As he turns 80, after what must have been two of the most difficult years of his career, a few things suddenly seem to be going right for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Thanks to the economic measures that his government announced just less than a fortnight ago, the national conversation has turned away from the problems with coal mine allocations to the private sector, many of which were carried out during the period he held additional charge of the coal ministry. The Congress Working Committee, meeting on Tuesday, reportedly backed the measures firmly, giving Dr Singh public political support, which he does not usually receive. The economic package had the additional benefit of pushing Trinamool Congress (TMC) head Mamata Banerjee, whose relationship with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has been one of habitual brinkmanship, actually over the brink. The TMC has left the alliance, but the UPA seems only stronger as a result. And not one of the measures had to be rolled back or even slightly diluted.
It is far too soon to declare this a turning point in Dr Singh’s tenure as prime minister. It is all too easy to imagine UPA-II, suddenly faced with some new crisis, lapsing into inactivity. Nor has any of the measures taken recently added up to truly comprehensive reform. However, it certainly points to the benefits of real, on-the-ground action as opposed to the purely political coalition management that had kept UPA-II secure but inactive till that point. The confrontation with Ms Banerjee, for example, could have gone very differently. A partial rollback on diesel prices and LPG cylinder limits, with an offer of some central money to deal with West Bengal’s debt, might well have kept Ms Banerjee in the ruling coalition. However, that would have happened at the expense of the Centre’s fiscal deficit and the prime minister’s already-tattered authority. Indeed, oddly enough, perhaps the departure of the UPA’s “troubleshooter”, Pranab Mukherjee, to Rashtrapati Bhavan brought on the crisis he had long averted — strengthening the UPA in the process. The greater cohesion within the Congress, and in support of its government, is welcome and overdue. It must be sustained, for without it individual ministers will again begin to assume that reform, growth and governance are things of concern only to Race Course Road, and are thus irrelevant to politics and power, the matters of concern at 10 Janpath.
The ruling coalition must seize this moment to detach itself from the miasma of corruption and misgovernance allegations that have surrounded it. Developments in Maharashtra show a way forward. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, having learnt from Dr Singh’s troubles, perhaps, that ignoring corruption allegations is dangerous, has chosen not to indulge his deputy, the Nationalist Congress Party’s Ajit Pawar — and has instead precipitated a crisis by investigating deals in the irrigation sector Mr Pawar had controlled as minister. Mr Pawar has resigned, and 18 other NCP ministers have offered to do so. The central leadership of the Congress, if it is serious about demonstrating energy – and if it has learned the right lessons from its two years of trouble – must ensure it backs Mr Chavan and creates the political space for him to try to clean up Maharashtra politics.