The United Progressive Alliance can rightfully claim that in its first year in power it put back in place the secular structures of government. But it has a long way to go in fulfilling the promises made in the Common Minimum Programme it adopted at the time of the formation of the government.VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi
"WE have started well, but there is much more to do," said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh while releasing the "progress report" on the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's performance, on its first anniversary on May 22. The progress report and Manmohan Singh's elaboration on it focussed mainly on the government's projects - the appraisal of ongoing schemes and the projection of prospective plans. There was no direct reference to the political climate in the country or related issues, though the Prime Minister rated putting the nation back on an even keel as his government's singular achievement.
As one of his senior Cabinet colleagues told Frontline, the statements at the function had all the characteristics of Manmohanspeak; they were modest, and bereft of hyperbole, and strove to present a non-controversial and objective depiction. "There were so many political points that would have gone well with an occasion like the anniversary and some of them needed to be stated forcefully, but the Prime Minister chose not to mention any of them," said the senior Minister.
According to the Minister, the leaderships of the UPA and the government had every reason to refer to the conditions that prevailed when the alliance assumed office a year ago, the adversarial pronouncements and forecasts that came with it, especially from the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and how those prophesies of doom had collapsed over the past one year.
The early days of the UPA were marked by a clutch of analyses and projections that predicted a short life for the Manmohan Singh government. The reasons ranged from the lack of experience of the Congress in running a coalition government at the Centre to the tendency of regional parties in the UPA to engage in turf battles with the Congress and among themselves. It was also argued that the Congress had never been able to come to terms with the existence of two power centres and that Manmohan Singh and Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi would fall apart and destabilise the UPA sooner or later.
The policy differences between the Left parties - whose support is crucial for the survival of the UPA government - and the Congress, especially in the realm of economic policies, and Manmohan Singh's own "non-assertive personality", were also seen as factors that would hasten the breakdown of the government. Over and above this, the NDA had perceived that the "clean" Manmohan Singh would not be able to carry on with "tainted Ministers" like Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
On the basis of such analyses the NDA launched an agitation against the UPA government within hours of its taking office. Sections of the BJP and the NDA were so convinced about the imminent fall of the government that they even started citing, albeit privately, an astrological forecast, which said that the UPA would not survive beyond September 2004 and that Atal Bihari Vajpayee would return as Prime Minister.
"The collapse of all these predictions," the Minister contented, "and the survival of the UPA are indeed worth highlighting." More important, the leader pointed out, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi had worked out an exceptionally democratic system of functioning. He said they had shown that the existence of two centres of power need not necessarily lead to conflicts and can actually be productive. "In a sense," he added, "the two leaders have undone an undemocratic legacy that existed in the Indian polity since the 1970s, the heyday of Indira Gandhi and her Prime Minister's Office."
According to another senior UPA leader from a North Indian regional party, the UPA's survival has ensured the preservation of the country's secular, multi-ethnic, multi-religious character and this itself is worth highlighting, especially in contrast to the NDA regime's track record, which condoned something as heinous as the Gujarat communal carnage. The leader said the change in the socio-political climate in the past 12 months had instilled confidence among the minorities that they could live peacefully.
There are many in the government and in the UPA who, like these leaders, wonder why Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi did not develop a campaign on these lines for the first anniversary of the government. Could it be because the Prime Minister and the UPA leadership consider the forward movement of the government as tardy and patchy despite overcoming the portends of doom? Is it because some of the negative factors highlighted by the BJP and the NDA in the early days of the UPA regime have acquired more tangible dimensions in the present?
There is no formal confirmation of these perceptions but there are several factors within the UPA and outside to suggest that these could well be the reasons for the decision to go in for a low-key and low-on-politics anniversary.
In fact, there can be little doubt that the contradictions within the UPA have, over the past 12 months, decelerated the momentum of the fight for secularism and against communal Hindutva forces. On May 20, 2004, Manmohan Singh wound up his first interaction with the media as the Prime Minister-designate by saying that the people's mandate was to provide a strong and secular government fighting poverty, illiteracy and underdevelopment. The strength of the government, he added, would be built up on the basis of the unity of purpose of the coalition partners.
The UPA did show that unity of purpose in its first electoral test after the Lok Sabha polls, in the Maharashtra Assembly elections. The Congress and its partner, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), forged a cohesive alliance to defeat the BJP and the Shiv Sena. However, in the tests that followed in Bihar and Jharkhand, the UPA failed to repeat the performance. The Congress, the leader of the UPA, promoted dissension between the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) in Bihar and kept the RJD out of the UPA in Jharkhand. The result was that the NDA made an unexpected return to power in Jharkhand and in Bihar the Assembly was kept in suspended animation for three months and finally dissolved. The battle for turf between the RJD and the LJP continues unabated and the leader of the UPA has no solutions to end the conflict.
Clearly, Jharkhand and Bihar have given a fresh lease of life to the NDA and consequently to the BJP's associates in the Hindutva-oriented Sangh Parivar. The NDA's perception of "tainted Ministers" becoming a problem for the government is slowly acquiring credence. More corruption cases have been filed against Lalu Prasad, providing the NDA with scope to embarrass the government.
The fact that Ministers like Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan openly traded corruption charges against each other has given greater impetus to the NDA's efforts in this regard. Though the BJP and the NDA have not been able to strike decisive blows against the UPA on this issue, there is no doubt that the government's discomfiture is growing on account of the charges against some of the Ministers and the clashes between coalition partners.
Apart from the direct political impact, the differences in the UPA are also impacting governance. The Prime Minister's own public evaluation of the government does point towards this. He is on record as having said that the lack of consensus on several policy and other issues has retarded many development projects. Hence, he would only give, on a scale of 10, six marks to his own government. Manmohan Singh also made it clear that he is not fully satisfied with the performance.
The Left parties have said that they are unhappy with the functioning of the government, particularly with the overall direction of economic policy. Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), made it clear that this policy direction would create even political difficulties for the UPA and that the Left would be constrained to vote against the government in Parliament if this line continued.
Central to these expressions of dissatisfaction are the enormous lapses in adhering to and implementing the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) for governance, adopted jointly by the UPA and the Left parties. An internal assessment by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has apparently said that only four promises in the CMP have been fulfilled. These are the setting up of a minorities welfare commission, the establishment of a North East Council, the introduction of crop and livestock insurance, and the promotion of village electrification schemes. The assessment also apparently states that out of approximately 40 major promises in the CMP, progress on more than 30 is unsatisfactory.
The dissatisfaction of the Left parties is principally based on the tardiness in implementing the promises made in the CMP. The Left is most upset on account of the delay in finalising and passing the Employment Guarantee Act (EGA), which would have provided employment to lakhs of people in rural India. The CMP had promised to pass the EGA in the first 100 days of government. But the government's approach on this was marked by hesitation and indecision.
The provisions of the EGA were to be formulated by the National Advisory Council (NAC), a group consisting of academics, social activists and specialists in various fields. But the NAC's original proposals were altered by the government. Even this diluted Bill was not presented in Parliament as it was referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee, which is headed by former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and BJP leader Kalyan Singh. The BJP has been boycotting most of the Parliament sessions on one issue or the other and the draft Bill has not been taken up for consideration in the standing committee, basically because its chairman would not convene its meeting.
The Left parties say that the government has taken similar, procrastinating positions on vital issues such as reservation for women in Parliament and the State legislatures, and reservation in the private sector. All these lapses, pointed out M.K. Pandhe, Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M) and president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), make the UPA's promise to keep the common man's interests paramount look hollow. "While the UPA goes on dragging its feet on issues vital to the common man, it moves with eagerness to take decisions favouring foreign capital and big business," he said.
Pandhe listed decisions such as the amendment of the Patents Act, the inscrease in the foreign investment cap in telecommunication and insurance sectors, and the entry of global corporations into different sectors as manifestations of this reprehensible approach of the government. It is because of these lopsided priorities that the Left is contemplating a more proactive position against the government.
According to Pandhe, it is high time the UPA reasserted its political commitment and the spirit with which it was formed one year ago. "It is that commitment and spirit that helped it to take such decisions as abolishing POTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act], detoxifying educational and research institutions, and restoring the history textbooks scrapped by the NDA government."
The welcome improvement in relations with Pakistan and China was also made possible on account of this, he said. Pandhe added that only such reaffirmation of commitment could ensure the maintenance of people's faith in secular parties, which had been given the historical opportunity to rid the country of communal, fascist influences.
Reacting to these observations, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad told Frontline that the UPA, despite minor problems, would never lose sight of its basic objective. In fact, he pointed out, the overall direction is still there. "It was in the last session of Parliament that we adopted the Right to Information Act and the Prime Minister announced on the first anniversary the Bharat Nirman programme, a mega-development initiative for rural India."
The Bharat Nirman project has an outlay of Rs.1,73,000 crores over the next four years and promises to provide rural road connectivity, rural electrification, rural drinking water, rural telecom connectivity, and greater irrigation facilities. "All this shows that the original direction is being maintained," Azad added.
Even as UPA leaders like Azad express these hopes, the leadership of the BJP-led NDA term the one year of the UPA government as kushaasan (misrule) and repeated the same set of reasons it cited a year ago to predict the collapse of the UPA. Belying or affirming the predictions is, to paraphrase Prakash Karat, entirely up to the UPA leadership.