The elections of 2009 mark a discontinuity in the six year reign of the United Progressive Alliance government. Looking back in the past year, that event seems to have had baleful, rather than beneficial, consequences for the alliance, notwithstanding the fact that the election outcome strengthened the position of its lead party, the Congress, and more-or-less devastated the Opposition.
Almost all surveys of the UPA-II’s performance show them coming up short against expectations. Their rivals have harsher words in judging their performance. The CPI(M) claims that minus the check they had put on UPA-I, the UPA-II has encouraged crony capitalism, surrendered to the Americans, and abandoned any pretence of serving the aam aadmi. The BJP endorses many of these charges and also accuses the government of a weak-kneed approach towards Pakistan and terrorism.
UPA-I’s deserves praise for its achievements—the Right to Information Act, the NREGS and the Indo-US nuclear deal, and, above all, its handling of the global financial meltdown. There has been no comparable achievement from UPA-II as yet. The Right to Education Act is a noble idea, but it remains to be seen whether it is even implementable.
Some would say that the reason for the UPA’s poor performance is hubris. After achieving so much and trouncing their political opponents in the last general elections, their overweening pride led them to lose their way. This was manifest in the episode relating to the Women’s Reservation Bill when the Congress party behaved as though they actually had a majority in Parliament and were not dependent on some of the more unsavoury parties there for support. With a divided and devastated opposition, a sense of complacency gripped the party which has never really been known to possess much stamina.
But there is a deeper problem as well—leadership. UPA-I came up with a somewhat odd model for a parliamentary democracy when the real leader of the largest legislature party in Parliament did not become the prime minister. The diarchy between Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh functioned reasonably well in UPA-I. Even so the Indo-US nuclear deal was a near-run thing.
In UPA-II the model seems to have come under strain. Within sight of his retirement, Dr Singh has decided to narrowly focus on his own agenda and substantially delegate the rest to his Council of Ministers. He has cleverly shifted Pranab Mukherjee to the Finance Ministry, and effectively boxed him into a portfolio which requires mechanical application, rather than brains or brawn. Just in case, the PM also has his trusted lieutenants R. Rangarajan, the chief of his Council of Economic Advisers and Montek Singh Ahluwalia riding shotgun with Mr Mukherjee.
This style has affected the functioning of various ministries. The only thing Defence Minister, A.K. Antony has going for him is his honesty. The same could be said of the Minister for External Affairs S.M. Krishna. Home is being looked after by the energetic P. Chidambaram who is, perhaps, only now realising that while his portfolio may open a path to greater professional glory, it is also littered with more land-mines than have been laid by the Maoists in the forests of Dantewada.
But, the government is not just four portfolios. And that is where the rub lies. The PM’s hands off approach to the ministries run by allies like the NCP, the Trinamool and DMK, have brought great shame to the government. Even today we do not actually have a full accounting of the manner in which Mr Sharad Pawar has mismanaged and mis-used his Agriculture and food and civil supplies portfolios. There is already some preliminary evidence to show the wrongdoings of the ministers who head the Civil Aviation and Telecom portfolios. We have the strange spectacle of a universally acknowledged honest prime minister heading a ministry where corruption is reportedly rampant.
As for his chosen agenda, foreign affairs, unfortunately, the Prime Minister has had to learn his lessons quick -time. He is, of course, a seasoned hand in government. But his forte is economics. Neither has he been entirely comfortable with the political dynamics of the country. That seems to be the reason why his first initiative with Pakistan in Sharm-el-Sheikh came unstuck. He has been slow to react to the changed nuance of the post-Bush US policy in Asia and as a result, India has been left holding the can in Iran and Afghanistan.
But why blame Dr Singh? The problem lies in the apex leadership structure whose dominant pole is Ms Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party. Her hands off political management has also been a problem. Why did the Congress, for example, bring the Women’s and Nuclear Liability Bills virtually simultaneously to Parliament ? Had they been taken in sequence, the Congress could have worked on the BJP and the Left to pass the Women’s Bill and then at a later occasion, taken up the Nuclear Liability Bill. Instead, in combination with the cut motion division, both measures failed.
Ms Sonia Gandhi is clearly concerned, but her response, in the form of a new National Advisory Council, seems to be jaded. Her influence in the achievements of UPA-I are signal. Without her active backing none of the measures we have listed above would have passed. But more of the same is not the way to go.
As long as NREGS was confined to 200 of the most backward districts, it worked well and there were few allegations of corruption. Now that it has been extended across the country, the accusations are all over the place. The reason is that in some part of the county, there is no real interest in seeking recourse to the NREGS, but since the Union government is throwing the money in, there are always individuals who are only to happy to divert it into their pockets. In the same manner the food securitiy legislation could well become a means of transferring public resources to some creative individuals.
The Congress needs to pause and think before it mindlessly presses on with the belief that social welfare programmes are the key to electoral success. It is one thing to aid the indigent, quite another to create a culture of entitlement where people find it more convenient to be declared “backward” and “poor” and live off a government subsidies and doles. We need NREGS as a measure to aid the distressed, but it cannot be a substitute for policies which will create real jobs for the people.
The unintended consequence of the 2008-2009 crisis seems to have been to reveal that social democracy as an ideology is going the way of communism. As Europe is learning, the massive deficits, used to pay unemployment allowances, subsidised housing, mass transit and education, are not sustainable. California, with the world’s eighth largest economy, is currently curtailing spending on health, welfare, transport and the environment.
This is where the Congress party is facing a real crisis—one of providing a leadership in a world that has changed, and is changing. Yesterday’s solutions no longer hold good for the problems of today, whether they are for eliminating poverty and disease, improving relations with Pakistan and China, transforming our ghastly infrastructure or revitalising our water-stressed agriculture.
This article appeared in Mail Today May 21, 2010