The first week of the new year,the beginning of the final few months for the 14th Lok Sabha. The assembly elections are over; the last of the new chief ministers is being sworn in today,the post-assembly permutations have been worked out and the Indian political class will draw a moments breath,preparing for the far vaster contest that is now on the horizon,and growing closer by the day. Politics will become fraught with possibility,and the temptation will be stronger than ever for the ruling coalition to focus its intellectual resources,including its big guns,on political preparation and manoeuvring. This would be a colossal mistake,and one for which the country and the coalition would both pay.
Fraught with possibility the political scenario perhaps; but the problems that government must address are fraught with peril certainly. Issues in Pakistan are coming to a head. The long denial of the Pakistani establishment about the links between the Mumbai attackers and elements on Pakistani soil is almost certainly coming to an end,as it grows increasingly untenable. And,as Home Minister P. Chidambaram points out on these pages,India must accept the possibility that some elements even within the Pakistani state were aware of the hideous plans while they were being set in motion. The Indian government has to be quick to react to the fluid situation; it cannot be distracted. Similar concerns apply to the financial crisis. The second stimulus package is out,and monetary policy has been loosened; but this does not mean that constant attention will not be required: one thing we have learnt,for example,is that infrastructure projects do not clear themselves.
It is not even in the UPAs narrow political interest to let these crucial matters slide through inattention. The easy way out might be to think that,for better or worse,the governments reputation has been made or unmade; and that now,it all comes down to coalition management and candidate-selection. This is not backed up by some recent work from political scientists,which shows that Indian voters judge incumbents by long-term performance in assembly elections but are more in the moment during general elections,capable of being swayed by the election-time context. Doing well over its last few months is critical for the UPAs political future,just as the UPAs doing well over the next few months is critical for the countrys future. Interests coincide,so lets stay at work.