The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Incompetence' It’s inflation
- Polls lost, hunt for scapegoat

New Delhi, Feb. 27: One chief minister learnt to live with a scandal a day. Another declared he was “too old to lead”, lest anyone had any doubt.

With such stalwarts leading the charge, it is hard to find a fall guy.

But the Congress and its allies have managed to do that: inflation is being painted as the villain of the piece that cost the party power in Punjab and Uttarakhand, two states that went to polls after five years of poor governance.

The onus then fell on Manmohan Singh to shed his usual reticence and agree to his first impromptu media conference as Prime Minister, where he declared with vigour that the “local” elections would have no bearing on his government.

Both in Punjab and Uttarakhand, the Congress was not expected to do well, considering the party’s record there over the last five years.

In Punjab, chief minister Amarinder Singh spent the first half of his tenure filing cases against his predecessor — and now successor — Parkash Singh Badal’s family. In the remaining months, Amarinder was busy fighting charges of corruption among officials and questionable land deals.

The resultant backlash helped the BJP renew its love affair with the urban voter and pull off its best performance in Punjab.

In Uttarakhand, the battle was lost before it began. The 82-year-old chief minister, N.D. Tiwari, said he was too old — not because of misgivings about his skills at governance but apparently because he was eyeing the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

But the Congress as well as its allies were wondering whether charred kitchen budgets were responsible for spoiling the party on the eve of P. Chidambaram’s budget day. Mercifully for the Prime Minister, few — other than Medha Patkar — were linking the poll results to economic reforms.

UPA allies such as the RJD and the NCP met the Prime Minister as the results were rolling in and requested him to focus on controlling inflation.

The upshot was Singh’s interaction with the media. He differed with his partners and said the verdict was not a referendum on the Centre.

“There is no question of a referendum against the central government. These elections are part of local elections. I am not denying that some fallout will be there, but by and large, this election will not have a bearing on the functioning of the Centre,” he said in response to a question.

Singh decided to meet the media after a meeting with Sharad Pawar, Lalu Prasad, Pranab Mukherjee and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi at his chamber in Parliament. At the meeting, which followed an NDA attack on Singh on the Quattrocchi issue, he was advised to go on the front foot.

Singh neither overplayed nor underestimated the role of inflation. “I am not an astrologer. Inflation, well our challenge is to tackle inflation without hurting the growth rate because a higher growth rate is the only way to create more jobs,” he said.

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