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October 23, 2011

The floundering UPA

Image: D M Wyllie

 

When the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by a resurgent Congress party won a resounding victory in the 2009 general elections, it was widely believed that the Indian polity had come a full circle. After nearly two decades in which rival alliances contended for power at the center, India once again appeared to be heading towards an era of single party dominance.

Conventional wisdom suggested that the clever division of responsibilities between the party and the government served the UPA well. Dr. Manmohan Singh was emerging as a leader in his own right while the Congress president, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, remained the unquestioned supreme leader. With the Communists virtually decimated, UPA’s second government had greater cohesiveness and freedom of action. And the succession issue was also settled: Dr. Singh would continue to lead the government till 2014. At some point before the elections, Rahul Gandhi was expected to take over as the Prime Minister. Rahul Gandhi’s ascension to power would allow the Congress party to field a fresh and charismatic leader while simultaneously tackling the challenge of latent anti-incumbency after two successive terms in power.

Yet it is only 2011, and the government is lurching from one crisis to the next, while the promises of good governance have been largely forgotten. Take economic reforms,  for instance: It was believed that a more assertive government would be embarking on the much-awaited second generation reforms. Forget giving the reform process an impetus, UPA’s entire economic agenda has been reduced to re-distributionist schemes hatched by the unelected apparatchiks of the National Advisory Council (NAC) and creating more rights by rushing far-reaching laws through a pliant parliament. For a government so relentlessly focused on rescuing the aam aadmi, it has shown scant concern for one piece of the economic puzzle which most severely affects the poor — inflation. And then there is the almost endless litany of scams: Commonwealth games, Telecom scandal, Adarsh flat allotment…to name just a few.

Governance was perhaps never Congress’ strong suit — and which government in India has truly been corruption-free? What is truly astounding is the abysmal lack of political management by the UPA government. Perhaps no case more clearly illustrates the government’s poor political skills than the Anna Hazare agitation. By giving contradictory signals and appearing to be constantly in crisis mode, the UPA government not only inflicted a self-goal (*self-side goal??), but allowed Mr. Hazare to virtually ride roughshod over the Indian parliament.  The latest example of such muddled thinking is the spat between two of the most senior ministers in the government: P. Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee.

While the government struggles on a daily basis, the Prime Minister is nowhere to be seen. Dr. Manmohan Singh seems to be reduced to issuing normative policy prescriptions while his government is at war with itself, and his ministers openly defy his authority. Hitherto, Dr. Singh has benefited immensely from his contrived status as a ‘non-political politician’,  and personal probity. But now, as Dr. Singh settles into what appears to be almost a post-retirement sinecure, questions are finally being asked about his leadership abilities and commitment to governance. It can be said without fear of contradiction that Dr. Singh has been found wanting on almost all fronts.

What is perhaps most striking is that the principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has played an almost insignificant role in the continuing travails of the UPA government. If anything, the BJP appears to be on an accelerated death wish. Not having recovered a shocking defeat in the 2004 general elections, the shellacking received in 2009 appears to have broken the party’s spirit. Public squabbles among the top leadership dominate media headlines, while there appears to be no meaningful plan for succession. And in what portends a particularly unhelpful political climate for the party, the alliances it had assiduously constructed over the part decade are falling apart. Its long-term ally in Orissa, Biju Patnaik left the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) just before the last general elections while Nitish Kumar has made it clear that only the compulsions of Bihar politics are responsible for his continued alliance with BJP. Other regional parties  especially in the politically crucial South have preferred to keep a safe distance, fearing the loss of the crucial Muslim vote bank. With BJP no longer seen as a serious contender for power at the central level, potential allies see limited benefit in associating it with it. BJP’s new “untouchability” status is reminiscent of the early 1990s when the party suffered tremendously from its inability to construct alliances.

So what gives? Why is a government which won a resounding victory merely two years ago, and faces no serious political opposition, struggling so badly? Perhaps, that is the problem.For a long time, polity in independent India was dominated by a simple idea: T.I.N.A ( There is no Alternative). Everyone—from politicians to commentators to the voting public—believed that there was no viable alternative to the Congress party and whatever its sins of commission and omission, it would continue to handily win elections. Gradually, however, the hubris of the Congress leadership caught up with the party and India finally had a competitive democracy. Now with the BJP marred by internecine fights and struggling to attract allies, it appears that the luminaries of the Congress party believe that the good old days are back again. Congress can continue to deliver abysmal governance but in the absence of a strong and united opposition, it is unlikely to be electorally challenged. Always a little imperialist in its mindset,  the strength of the Congress’ formation and the attendant weakness of the opposition have resulted in the government essentially taking the voters for granted. If not us, who will you vote for? That in a nutshell appears to be the prevailing wisdom in the corridors of power.

Perhaps the hubris is well-justified. Despite the shortcomings of the UPA government, the BJP in its current shape is in no position to challenge the hegemony of the Congress party. So, till the opposition puts its house in order, sorts out its leadership issues,  and forms a competitive political alliance which can seriously challenge the UPA in the 2014 elections, expect the drift in the government to continue. For India, that is the real tragedy.


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