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UPA’s tough times

Author: Vidhu Verma
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: December 31, 2011
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/pioneer-news/top-story/31914-upas-tough-times.html

The year 2011 saw the Congress-led UPA Government pulling in different directions. For most part it appeared to be consumed by chaos, corruption and crises. Will 2012 be different, or will it be another year of political deadlock?

As 2011 draws to a close, it is fair to say that this has been the rockiest year for the UPA Government since it was re-elected to power in 2009. The tremors have spread from the allied parties to the core as all political initiatives were too little and came too late. Towards the end of the year, it felt like its leaders took longer to agree to the latest measures to restore political credibility than it took for the people to lose it.

When the UPA-II was elected in the 15th Lok Sabha elections, it was expected to implement much anticipated economic reforms. But ever since it came to power, the coalition has been besieged by political scandals, bickering ministers and the absence of a strong power centre that pointed towards a ‘governance deficit’ and a gap in public accountability. These concerns grew as the Government was unable to contain a drift that led to questions about the way decision-making — or the lack of it — led to scams such as the 2G spectrum allocation, Commonwealth Games, Adarsh society scam, and misguided appointments like that of the Central Vigilance Commissioner.

The Government’s stamina for making policy decisions further nosedived as it battled social movements against corruption. Although there were numerous announcements of policies in the social sector, not much was done for the aam admi  who was wrestling with the problem of spiralling fuel and food prices. The whole idea of inclusive growth became mere rhetoric as beneficiaries were mostly in the corporate sector. The Government tabled the Right to Food Bill, which extends entitlements to subsidised grain to 75 per cent of the total rural and 50 per cent of the urban population. But most analysts regard the Bill as a ticking time-bomb as it poses serious challenges not only in implementation but also because of its likely economic impact since the infrastructure to procure, store and move the grain will have to be first created. The anxious negotiations between the UPA chairperson and the Prime Minister on the Bill are well-known, as is the dissent note from Chief Ministers like J Jayalalithaa.

The inability to move beyond the perceived short-term interests of coalition politics at the expense of long-term structural changes has been a key reason for the UPA’s powerlessness to respond adequately to the challenges it currently faces. When the Manmohan Singh Government abruptly announced that up to 51 per cent of FDI in multi-brand retail would be introduced in India, not only the Opposition but also its key allies like the Trinamool Congress chose to dissociate themselves from the new policy. With the coming Assembly elections in several States, the Government was compelled to abandon its decision. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the issue of FDI in multi-brand retail trade has sharply divided Indian politics, besides bringing the whole package of economic reforms under political scrutiny and public discourse.

Here are a few warning signs of trouble ahead in the coming year. One is that the country’s gross domestic product will continue to grow in 2012, although at a much slower rate than promised by the UPA’s common minimum programme. This might keep the market humming as India’s growth, among BRIC nations, will rank only second to China. Capital flow will remain an important concern as there are stark differences in the economic environment of advanced and emerging economies. So, the next Budget — due in February — has acquired major significance as the analysts expect the Government to take a clear direction in economic policy. Second, given that personalities, political styles and reputations of Congress stalwarts would remain the same, the question of a stained administration will be hard to wear off. To regain moral authority to rule, the Government needs to control public outrage and disgust at corruption by Cabinet ministers. Any further political bungling will overshadow everything that the UPA-II has achieved so far.

In politics, the Government needs time to recover credibility after a battering from the anti-corruption protests and the Lokpal issue in Parliament, while the main Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will seek to capitalise on the situation to lay a platform for the next general election even though it is suffering from lack of strong leadership at the national level. The party’s weakness in Uttar Pradesh is well-known and its anti-corruption credibility is by no means impeccable. It is likely that the BJP leaders will carry on their vehement attacks and plunge headlong into hyperbole in Parliament. The year 2012 might be another year of political deadlock and its forecast does not look promising.

Against this political landscape, the Assembly elections in the most populous State, Uttar Pradesh, which accounts for 80 seats of India’s 545-member Parliament, will be keenly watched. Mayawati’s third term as Chief Minister was a culmination of historic efforts by oppressed lower castes in north India. However, the coming election is likely to involve bitter warring as Mayawati is fighting with her back to the wall to retain the popular vote from her rivals. She and her party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), have lost ground even as her core Dalit support remains intact. As she seeks to divide the State into four parts to distract attention from the shortcomings in her administration, her adversaries — the Samajwadi Party, Congress, BJP and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) — are trying to understand the obdurate realities of Uttar Pradesh politics.

In contrast to the scenario of the 1990s when caste identities drove electoral politics, the issues of law and order, land acquisition and employment are bound to play a critical role in the Uttar Pradesh elections. With eye on the polls, the Centre’s push for schemes and sops has been on the rise. Unlike the Food Security Bill, which has poll ramifications at the national level, projects for Uttar Pradesh are being hurried through to benefit farmers.

Irrigation projects, steel units and package for handloom weavers, especially for the weaver community in Varanasi, have been cleared by the Centre. Apart from the tie-up with the RLD’s Ajit Singh to gain the farming community’s votes in western Uttar Pradesh, a new 4.5 per cent sub-quota for minorities within the 27 per cent quota for OBCs has been cleared that comes into force from January 2012.

The pendulum has swung against the Jats, once a prosperous community, due to the decline of agriculture but they remain influential in 55 Assembly constituencies of western UP. Already a part of the State OBC list, they are threatening an agitation for being included in the Central OBC list. The RLD is now expected to contest around 45 seats in the 2012 Assembly elections in alliance with the Congress. To what extent this alliance, along with a Muslim sub-quota, will swing votes in favour of the Congress is difficult to say at this point, but the battle for controlling the State certainly needs more than a simple majority. It will take a sharp and penetrating leadership that is rooted in political realities to break through this deadlock.

It does not mean that caste and communal attachments have lost salience in the heartland of India, but the extent to which these would politicise identities in the coming elections would shape the future of the UPA-II’s political fortunes. Uttar Pradesh has always been central to the ambitions of the national parties for whom winning the State comes close to winning Parliament. The revival of the Congress in the heartland of Indian politics may well influence, if not determine, the political future of Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the party’s possible choice for the Prime Minister’s post. But this might not be easy as in the forthcoming elections the UPA will have to attract hundreds of millions of first-time voters who are eager for change and not constrained by the past.

The year 2012 will be an opportunity for the Congress to push the limits of its imagination to anticipate what politics will look in the next stage of its political career and to make new initiatives and compelling decisions. There is a slowdown in the economy but the fact is that India is a growth economy and unlike many other nations, it is a nation on the move.
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