Nov 29, 2008

India - Congress may pay political reckoning

James Lamont

India’s Hindu nationalist opposition senses victory in the shoot out on Mumbai’s Marine Drive. Its own.

For months the Bharatiya Janata party has lashed the government for being soft on terror. With every bomb attack in a major city this year, the criticism has grown in intensity. As terrorists have ticked off Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Bangalore, Delhi and Guwahati, the BJP has chorused that the Congress-led government cannot protect India’s citizens and does not take national security seriously.

Against these assaults a mild-mannered Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, has urged calm, praying public fear does not translate into persecution of, or worse, retaliation against the country’s 140m Muslim minority. Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, and her son Rahul have likewise preached against divisive politics as ethnic and religious conflict has flared.

This week’s attack on Mumbai was of a ferocity that thrusts India’s financial centre into a club of terror victims alongside New York, London, Madrid and Bali. It has many believing that the balance has tipped in the BJP’s favour. The government’s achievements of sending a rocket to the moon and clinching a nuclear deal with US President George W. Bush seem strangely insignificant as gunmen rampage through the Taj Mahal hotel.

“The Congress party is headed for a meltdown in Maharashtra [Mumbai’s home state],” predicted MJ Akbar, a respected commentator and former editor of the Asian Age. He says the government will be unable to stem a tide of anti-incumbency sentiment and “consolidated anger” in response to its perceived weakness in the face of terror attacks in approaching elections.

On Saturday, residents of Delhi, the country’s capital, go to the polls. A few days later Rajasthan follows. Both have been victims of bomb attacks since May. Votes will be cast with images of Mumbai’s carnage and burning hotels in their mind. The results, with those in four other states, will be the surest sign of whether the BJP’s message has struck home. They may also presage the results of general elections in the first half of next year.

Although some argue India’s troubles will be short-lived, the country’s claim to be an emerging power feels fragile. Terror and the global financial crisis have taken the shine off what only a few months ago was a gathering economic powerhouse striving to match China.

Then, confident executives joked that India’s success proved that even a bumble bee had the aerodynamics to fly. Today the country is wounded, its vulnerability exposed by militants and a liquidity squeeze that has drained foreign investment from its markets.

The attacks in Mumbai are too current for the BJP to ridicule the government. Instead, its leader LK Advani has made a show of unity with Mr Singh. But the gloves are about to fly off.

The government is on the defensive where it promised to be the most aggressive – the economy. After battling an inflation rate that shot up to 12 per cent, the government is struggling to respond to a global financial crisis that has taken the wind out of the sails of India’s growth story.

To the horror of business, Sonia Gandhi invoked her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, citing her much-resented bank nationalisations in 1969 as foresight that was sparing India the pain of many economies.

Government ministers and leading business people have found it difficult to rewrite a script of rising fortune and societal transformation. The cabinet has tried to suppress reports on job losses. Executives are now pleading for deeper interest rate cuts and state intervention.

Domestic consumption may save the day for the economy. But the stand-off in Mumbai increases the odds Congress will not be in power to see it.

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