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What Next?

Hurt by inflation & corruption, the Congress’ fate could well be decided by the elections in Uttar Pradesh next year…

The popularity of the second UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh has plummeted. If elections take place now, few would bet on the Congress-led coalition returning to power. What has happened? The answer can be summarized in two words: inflation and corruption.

Nobody questions the Prime Minister's personal integrity. But he is perceived as a man who is no longer in command. Unseemly squabbles have broken out over three issues: the formation of a separate state of Telangana, the debate on the poverty line numbers and the implications of the note sent by a relatively junior bureaucrat in the Finance Ministry to the PMO on the under-valuation and misallocation of telecommunications spectrum, better known as the 2G scam.

It is nobody's case that the collapse of the government is imminent. The political opposition is in complete shambles. The BJP is caught in the throes of an internal tussle. L K Advani refuses to retire even as Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Narendra Modi wait impatiently in the wings. Having shed its image of being a North Indian party after coming to power on its own in Karnataka, the Hindu nationalist party hasn't recovered from the ignominious manner in which B S Yeddyurappa had to resign as Chief Minister after allegations of corruption were leveled against his family members.

The Left Front too is in a mess, having lost power in West Bengal after ruling the state for as long as 34 years. It had clearly under-estimated the outpouring of support for Mamata Banerjee. From a situation in which they were calling the shots in New Delhi, the Communists are licking their wounds. They could have scraped through in Kerala had it not been for the open infighting between two of the tallest leaders of the CPI-M in the state. A number of regional parties -- with the exception of the Trinamool Congress, the Biju Janata Dal, the AIADMK and the Janata Dal (United) - are in a bad shape. Among these are the Telugu Desam Party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Shiv Sena and the Asom Gana Parishad. Given the current state of the incumbent regime, there is considerable speculation about who could emerge as a possible prime ministerial candidate if a non-Congress formation stakes a claim to power after the next general elections. Memories of 1977 and 1989 are being resurrected. The names of the chief ministers of two states in Eastern India, Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik, are doing the rounds.

The void left by the weak opposition has, to an extent, been filled up sections of civil society and the media. The desperation of government functionaries has become evident from the way in which the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India has been criticized as well as the carping remarks made by Union ministers about the working of the Right to Information Act. Even more than Team Anna, what is worrying those in power at present is the proactive role of the judiciary. Even industrialists who typically support whoever is in power are urging the government to curb corruption and rein in crony capitalism.

The elections in Uttar Pradesh next year could prove to be an important turning point in the fortunes of the Congress, especially if the party fails to replicate its performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. It hopes to partner the Samajwadi Party to form the government in Lucknow. But Mayawati is certainly no pushover. Will Rahul Gandhi's campaigning make a difference? Will the government be able to curb runaway food inflation? Your guess could be as good as mine.