India in 2008: The year that was

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Yet another year is coming to an end and independent India’s idea of being a republic is a year older. But is it any wiser? On many counts, 2008 tested India and the manner in which it confronted the challenges.

People protest against the attacks in Mumbai in this December 3, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe/Files

It was a year which saw the Manmohan Singh government face some of the toughest questions in its 4-year rule.

For that matter, some of the questions were directed at the people, the polity and the nation itself, which is still on edge after horrific images of a militant rampage on Mumbai made headlines around the world in late November.

It was a promising start to the year with the economy growing at well above 8 pct and the Sensex touching a staggering 21,000 points in late January.

Inflation was the only worry as global crude prices were near the 100-dollar mark.

For its part, the govt was confident about handling inflation and announced a 60,000-crore rupee debt relief package for farmers which became the highlight of the annual budget.

But global crude prices showed no signs of moderation and India’s inflation too crossed the double digit mark.

What added to the govt’s problems was pressure from its coalition allies. The Communist parties pulled out over India’s historic civilian nuclear deal with the United States and the govt’s survival was put to the ultimate test.

But parliamentary politics in India dipped to a new low when wads of cash were whipped out in the well of the house. Opposition MPs claimed money was used to buy support. The allegations did not stick and the Manmohan Singh govt survived the trust vote.

But the problems were mounting. The global subprime crisis took its toll and the stock markets started crashing as FIIs pulled out billions of dollars. The Sensex has lost more than 60 percent this year and is now hovering around the 10,000 mark, making it one of the worst performers in the Asian equity scene.

The economy too was no longer insulated and growth estimates for one of the world’s fastest growing economies have been revised downwards. Multi-billion dollar stimulus packages have been announced and an aggressive rate-cut campaign has been initiated by the Reserve Bank of India. But economists and analysts say more needs to be done to salvage India as the rest of the world sets off on a road to recession.

Corporate India too had its share of highs and lows. While Tata wowed everyone with the Nano, the world’s cheapest car, the company was forced to move its plant out of West Bengal thereby delaying the car’s roll-out.

Investor confidence was on a razor’s edge throughout the year. While India’s top private lender ICICI’s share price dipped more than 70 pct as concerns arose over the health of its books, IT major Satyam Computer Services faced some tough questions about corporate governance after a botched attempt to buy two of its sister firms for $1.6 billion.

Indian airlines struggled too amid soaring fuel costs and dwindling passenger numbers. Carriers like Jet Airways faced staff ire over efforts to downsize and survive.

More than anything else, it was the internal security situation that took a turn for the worse. Hundreds of lives were lost as a series of blasts shook various Indian cities.

If the bombs in Bangalore, Ahmedabad, New Delhi and Guwahati were blamed on Islamist militants, the needle of suspicion in the Malegaon blasts pointed to Hindu extremists. A serving officer of the Indian army is still being interrogated.

But all the violence seemed only a dress rehearsal for what turned out to be the most audacious terror strike in the history of independent India.

Armed assailants held India’s financial capital hostage for nearly three days. 179 people were killed as many of Mumbai’s iconic landmarks including the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Taj Mahal hotel and the Oberoi-Trident came under fire.

The lone surviving attacker said he came from Pakistan and New Delhi has put Islamabad on notice. A worried world is watching and urging restraint as reports emerge of heightened military activity along the border separating the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

The man on the street is anxious too. There’s been a clarion call for civilian activism. They want accountability, not just hollow assurances from the political leadership.

Heads did roll. Union home minister Shivraj Patil was asked to go. The Maharashtra CM and home minister were sacked too.

But did it placate the common man? Amid all the tension, five Indian states went to polls and the results showed that development was a bigger election issue than terror. It was a lesson that the main opposition party BJP learnt the hard away.

Its “Congress is soft on terror” campaign failed to win public approval as it tried to mount an assault on the Congress-led coalition ahead of the 2009 general elections.

So, does this mean that what had started off a memorable year will turn out to be one best forgotten?

Well, if you look at the sporting arena, it’s actually been a good year for India.

The Indian cricket team started off winning the tri-series in Australia. The success of the inaugural IPL 20/20 league reaffirmed India’s pre-eminence as one of most powerful forces in the world of cricket. India capped its season with home series wins over both World champions Australia and England and many Indians now hope India can actually become no.1 in world cricket.

2008 was also a year that saw Saurav Ganguly leave in a blaze of glory while others like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid did enough to let a demanding but adoring public know that they remain a force to reckon with.

New heroes like Gautam Gambhir and Ishant Sharma emerged, and there was success for other Indian sportsmen too.

Abhinav Bindra made the nation proud winning India’s first individual Gold in shooting at the Beijing Olympics.

While boxers like Vijender Kumar packed a punch, Sushil Kumar grappled both inner fear and pressure to add a bronze from the wrestling mat and make it one of India’s most memorable campaigns in the world’s biggest sporting spectacle.

Jeev Milkha Singh winning the Asian Golf’s Order of Merit and shuttler Saina Nehwal’s meteoric rise in the badminton world brought India more cheer.

So, it has indeed been a rollercoaster year for the country.

But what about 2009? What’s in store for India and Indians?

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