Any relief over the Congress having stood up to bullying by its ally, the Trinamool Congress, over the choice of its presidential nominee will necessarily be transitory. The Congress was essentially left with no choice when Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee snubbed her party’s ally and its president – as well as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – by rejecting Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature and proposing Dr Singh’s name instead. That the Congress finally got its act together, firmed up lines of communication with Ms Banerjee’s putative ally, Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, and ensured that the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) other constituents lined up behind Mr Mukherjee shows the party is still capable of manoeuvring when it wishes to. But its errors of political management over the past three years have been so vast that, even on what should be its day of triumph, the headlines also reflected the severity of its problems. In Andhra Pradesh, the once rock-solid source of two successive mandates at the Centre, the breakaway faction of Jagan Mohan Reddy, the son of a former Congress chief minister, swept a series of by-elections, winning 15 out of the 18 Assembly seats in play as well as the sole Lok Sabha seat.
The Congress’ weakness in Andhra Pradesh is a product partly of the Centre’s ill-advised raking up of the Telangana issue. The government had unilaterally declared in December 2009 that the process for statehood was being initiated, and then the Congress had to backtrack. Its legislators from the state are hopelessly divided on the question of statehood, and that has paralysed its government’s functioning. Meanwhile, its antipathy to state-level icons has caused the legacy of the hugely popular Congress chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy to be hijacked by the late leader’s son. The Central Bureau of Investigation had put the younger Mr Reddy behind bars on charges of possessing illegal assets, but, clearly, that did not diminish his party’s strength. If the Congress has lost Andhra Pradesh, this is bad news; for it has already lost two other big states. Its relationship with the Trinamool in West Bengal seems beyond repair. And its ally in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, has been eclipsed by the other Dravidian party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal provided a crucial boost to the UPA in 2009. Unless it recovers its politics, re-election has become much harder, even though the Bharatiya Janata Party, the chief opposition party, is also in trouble, as was evident in the recent public display of squabbles over who should be its prime ministerial candidate in the next elections. With the two major political parties showing signs of a decline, the regional parties are likely to play an increasingly greater role in national politics.
On the economic front too, the prospects of improved governance appear dim. Increasingly, New Delhi is abdicating its responsibility, blaming the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) or the euro zone for India’s stalled growth. The beginning of this week sees both the RBI’s credit policy and the results of crucial elections in Greece. Dr Singh, however, will be off at the G20, and Mr Mukherjee distracted by his presidential bid. Nor is there any clear indication that strained relations with Ms Banerjee imply movement on the many reform fronts her party has blocked. This will call for some deft handling of the economy by the government, without which both the UPA and the economy may continue to drift.