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India's Congress getting its act together
Publication Date : 12-02-2013
In the last four months, India's ruling Congress party has done more than it has in the preceding three years of its second term in office to salvage its prestige.
From market reforms and tough budget cuts, to taking savvy political risks and strong security action - and even the rare execution of terrorists - it may have turned around its fortunes just in time to undermine the opposition in the build-up to next year's elections.
"The Congress is looking much surer of itself, much more confident about what it is doing," said Omprakash Mishra, head of New Delhi think-tank the Global India Foundation. "There has been a certain amount of risk-taking. So there is a much better appreciation of the difficulties and constraints that the party faced."
Over the weekend, Mohammed Afzal Guru, a man convicted of conspiring in the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, was executed. Underscoring the political overtones of the move, at least three people have been killed in protests against the hanging in the troubled region of Kashmir.
It follows the execution of the lone surviving gunman of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, who was hanged about three months ago.
The tough action on national security follows a raft of bold, proactive policy moves that began four months ago with the opening up of the retail sector, raising of railway fares, cutting of diesel subsidies and reduction of expenditure.
Indeed, Congress appears to have abandoned some of the political expedience that had hampered governance, even replacing an important but truant ally that had opposed reforms.
All this has come after the party had seemed to hit rock bottom.
Halfway through his second term, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's reformist image had been hit by corruption scandals, weak leadership, infighting and a sense of complacency.
Economic headwinds and policy paralysis threatened a downgrade of India's sovereign ratings.
The opposition, led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), stalled Parliament, worsening a crisis of governance.
Congress also lost some key state elections.
"They had their backs to the wall," said Amitabh Gupta, a retired political science professor from Delhi University.
"They had to fight back, and fight back in a way that would take the sting out of the opposition."
For example, while the reform measures have boosted the stock market and the investor confidence needed to revive the slowing economy, the decisions to hang the two militants are seen to have blunted the BJP's charge that the government has been soft on terrorism. This has led many to question the timing of the executions. India will hold elections in 10 states this year, half of which are ruled by Congress or a Congress alliance. Three are ruled by the BJP.
The national elections must be held by May next year, but could be called earlier.
Congress has denied any political consideration behind the decisions.
"Our government has taken tougher decisions on national security matters than any other previous government," Information Minister Manish Tewari told reporters.
Building on the latest policy measures, Congress is also expected to roll out some populist schemes, including one to provide a guaranteed amount of food grain cheaply to the poor.
Indeed, the Congress party may be gaining momentum as much for its late policy surge as for the opposition's inability to capitalise on the government's earlier failings.
The BJP, for instance, is struggling with infighting over its prime ministerial candidate, eroding its credibility as a viable alternative to Congress.
Most in the party believe their best bet would be the charismatic Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, although his pan-India appeal is questioned because of religious riots in his state in 2002 when he was in power.
"The BJP is in disarray. The issues they had, they have not been able to exploit properly," said the Global India Foundation's Mishra. "On the other hand, the Congress seems to be getting its act together."