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Challenges for new Prime Minister of India

Dr. Manmohan Singh, a former World Bank economist, is India’s new Prime Minister.
After a sudden change of mind, Congress President Sonia Gandhi decided to reject the Prime Ministerial crown that everyone in her party offered her in a single voice. Instead, she chose the scholarly Dr. Singh, highly respected for his gentle disposition and silent efficiency, to head the new ministry of the United Progressive Alliance, a coalition headed by the Congress, first time in its history. Also, India has, for the first time in its 57-year history, a Prime Minister who is a member of a minority community. His nomination for the highest office in the country received unanimous endorsement by party members and all other non-Congress parties, chiefly because he is not a career politician.

The coalition begins its career with several handicaps waiting in the sidelines to capture center stage at the most opportune time. The first is the size and diversity of the Alliance representing a kaleidoscope of undefined interests and hidden agendas. The second is the inexperience and distaste of the Congress for coalitions. The Congress itself is a divided house. However, the media may be wrong in predicting that there will be two power centers: Sonia Gandhi and Dr. Singh. Fortunately, neither of them is a power seeker of the traditional Congress kind. In fact, both will co-operate with each other in dealing with problems their colleague may throw up.

Dr. Singh, being a former World Bank man, is likely to be at the receiving end of hostility from the pugnacious Left, dangling its additional accrual of strength as a constant Damocles’ sword. The Marxists and other leftists have the highest tally in the new Parliament next only to that of the Congress party. P.Chidambaram, the new finance minister, will have to either slow down the pace of economic reform Dr. Singh had inaugurated when he was the finance minister in P.V.Narasimha Rao’s government or give in to Leftist pressures. The Marxists have already begun clamoring for induction of new items to the common minimum program in drafting which they had the upper hand. They want a reversal of the present economic environment, which even if it is acceptable to other coalition partners, will need support from the Indian industry which has tasted unrestrained growth in the last five years and also from India’s major trade partner, the United States which is the main fountain of outsourcing IT jobs.

For the last three years, India has been in the news all over the world as an emerging economic giant and a software power. Its economy is now very strongly networked with global economy. This is not the time to discuss the merits or demerits of the shifts in official economic thinking. What has happened cannot be undone without causing a major economic upheaval, the ultimate victims of which will be the economic underclasses. The Left has already begun to foreclose the debate on the economic direction that the country must take. If Chidambaram chooses to keep pace with the tempo of economic development the BJP had set, he may have to antagonize the poor. If he travels with the Leftists, the economy will be neither here nor there.

The Congress will have to not only familiarize with but also adjust to the new foreign affairs scenario that has emerged during its eight-year hibernation. The previous government is credited to have forged an open-ended foreign policy that abjured east-west or north-south ideological dogmas. The main driving force behind India’s foreign policy for the last six years was the country’s interests. The National Democratic Alliance moved away from the nonaligned rhetorical straitjacket. The new ministry of Dr Singh will find it difficult to make major departures from the path paved by its predecessor. The Vajpayee government made significant gains in the country’s relations with not only China and Pakistan, but also Russia and the United States. The new Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, a former foreign secretary, is unlikely to disturb these arrangements.

The new Prime Minister will have to manage a bigger crowd of fifteen parties altercating with each other on the basis of caste, religion, region and personal egos. The Congress baggage is heavier than the motley BJP had to contend with. It calls for acute political wile that is not Dr. Singh’s strong point. The parties that have now joined the Congress-led alliance and parties that are offering support from the outside have a long history of alternately wooing and sniping at the Congress at one time or the other. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of M.Karunanidhi was a part of the BJP coalition till a day before the elections and also a supporter of Sri Lanka’s LTTE that assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, husband of Sonia Gandhi. In the just concluded election, the Marxists ensured that the Congress party did not win a single parliamentary seat from Kerala. The National Congress Party of Sharad Pawar separated from the Congress on the question of Sonia Gandhi’s citizenship.

Most of the Ministers in the new government are naturally Congressmen, besides members from other friendly parties who contested the 2004 election in the company of Congress. Three major groups are outside the ministry: the Leftists with 59 seats. The Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav with 36 seats and the Bahujan Samaj Party of Ms. Mayawati with 18 seats are without representation in the government. Together they account for 54 MPs. Dr. Singh’s ministry has only two ministerial berths for Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state. The Congress has snubbed both these parties creating for itself a problem that will not go away without diluting the essence of its social manifesto. The two parties command the loyalties of Dalits who are a major chunk of the Indian population. In addition, Mulayam Singh Yadav has a large Muslim following. This factor will play a crucial role when the Ayodhya issue raises its ugly head Because Ayodhya is in Uttar Pradesh.

The distribution of portfolios created a lot of heartburning. Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal has demanded the home ministry, a demand not acceptable to the Congress. Yadav is asked to head the railway ministry that his rival from Bihar Ram Vilas Paswan was pressing for. Paswan now has fertilizers, chemicals and steel. Sharad Pawar who sought defense got agriculture. One of the senior most Congressmen Pranab Mukherjee wanted finance and got defense. Laloo Prasad Yadav, Sharad Pawar and Ram Vilas Paswan who begin their term in office with unquenched ambition are future sources of trouble.

Dasu Krishnamoorty
Special to PRAVDA.RU

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