Political chicanery touched a new low in the closing days of 2011, and as the New Year dawned India’s ruling alliance and the opposition were blaming each other for the sad state of affairs.
The economy was not doing well. The annual growth rate slipped to 6.9 per cent. The government, forced to backtrack on opening up of retail trade to foreign direct investment, was clueless on how to move forward.
Inflation, rising interest rates and the continuing global economic crisis hit the stock exchange, causing investors a loss of Rs 20,000 billion during the year. Foreign investors, who had pumped more than $29 billion into the Indian economy, began pulling out. By year-end, they had withdrawn about $ 320 million, damaging the rupee in the process.
The news from the agriculture sector, which plays an important if declining role, too, was depressing with farmers’ deteriorating condition giving rise to fresh worries.
All across the country the marginalised people were battling with gnawing poverty on the one side and domestic and international conglomerates, intruding into their homelands to set up mining or manufacturing projects, on the other.
Little wonder that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his New Year’s Day exhortation to the people to work together, avoided dwelling on the year gone by and tried instead to put the focus on the challenges ahead. But how can one work out a reliable strategy to face the future without looking back on the past and drawing appropriate lessons?
Corruption in high places was laid bare during the year as investigating agencies, pursuing cases under judicial prodding, arrested a few politicians, bureaucrats and business personnel in connection with Central and state scams. Thanks to the pressure built up by social activist Anna Hazare’s campaign the political establishment was compelled to think of a new anti-corruption dispensation.
No one expected the bill the government brought forward on this connection to have a smooth passage through Parliament since the polity was deeply divided. As it happened, the parties got together and made sure, in their own disparate ways, that the measure fell through.
The government had extended the session of Parliament by three days to discuss and adopt the bill. The lower house, sitting till midnight, adopted it on the first day itself but rejected the move to give the proposed ombudsmen constitutional status. The upper house took up the bill on the third day, discussed it till midnight and then adjourned without voting on it. Had there been a vote, the house, in which the ruling coalition is in a minority, would have rejected the bill or mauled it beyond recognition.
Anna Hazare and his chief lieutenants, who began a three-day fast, coinciding with the session of Parliament, gave up the protest midway, disillusioned by the poor response their campaign evoked this time despite continuous live coverage by the private television channels.
While the government can take comfort from the fact that the opposition and the Hazare movement, too, did not cover themselves with glory, it cannot afford to go easy on anti-graft measures. Its credibility is low, and it has to redeem itself to play its part in facing the challenges on the economic and social fronts.
The current difficulties notwithstanding, the economy is inherently strong, and the West is looking up to the 350-million strong Indian middle class as a force that can help in the global recovery. However, the government has to be mindful of the presence of an even bigger mass of people waiting to be lifted up.
The inclusive development the government keeps talking about is yet to translate itself into reality. The Prime Minister, in his New Year’s Day message, spoke of the need to focus on banishment of poverty in the 12th five-year plan, which begins in April 2012.
A big test awaits the political class in Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls in February along with four smaller states.
The Congress, which heads the central government, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition, were in the fourth and third position respectively in the last Assembly elections in the state, which the Bahujan Samaj Party won with a thin majority. How well they do in this sprawling state will have a bearing on their prospects in the parliamentary elections, due in 2014.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 2, 2012.