karnataka have “rejected” the “corrupt” BJP and is trying to portray the result as a vote for the Congress-led UPA government’s policies as a whole, party veterans realise that such a reading would be simplistic and delusionary.

The ire of the Karnataka voter was directed against the incumbent government which was seen as mired in corruption and caught in a state of drift. From being one of the foremost states of India, propelled in part by the IT boom, Karnataka had slipped on several counts over the last five years and the lack of governance was seen as the main cause for this.

The UPA II government at the Centre evokes the same kind of disenchantment and dismay among large sections of Indians today. Almost ever since it returned to power for a second term four years ago, the Manmohan Singh dispensation has been buffeted by one mega scam after another, and the sense of drift has been compounded by a faltering economy in a recession-hit global environment.

Despite some recovery on the economic front since P. Chidambaram took over as finance minister last September, the government’s as well as the Congress party’s overall image has failed to recover from sustained battering.

In fact, things have only worsened in recent weeks with two of the senior-most ministers in the government — law minister Ashwani Kumar and railway minister P. K. Bansal — facing charges of gross impropriety and worse.

Although the apex court did not directly indict the law minister today, Congress insiders are aware that in public perception Kumar has already lost all credibility. The case of Bansal is worse: his nephew has been caught red-handed taking a bribe, and the bribe-giver would not have handed over such large sums of money without a guaranteed quid pro quo which only the minister was in a position to give.

The Karnataka victory is certainly a morale booster for the Congress but top leaders in the party are only too aware that it will mean nothing in the larger scheme of things if the party and the government do not put their house in order — and quickly.

There is a growing clamour within the party to use the momentum provided by the Karnataka victory to turn a new leaf and make the most of the time left — less than a year if the general election is held on schedule — to clean up its act.

That would mean sacking the two ministers and doing one last reshuffle to put in place a government that can make up, at least partially, for a poor innings in the slog overs.

Sonia Gandhi, it is well known, is keen to push key pieces of legislation such as the food security bill and the land acquisition bill at least six months before elections since she believes these can prove to be “game changers” much in the way the MNREGA or the loan-waiver scheme had been before the 2009 polls.

But as the events in Parliament over the past week showed, the government simply cannot get any bill passed in the face of a belligerent Opposition that has found enough ammunition to put a scam-tainted government on the mat.

The BJP has much to worry about: the Karnataka debacle is certain to exacerbate the fault lines at the very top of the party with the pro-Modi section openly blaming L.K. Advani and his “cabal” for driving out Yeddyurappa and inviting defeat. The battle between these two sections is likely to intensify as the general election draws near.

But it is the Congress and the government that it runs in New Delhi which faces a far bigger test. Drawing the right lessons from defeat is tough enough; it is much tougher to learn from victory.

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