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A crisis of governance is paralyzing India

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — Despite all the claims of India as a rising power, the country is suffering a serious crisis. The credibility of the government in New Delhi is being tested by a plethora of corruption scandals in recent months. From the Commonwealth Games to telecommunications there are scandals galore and the government is finding it difficult to govern amid demands by the opposition that it hand over the inquiry to a joint parliamentary committee.

Rejecting opposition claims that he had been trying to avoid questioning over the telecommunications scandal, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has now offered to appear before the parliamentary committee investigating the case. He has said that as proof of his bona fides he would appear before the government committee examining the scandal if it chooses to ask him to do so.

A bizarre spectacle is unfolding before the nation. The government that has ruled for the past six years now wants the country to believe that it has nothing to do with the charade that has become of governance. And the nation is now being informed that the ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), will soon start seriously tackling corruption.

Describing corruption as “a disease spreading throughout our society,” the Congress chief, the Congress party chief and the most powerful politician in the country, Sonia Gandhi, went as far as outlining a proposal to fight official graft during the Congress party’s plenary. Unsurprisingly, just a year and a half into UPA-II’s five-year term there is widespread disillusionment with the government, particularly in the corporate sector.

Although Singh still enjoys wide support, his government is seen as one of the most corrupt in recent years. He doesn’t talk to those he is leading, and he is a man who seems no longer in charge of his own government. Sonia Gandhi grandly talks of our shrinking moral universe. More damagingly, recent WikiLeaks revelations underline how the highest echelons of the Congress party have little or no understanding of the greatest dangers facing the country.

Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent, is reported to have informed the American ambassador that radicalized Hindu groups were more of a threat to India than the terrorist organization Lashkar- e-Toiba (LeT). In doing so he has not only demonstrated his lack of understanding of the national security threats that India faces but has also damaged India’s credibility in its fight against extremist groups.

So on terrorism India is back to where it was before the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. National security issues should transcend politics but the lack of civil dialogue among political parties in India prevents this from happening. As a result, Indians are stuck between the grave incompetence of the Congress party and the cynical political opportunism of the main opposition party, the BJP.

An issue that should have united political parties across the political spectrum in a common purpose continues to divide them. It has once again become a Hindu versus Muslim debate: Whose terrorists are better, mine or yours?

At a time when India needs effective institutional capacity to fight ever-more sophisticated terrorist networks, Indian police and intelligence services are demoralized to an unprecedented extent. The blatant communalizing of the process under which the security forces have been forced to call off searches and interrogations for fear of offending this or that community has led to a situation where the security services have become risk-averse.

So long as India’s response to terrorism is characterized by shameless appeals along religious lines with political parties trying to consolidate their vote banks as opposed to coming together to fight the menace, India will continue to be viewed as a soft target by its adversaries and it will continue to fight terrorists in its streets.

Those who seek to challenge the authority of the Indian state feel emboldened to take advantage of the paralyzed decision-making in New Delhi. Maladministration, dithering and incompetence are making India ungovernable with a growing loss of respect for all major state institutions.

India is becoming an increasingly corrupt nation, with the political establishment, police and lower judiciary playing large roles in this decline. And the corruption is having a corrosive impact on India’s social fabric by undermining the trust of ordinary Indians in their nation’s political system, political institutions and leadership.

For a party that won a decisive mandate just a year and a half back, this pervasive decline is difficult to decipher. On the economic front, the Congress party has not allowed the government to proceed with a second generation of reforms. Socially, the stench of corruption is now too odious to bear. All major government institutions are struggling to regain legitimacy. The ruling party is rapidly losing the political capital it earned in the last election. There is no coherence in the government. All departments are working as if there are no national imperatives, only departmental interests.

If Singh does not assert his authority, the leadership vacuum in New Delhi will ensure that India never realizes its vast potential.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College in London.