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 LK 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 Northeastern 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 federal concept.
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 November 26, 2008, and the German bakery blasts in Pune of February 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.