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Tough tests await Cong in year ahead

New Delhi, Jan. 2: The year that ended on Monday was exceptionally challenging for the ruling combine, inflicting some indelible scars on the government as well as on the parties involved. But 2013 is going to be the most critical political phase in the life of the UPA since it came to power in 2004.

While the most difficult task is on the leadership front, with the 80-year-old Manmohan Singh unlikely to remain the prime ministerial candidate for a third term, the coalition faces a host of other challenges.

They include presenting a populist budget when the economy is passing through difficult times, enacting vital legislation in Parliament where numbers often throw up a crisis, election to nine Assemblies, possibilities of fresh alignments and the emergence of newer forms of protests.

Although Rahul Gandhi is set to assume the Congress leadership this year despite Sonia Gandhi’s continuance as the supreme authority, it is still unclear if the party and the coalition are determined to project him as the prime ministerial candidate for 2014.

The decision may be influenced by election results in states like Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, which could also shape political realignments.

While Karnataka, where the Congress fancies a comeback, will go to the polls in May, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram will have elections in November-December. However, the Congress will get a feel of the people’s mood right at the start of the year when Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura vote early in March. If Rahul’s leadership is formalised at the January chintan baithak, the discourse around his prime ministerial candidature will automatically get linked to these elections.

Whether the Congress can retain its allies and attract new partners for 2013 will also depend on these elections. While existing allies such as the NCP and the DMK are already showing signs of unease, the Congress is toying with the idea of aligning with Lalu Prasad in Bihar again as the leadership looks to offset the possible losses in Andhra Pradesh, a state that worked like the UPA’s engine in the last elections. These issues will be thoroughly debated at the January 18-19 introspective session.

Another major test will come soon when the government presents what could possibly be its last full-fledged budget. All the partners are anxiously awaiting a heavy dose of populism at a time tough reform measures are being taken.

The economy has seen its worst in 2012, tumbling to a decade-low of 5 per cent growth rate, while the global scenario isn’t very promising either. But there is no escape route for finance minister P. Chidambaram as the outcome of 2014 will largely depend on this budget.

Then there are contentious bills on land acquisition, food security, pension and insurance, in addition to that on the proposed Lokpal, which had attracted the nation’s attention for the whole of last year. This year will also be the last chance for the government to pass the bills on women’s reservation and communal harmony, which have been pending for ages.

With Mamata Banerjee out of the UPA fold, it is difficult to guess how long the Samajwadi Party and the BSP will allow this government to carry on with its legislative and financial business.

Already hit by corruption scandals, economic crises and adverse public opinion, the government has to grapple with newer problems on a regular basis as was manifested by powerful campaigns organised by Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal and the latest against the rape incident.