Adrift and listless

Published : Jun 18, 2010 00:00 IST

in New Delhi

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's first official press conference in four years, held on May 24 to coincide with the first anniversary of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's second innings, turned out to be a kind of political metaphor for its style of functioning. Political commentators termed it lacklustre, listless, directionless and rambling. These epithets were not far off the mark. For, the Prime Minister failed not only to come up with a creditable presentation of the government's record of the past one year but also to make any significant projection for the future. In short, it was a performance disappointing even to many leaders and workers in the Congress, the leading constituent of the UPA.

A former Union Minister of the Congress told Frontline that it was only appropriate that the press conference turned out to be a non-event as it was a true reflection of governance in the past one year. An objective assessment of UPA-II's year one will show that we have failed to build on the achievements of UPA-I in almost all sectors of government, and hence this should be a time for introspection and not celebration, he said, adding rather wryly that it was even more appropriate that the celebratory dinner scheduled for the night before the press conference had been cancelled.

It was cancelled on account of the aircraft accident in Mangalore that killed over 150, but the government's failure in controlling the rise in the prices of essential commodities has been leading hundreds to death day after day. In such a situation did the leaders of the Congress and other parties in the UPA have any right to plan for a celebratory dinner? he asked.

According to A.B. Bardhan, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), the real import of this mood of dissatisfaction even among sections of the Congress and the UPA can be best understood only in comparison with the mood that prevailed in the UPA in May and June last year. At that time, Ministers were vying with one another to announce 100-day road maps for their Ministries and departments. At the end of 100 days itself, it was clear that the government had failed to fulfil its promises. Now, as we come close to crossing another 300 days, most of the Ministers and their political and administrative associates seem to have forgotten the 100-day targets they had so grandly set for themselves.

Central to the proclamations made in May last year by various Ministers was the Prime Minister's assertion that the guiding principle of UPA-II would be to take the country out of the fallout of the global financial crisis and at the same time enhance and strengthen inclusive governance so as to benefit a large section of the underprivileged. He also announced an austerity drive to be implemented by Ministers and their departments. Looking back at the past year's track record, it is clear that the government is far from fulfilling these overall objectives.

Economic situation

Several sections of the government, including Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, make periodic claims about having steered the country out of the negative impact of the global financial crisis and about India being on a growth trajectory, but consumer price inflation has risen steeply even as high as 17 per cent.

Manmohan Singh's emphasis on inclusive governance was perceived as a commitment to reinforcing UPA-I's constructive programmes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). Associate schemes to be strengthened included the Midday Meals Scheme and the Integrated Child Development Services. Another promise was to come up with a National Food Security Act (NFSA) and supplement it with an effective public distribution system (PDS) across the country. The NREGS was renamed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), but that by itself was of no help in improving its implementation.

Close observers of the MGNREGS, like Reethika Khera who is associated with the Centre for Development Economics at the Delhi School of Economics, point out that the scheme is marred by lax implementation and corruption in many States such as Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. And coming up with correctives has not been a priority with UPAII. This lack of application was exposed starkly when social analyst-activists such as Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze raised questions about the very functioning of the Central Employment Guarantee Council and the lack of political will the government has shown in addressing issues relating to the implementation of the NREGS. The story of the proposed NFSA is no different. According to provisions in the draft Bill, the government proposes to give 25 kilograms of grain to families living below the poverty line (BPL) despite a Supreme Court directive to give 35 kg of grain per BPL household. Demands by activists and experts for a correction in the draft are yet to evoke a concrete response from the government.

The Women's Reservation Bill was perceived as a key piece of legislation in the empowerment of neglected sections of society, and the government announced that the enactment of the Bill was one of its priorities. But here too, half-hearted measures led to the passage of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha amid high drama and stasis in the Lok Sabha later ( Frontline, March 27-April 09, 2010). All these failures and half-measures were accentuated by systematic malfunctioning of the internal security establishment as brought out by the rise in Maoist violence.

Corruption charges

UPA-II, unlike its earlier avatar, has been riddled with corruption charges against a number of its Ministers. One of these, against Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor, in connection with obtaining pecuniary advantage in the form of sweat equity for a friend in a franchise of the Indian Premier League (IPL), snowballed into a major controversy and led to his resignation in April, barely a month before the first anniversary of the government.

There were four other Ministers facing some allegation or the other about financial impropriety orwrong policy thrusts during the same time. They are Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, his colleague in the Nationalist Congress Party and Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Telecommunications Minister A. Raja of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Pawar and Patel were accused of having obtained illicit pecuniary advantage through IPL transactions and the Chidambaram-led Home Ministry was accused of ordering the tapping of the phones of opposition leaders such as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh and Pawar. A. Raja was at the receiving end for allegedly causing colossal losses to the exchequer in the 2G spectrum allocation.

A number of politicians, including some senior Congress leaders, said the situation resembled the political climate that existed between 1984 and 1989. In 1984, the Congress came to power with a thumping majority under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi, but corruption charges and political allegations that came up in a span of three years reversed the credibility of the government, and the party sank into doom in the next general elections in 1989. The controversies that had come up during that period included the passage of the Muslim personal law Bill and the opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid to Hindus for worship. The biggest corruption scandals, however, involved the Bofors Howitzer and HDW submarine deals.

This time too the Congress and the UPA have come back to power comfortably and large sections of the leadership seem to be suffering from a kind of overconfidence. There is a whiff of 1984 in all this, a senior Congress Member of Parliament told Frontline in the days immediately following Tharoor's resignation.

Lack of guiding principles'

Bardhan is of the view that the failures in terms of advancing policy priorities and the charges about the conduct of leaders indicate the absence of concrete, well laid-out guiding principles and organisational mechanisms to take governance forward. In UPA-I, the government had such guiding principles in the Common Minimum Programme [CMP] and an organisational mechanism in the UPA-Left Coordination Committee. Of course, sections of the government did try systematically to go beyond the brief of the CMP and the coordination committee, but there were inherent checks and balances in it. What UPA-II is lacking are these guiding principles and controlling mechanisms,Bardhan said.

Professor Sudhir Kumar Panwar, a keen political observer and president of the Kisan Jagriti Manch, a collective of activists and academics that addresses the concerns of farmers, agrees with Bardhan. He points out that in the absence of a CMP, there is no synchronisation of government policy and there is an atmosphere of ad hocism in the government.

The lack of synchronisation can be seen even within the Congress, not to speak of other constituents in the UPA, said Panwar. That is why you have Ministers talking out of turn in a foreign country, as Jairam Ramesh did when he accused the Indian Home Ministry of being paranoid about giving entry to Chinese firms, or as Chidambaram did when he talked about having only a limited mandate' in combating Maoists.

Panwar says the lack of an agreed policy and praxis framework makes smaller parties in the UPA mere rent-seekers who are happy as long they are allowed to do things of their choice in the Ministry. Such rent-seekers have no commitment to evolving public policy and are driven by their limited political or even individual goals. A case in point is Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, who does not even deem it fit to come to Delhi to run her Ministry even though the Prime Minister himself is understood to have asked her to give up her Kolkata fixation, he said.

According to Panwar, classical political thought would naturally see the signs of self-destruct in this climate, but UPA-II has a saving grace in the ad hocism of the opposition too. And it is the spread of this ad hocism across the counter that has allowed the UPA to survive and even sit prettyin the treasury benches, he said. This contention, obviously, has tremendous merit. Different types of ad hocism characterise different forces and streams in the opposition.

The principal opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is yet to regain its political and organisational moorings under new president Nitin Gadkari and is pursuing its own form of ad hocism. The Left parties have also not succeeded in achieving their proclaimed objective of evolving a non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front based on concrete principles and policy understanding. Regional and smaller parties such as the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Telugu Desam Party and the Biju Janata Dal have been alternately warming up to the idea and getting cold about it. These regional forces as well as others like the Bahujan Samaj Party have opposed the UPA one day and supported it another day.

Clearly, this ad hocism prevalent across the board has helped UPA-II chug along despite its obvious failures and foibles. It needs to surmount bigger political challenges in the days to come, which include a series of electoral battles in the next two years in crucial States such as Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. Whether the UPA brand of ad hocism will prevail over others is a moot question in relation to these upcoming political battles.

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