A vacuum of leadership across the political canvas is dragging the India story down the drain.

By Shoma Chaudhury

Shoma ChaudhuryTHREE YEARS of UPA-2 has engendered a crisis in the country that runs even deeper than a floundering economy or a reputation for corruption: this is a crisis of articulation. Three years and, frighteningly, India now sounds like a symphonic orchestra that’s lost its conductor. We have become a country of false notes. A wild band of players who can no longer hear each other. Bedlam has replaced our genius for plural music.

At the centre of this raucous chaos sits the riddle of the missing conductor. A prime minister who seems to have locked himself into a soundproof room; a good man who makes goodness look bad; a sort of modern-day Dhritarashtra, unquestionably honest himself but ethically tone-deaf and stone-blind to others. Far from picking the fallen baton, Manmohan Singh is not even miming the necessary signals to get his song back on track. unless he corrects this urgently, in the final reckoning, it’s this loss of voice — this staggering vacuum of leadership — that this once-feted man will most have to answer for.

If this were an affliction that only affected the Congress’ electoral fortunes, it might be of little concern to others. But the imploded leadership of these years has denuded crucial institutions and corrupted the Opposition. The PM ’s chair feels a bit like doll-house furniture; parliament has become a fish bazaar (with far less productive transaction); and smelling weak blood at the end of the line, the Opposition has just become a pack of spoilers, notching petty victories, instead of functioning as statesmen catalysing creative governance.

As it marks its third year in office this week then, UPA-2 is riding on many dark sins: inflation; the crashing rupee; storm warnings on the economy; policy paralysis; the fallout of 2G; the noise over black money; the looming coal scam; the mess of the Jan Lokpal; the dust-up with the General; rotting grain; angry allies; a misused CBI; overreaching courts; a sea of abortive executive decisions and a mountain of unfinished legislation. There’s also the inexplicable way in which it has begun to round on its own liberal mojo. UPA-1 gave India the RTI Act; UPA-2 is trying to curb it. The more beleaguered it gets, the more it wants to curb freedoms. Police the Internet; rein in the media; outlaw activists and dissent.

None of this, however, is insurmountable. Governing a country like India is a difficult and contentious business. Much of this dismal record could be set right, if this government would find itself a strong and credible voice. A voice that could admit mistakes but assert achievements; own up to its mess but defend wise decisions; retrieve the art of overture but deploy an instinct for political pre-emption. A voice that could silence its critics — not with boot or ham-handed sound byte, but with wit and vision. It’s not enough to just assert that poverty figures are down; or that RTE has been passed; or even that India held its growth at 7 percent through global hard times. What India needs now is a restoration of faith and confidence: right speech, as much as right action.

Unfortunately, this looks highly unlikely though. The fate of UPA-2 is locked into an unhappy diagram. Party insiders say, contrary to public speculation, Sonia Gandhi does not interfere in government out of propriety towards the PM. But both by temperament and de facto deference to her, the PM does not assert himself either. What’s left is an array of secondary leaders trapped in a Byzantine world of shadow-guessing instead of thinking. And the UPA’s ragtag big four: one veteran too overloaded; two lawyers too cold; and a fourth too timid to act.

This is particularly dire for India because the loss of voice is not a Congress malaise alone. Trapped in a bitter leadership struggle, the BJP too has been rendered incoherent. The Left is yet to renovate itself. And, across parties, Gen-Next leaders have not even begun to incubate. The states might have powerful satraps, but each would tear the other down, rather than see one rise.

This is not just a 2012 crisis then. Come 2014 and the discord of the missing conductor is probably going to get louder.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.