As if low growth, high inflation and
a poor monsoon were not enough trouble for the Manmohan Singh
government, it faced further problems with an outbreak of ethnic
and communal violence in Assam, massive power cuts on two
successive days and a series of bomb blasts in Pune, which were
evidently the handiwork of a terrorist group. Mercifully, the
blasts' intensity was low key and so only one person was injured.
The violence in Assam was a throwback to the communal and
parochial clashes of the 1980s when the state was in the throes of
an anti-foreigner agitation. Although it was at the time directed
mainly against the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, some of the
longstanding settlers from East Pakistan and West Bengal were also
targeted because they spoke the same language as the Bangladeshis.
While the influx of the Bengali-speaking peasants from the east
into Assam is a century-old process, it acquired an anti-Muslim
overtone in the 1980s because of the growth of the Bharatiya
Janata Party's (BJP) influence on the Hindu middle class Assamese.
This time, it is the Bodo tribals who have clashed with the Muslim
immigrants, predictably prompting BJP leader L.K. Advani to fan
the communal flames during a visit although land disputes are
believed to be the main cause of the tension and ill-will between
the two communities.
As the violence continued for several days, claiming more than 40
lives, the centre came under attack from the Congress's own chief
minister, Tarun Gogoi, for not responding quickly enough to his
request for sending the army. Subsequently, when the then home
minister, P. Chidambaram, visited the relief camps, he was booed.
Chidambaram has since become the finance minister, but the episode
is evidently a blot on the capabilities of the centre, already
under attack for a long time for policy paralysis.
But, even as Assam simmered down, there was no respite for the
Manmohan Singh government since northern, eastern and
north-eastern India experienced prolonged periods of blackouts
because of the tripping of the power lines. The outage was said to
have been caused by the overdrawing of power by several states,
mainly Uttar Pradesh, which has denied the charge.
But the plunge into darkness also underlined the yawning gap
between demand and supply, pointing to a failure to build up
installed capacity, which portends ill for the future. The
indignation caused by darkened homes, stalled long-distance and
metro trains, disruption of hospital services and other hardships
was accentuated by the almost immediate "promotion" of the Power
Minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, to the powerful home ministry.
Since the seemingly unwarranted elevation denoted to most people
the rewarding of loyalty at the expense of merit, the step further
undermined the government's position. To make matters worse,
Shinde, who is a Dalit, lost no time in playing identity politics
by heaping praise on the Nehru-Gandhi family, which, he said, "has
always taken care of the welfare of the backward castes" and that
the "Dalits can always take bigger responsibility".
The future will show whether Shinde can live up to this claim, but
what his observation confirms is that he looks to the Congress's
first family for his upward mobility rather than to the prime
minister, as the cabinet system decrees. He is fortunate that he
is succeeding Chidambaram, whose tenure in the home ministry
(after the "spectacularly inept" stint of Shivraj Patil, to quote
Wikileaks) has been marked by welcome initiatives in setting up
the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the National
Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) although the latter has been
stalled by non-Congress states on the ground that it violates the
The Pune bomb blasts have been seen as a reminder by the
terrorists to the new home minister that they have not faded away
after the Mumbai mayhem of Nov 26, 2008, and the German bakery
blasts in Pune of Feb 13, 2010. After his forgettable spell at the
power ministry, and the fact that his name cropped up in relation
to the Adarsh housing society scam, Shinde is beginning what is
undoubtedly his most important assignment till now.
The changes in the home and finance ministries have been
necessitated by the elevation of the former finance minister,
Pranab Mukherjee, to the president's post. It is possible that
Chidambaram's assumption of the finance portfolio will be welcomed
by the investors. But it is too early to say how effective he will
be in reviving the "animal spirits" in the business environment,
as promised by Manmohan Singh during the few days he acted as
finance minister after Mukherjee stepped down.
After Assam, Pune and the power failures, the only good news for
the government is Anna Hazare's decision to call off the fasts of
his own and some of his colleagues. The tepid response to his
agitation - once Baba Ramdev had to bring in his followers to
boost the crowd presence - may have persuaded the anti-corruption
crusader not only to end the fasts but even to announce the
decision that his movement will assume a political colour.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be
reached at email@example.com