Whether because of political ineptitude, administrative lapses or sheer bad luck, the government's woes do not seem to end. As a result, it always appears to be on the back foot.
Even as the uproar over the gang-rape and death of a girl has partially subsided, the government has been caught unawares by the sudden deterioration in India-Pakistan relations. The earlier perception of being blind to the rise in rape cases has now become murkier with the belief that the government is not mindful of the country's honour and prestige in matters of security.
Unfortunately, the prime minister has come in the direct line of fire, especially over the India-Pakistan affair because he has been seen to be pushing for better relations although Islamabad has been dragging its feet over punishing the Pakistan-based terrorists responsible for the 2008 Mumbai massacre. Now, the decapitation and mutilation of the bodies of two Indian soldiers by Pakistani troops has inflamed public opinion in India and put the government's peace overtures in jeopardy.
In addition to the setback in India-Pakistan relations, what the government will be worried about is the impression of a limp hand at the helm. As a result, the country seems to be drifting aimlessly with women feeling unsafe even in the heavily-policed national capital, the Maoist insurgents becoming bolder as was evident not only in the killing of security personnel but also the implant of a bomb in the body of a dead trooper, and Pakistan resorting to gruesome medieval tactics on the battlefield.
As the perception of weakness, which relates mainly to the mild-mannered Manmohan Singh, has come in the wake of weeks and months when the government was battered by corruption charges, the outlook can hardly be said to be rosy. To make matters worse, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has predictably seized the tension on the India-Pakistan border to whip up jingoistic feelings. For it, the latent anti-Muslim feelings among its core group of supporters comprising Hindus are bolstered by Pakistan's seeming perfidy and, in this particular case, cruelty.
The government's problem is that peace initiatives are seen as having been taken under American pressure just as its economic policies, such as allowing foreign investment in the retail sector, are also interpreted as a concession to the US. In fact, the entire two-decade-old reforms agenda is perceived by the Left as an American neo-imperialist design. The right-wing BJP doesn't go as far as that, but it is not averse to fomenting the fear of the foreigner to argue against the entry of multinationals.
The government's failure lies mainly in its political ineptness, which includes an inability to gauge the impact of failing to act in time. As in the case of the gang-rape, all its responses - the setting up of fast-track courts, installing more CCTV cameras, increasing police patrolling - have come after the ghastly crime whereas the signs of a deteriorating situation was evident from the rising crime graph. In relation to Pakistan, too, it seems unwilling to accept that deals with Islamabad's political establishment are bound to falter in view of the Pakistan Army's virtual veto power over major decisions.
The government's slow-moving responses, and the absence of a hard-headed appraisal of ties with neighbouring countries, may not have been as damaging earlier to its image as at present when a proactive media and a vocal and impatient young generation comprising urban middle class youth are no longer willing to let the official goof-ups go unchallenged. What is more, the bungling is no longer seen as an innocent error, but as a canny reluctance to disturb the existing cosy links within the establishment between less than honest politicians and bureaucrats. Hence the inordinate delay in passing the Lokpal bill or to follow the Supreme Court's 2006 directive on police reforms.
Arguably, Manmohan Singh's image remains the saving grace for the government and the Congress party at a time when popular faith in their sincerity is dwindling. At the same time, his weakness in enforcing his writ, which was highlighted by BJP leader L.K. Advani during the 2009 election campaign, has become more evident than ever. As much was clear from his speech to an industrial chamber where he pointed out that "outdated" socialistic ideologies no longer had any place in a modern economy. If so, he should have been more insistent on pursuing the economic reforms and not retreated at the first sign of resistance from recalcitrant allies on disinvestment and FDI in retail.
Similarly, his plea at the Indian Science Congress to eschew emotion and fear in dealing with issues like genetically-modified food and nuclear power can seem like a belated appeal to reason whereas he should have been more forthright about them earlier, especially when policies on them would not have led to any threat of withdrawal of support by the allies. Homilies and an articulation of principles are not enough. No political gain is possible in the absence of firm action.