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2013 in review: Indian government stumbles in pre-election year

Coalition led by the Indian National Congress spends the year fighting fires as popularity of its rivals soars. Samanth Subramanian reports

Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Gujarat's chief minister, waves to supporters. Amit Dave / Reuters
Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Gujarat's chief minister, waves to supporters. Amit Dave / Reuters

NEW DELHI // Politics is India’s real national sport, so almost every year is dominated by tussles over policies, power and scandals. Even by these standards, the preoccupation with politics rose to extraordinary levels in 2013 as the government, beset by troubles, stumbled through its final full year.

The year began badly, with all of India enraged over the vicious gang rape and murder of a young student in Delhi last December, an incident that forced the country to confront its poor record of women’s safety.

The government responded with a stricter law against sexual violence. It was the first piece of firefighting that the coalition led by the Indian National Congress would perform, but it would not be the last.

Corruption scandals tumbled out, as they have over the previous three years. Defence officials were accused of accepting kickbacks in a contract for military helicopters. The minister for railways resigned after his nephew was arrested for accepting bribes for ensuring postings in the Indian Railways. A federal agency investigating government corruption in the allocation of coal mining rights revealed that it had been forced to show its report to the law minister and accept his amendments.

The government struggled to prove itself on other fronts as well. Its estimate of economic growth for the year dropped from 6.7 per cent to 5.5 per cent, even as inflation surged – to a 14-month high of 7.5 per cent in November. The rupee slid dramatically against the dollar – from 54.68 in January to nearly 69 in August – before stabilising around 62.

To add to its traditionally rocky relations with Pakistan, India faced new diplomatic frictions as well: with China, over border incursions by its troops; with Italy, over the case of two Italian marines accused of shooting and killing Indian fishermen; with Sri Lanka, over the prime minister’s decision to stay away from a Commonwealth meeting in Colombo in protest at Sri Lanka’s human rights record; and, most recently with the United States, over its treatment of a diplomat in New York accused of visa fraud.

Even half-keen observers of India could sense an exasperation with the government throughout 2013, and in particular with the Congress. This came through perhaps most clearly in elections to the Delhi legislature earlier this month, when the Congress, after three successive terms in power, won just eight of the 70 seats.

In comparison, the year-old Aam Aadmi Party, founded by the anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal, won 28 seats, having based its campaign almost entirely on the shortcomings of Congress. It was a shock result, and Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party president, admitted that it called for “deep introspection”.

“Obviously people are unhappy,” Ms Gandhi said, “or they would not have given these results.”

The travails of Congress bear directly on the central event of 2014: a national election early in the summer in which Congress is expected to be unseated, or at the very least struggle to form another coalition government.

All eyes will be on Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Already Mr Modi has been roving around the country, addressing rallies that draw large crowds in their tens or hundreds of thousands.

The BJP claims that Mr Modi, currently the chief minister of Gujarat state, enjoys wide support, from both people sick of Congress and those attracted to his agenda of economic dynamism. But Mr Modi’s critics say he is a polarising figure, having never taken responsibility for anti-Muslim riots under his watch in Gujarat in 2002 that claimed 1,044 lives – riots that his government failed to control.

Congress and the BJP are the country’s only national parties capable of winning seats across India and assembling coalitions around themselves. Therefore, the 2014 election will present Indians once again with the choice of either Congress or the BJP to govern them for the next five years. How they decide – and in particular how they respond to Mr Modi’s candidature – will be India’s biggest political story over the coming year.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae