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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 October 2007, 11:11 GMT
Can India's PM recover?
By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi

Manmohan Singh
PM Singh's standing has taken a hit

Has India's ruling Congress party-led government been reduced to a lame duck one after its Communist allies appear to have scuppered a landmark civilian nuclear deal with the US?

Has PM Manmohan Singh's standing been diminished after he backtracked within weeks of daring the communists to try blackball the agreement?

On both accounts, the answer seems to be an emphatic yes.

Politicians and pundits alike say the way that the Congress party appears to have caved in to its Communist allies, putting at risk the nuclear deal which most say is largely favourable to India, is a hugely embarrassing setback for Mr Singh and the party, led by Sonia Gandhi.

'Sad moment'

At home, Congress stands accused of being ineffectual and failing to recognise the basic realities of how foreign policy is actually intertwined with domestic politics.

Abroad, India's image as a responsible deal maker has taken a beating.

"The upshot of this is a weak and indecisive government. More seriously, the party at the heart of coalition has lost its hold on the situation," says analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.

At one point Mr Singh appeared ready to ditch his left-wing allies and risk an early election rather than make concessions to the opponents of the nuclear deal.

Now he has displayed more the qualities of a survivor than a gambler.

"It is a sad moment for Indian politics when yet another immensely able and well meaning man, who all wanted to succeed, displays the curious powerlessness of power, the sort only mere survivors put up with," says analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

When he became PM in 2005, Mr Singh set out a stirring agenda around his favourite themes - reforming India's rotting public institutions, revving up flagging economic reforms, ramping up higher education.

He then made the nuclear deal - seen as vital given India's poor natural energy resources - the centrepiece of his government.

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi
Congress is a dynasty driven party

It was a tough row to hoe for a prime minister who has never actually won an election.

But then Sonia Gandhi took charge of the party to ensure that politics remained the art of the possible and the allies were kept happy.

Much of that now appears to be in tatters. The PM's efforts at revamping public institutions have been half-hearted, economic reforms are in painful slow motion, and plans to boost higher education are stillborn.

Now the nuclear deal appears to be as good as dead.

The much-publicised $2bn jobs for work programme to alleviate rural poverty looks a retread of similar programmes in the past. It has had a patchy record in its first year.

'Politics of stealth'

Sonia Gandhi's political management skills have been questioned after she failed to placate the communists or stop other favourable allies from openly expressing misgivings about the nuclear deal.

"She failed to assess the political ground which has been slipping away from the ruling alliance. The failure is of both the players," says Mr Rangarajan.

Manmohan Singh is now trying to make sense of his and his government's performance by pointing out that policy is impeded by India's fractious politics.

This would appear to be a tacit admission of how the Gandhi family-driven Congress party is struggling to cope with the era of coalition politics.

Coalition governments have become the order of the day as the appeal of Congress has declined.

Critics like analyst Swapan Dasgupta accuse the party of indulging in the "politics of stealth, which did not take into account the fact that policy initiative should be fully backed up politically by the party and its allies."

A Communist party protest against the nuclear deal
The communists have stiffly opposed the nuclear deal

But more seriously, analysts say, that it points to an unprecedented stasis in the party.

Why, they say, didn't Mr Singh face down the communists and risk an election, given that the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hobbled by a bickering leadership and an equally painful poverty of vision?

What now, does Congress represent for the future?

Congress party rally
Congress needs to reinvent itself as a party

Most of the previous Congress prime ministers represented something which grabbed public attention - Nehru had his ideas about India and the world. Indira Gandhi had her famous 'garibi hatao' (remove poverty) programme. Rajiv Gandhi sold himself as a moderniser in a hurry.

But, as Mahesh Rangarajan says, it is "unclear what Sonia stands for other than opposing the BJP, and some pro-poor concerns".

Her son, Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent, has yet to make clear any substantial programme, or what his political ideology is.

The party still hopes that the dynasty name will work magic in India.

But politics is increasingly fractured and regionalised.

Grass roots caste-based regional leaders are seizing the advantage and the Gandhi name no longer guarantees a win at the hustings.




SEE ALSO
Is India-US nuclear accord dead?
16 Oct 07 |  South Asia
India PM stresses nuclear gains
31 Aug 07 |  South Asia
Indian cabinet backs nuclear deal
25 Jul 07 |  South Asia
Doubts over US-India nuclear deal
18 May 07 |  South Asia
Mid-terms fallout on nuclear deal
09 Nov 06 |  South Asia
US panel backs India nuclear deal
28 Jun 06 |  South Asia

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