When the parties constituting the United Progressive Alliance won the Lok Sabha election a year ago, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders convinced themselves that this was an artificial, freak and false victory; the UPA would collapse immediately.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee even sought refuge in an astrological forecast that it would sink without trace by September. UPA opponents made dire predictions: the Congress, a bad coalition partner, would destabilise the UPA; dual power centres, in government and in 10 Janpath, would create endemic instability; the Left, unhappy with the UPA's economic policies, would walk out; being 'weak', Prime Minister Manmohan Singh won't be able to handle his fractious colleagues.
Not only has the UPA endured, but it shows no signs of going under. It's a great relief that the BJP, with its hate-driven politics, remains out of power. Relations between the government and the UPA/Congress, mediated through weekly top-level meetings, have survived serious strains.
The Congress has been forced to learn to do coalition politics. Even though some of its leaders dream of its return to a 'one-party dominance' or salience system, they're playing by coalition rules. The UPA's numerical strength hasn't depleted. The National Advisory Council has functioned as a coherent think-tank and generated good policy proposals, although the government doesn't fully accept them.
The Left is not happy with many UPA policies, especially the continuity it maintains with its BJP-led National Democratic Alliance's pro-globalisation, neo-liberal orientation. But it's under no illusion that it can call the shots.
As CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat says: 'If the Left takes a clear-cut position, the PM is willing to listenů But once he makes up his mind, he goes aheadů We only have a greater say when the matter has to go through Parliament.' Yet, the Left isn't about to destabilise the UPA. It knows the consequences of doing so would be extremely damaging -- risking the Hindu Right's return. The Left-UPA equation isn't an easy one, but it's not unviable.
Dr Singh has emerged as a quietly assertive PM, who understands a wide range of issues. Irrespective of whether one agrees with his orientation, instincts and assessments, one must admit he has proved himself to be his own person. He has given India's foreign policy a thrust that's very much his own. Recent friction between UPA constituents -- over Lalu Prasad's attack on the Election Commission -- has not precipitated the kind of crises that erupted in the very first few weeks of the Janata period or the Janata Dal government.
The UPA has revived the people's faith in consensual, secular, moderate politics, which accepts India's multi-ethnic, multi-religious character. It has put the BJP politically on the defensive and taken the wind out of its incredible defence of the Centaur Hotel and UTI scandals. The revitalisation of non-divisive, non-confrontationist, secular politics is itself a worthy achievement, although it cannot be sustained without a focused and energetic effort to pro-actively promote secularism. Similarly, the promise of putting aam aadmi (common person) first has generated hope among the underprivileged.
Even the urban elite's perception of the UPA's record is positive. A Times of India poll (sample size 1,696) in 11 big cities says Dr Singh's performance is rated 'excellent' or 'good' by 60 per cent. Half the population feels that way about his government's working. Three-fifths feel the Left has had a positive impact on the government.
That said, the negative side of the balance sheet is no less important. Indeed, it's probably more so in determining the legitimacy and credibility of a government -- and eventually, its longevity. Dr Singh himself rates the government's performance at 6 on a 1 to 10 scale. His office has compiled a report on the implementation of the National Common Minimum Programme, which lays out the UPA's priorities, policies and promises.
Of the 40-odd major promises, the document admits, progress on more than 30 is unsatisfactory. It describes progress on only four promises -- establishment of a commission for minorities' welfare, a North-East Council, crop and livestock insurance, and village electrification -- as satisfactory. That's just one-tenth of the total. But merely establishing commissions doesn't mean much. For instance, the composition of the commission on the minorities isn't brilliant, with at best two members who have academic standing. The UPA is addicted to commissionitis. In the first 11 months, it set up one commission every week!
The central, pivotal, point is, the UPA has failed to implement some of the greatest promises it made, which distinguished it from the NDA, and reflected the electorate's urge for two things: one, redistributive justice within an economy which is becoming increasingly dualistic; and two, a reaffirmation of pluralism, tolerance and secularism after the deep wounds inflicted by the Gujarat violence and the NDA's shameful defence of it.
The crucial promises pertain to the Employment Guarantee Act, which was to be passed in the first 100 days; doubling rural credit and boosting public investment in the rural infrastructure to relieve agrarian distress; reservations in the private sector; reservations for women in Parliament; and raising public spending on education to 6 per cent of GDP. Equally important promises included a return to an independent, non-aligned multipolar foreign policy, with renewed emphasis on global nuclear disarmament.
Some of these promises -- like women's reservation -- need parliamentary consensus. But the UPA hasn't done enough to secure it by engaging various political parties. Even more glaring is the UPA's failure to do what it could have done on its own, with assured support from its outer-circle partners. Take the EGA. The government severely diluted the NAC's original draft and robbed it of the concept of a guarantee: the right to work is granted or removed at the government's will. It reduced its coverage to less than a fourth of the country, without offering the minimum wage. Finally, it referred the watered-down Bill to a Parliamentary standing committee headed by the BJP's Kalyan Singh. In keeping with the decision to boycott Parliament, Singh has refused to convene the committee!
One whole year on, the promise to tackle the biggest economic problem facing the people -- unemployment -- remains unfulfilled. Contrast this with the alacrity with which the UPA took certain steps -- for instance, to amend the Patents Act, raise the foreign investment cap in telecom and insurance, facilitate entry of global corporations into different sectors, including tourism and hotels, and allow private airlines to fly abroad, etc. The difference speaks of the order of priority the UPA attaches to different objectives. This was confirmed by Dr Singh himself on May 16, when he again stressed 'disinvestment in public enterprises.' This is at odds with the NCMP promise not to privatise profit-making enterprises.
Take education. The government has been collecting a 2 per cent cess on all Central taxes to finance universal access to elementary education and raise public spending on education to 6 per cent of GDP. The PMO's report card blames the ministry of human resource development for its non-achievement. This is grossly unfair. It is the Cabinet's responsibility -- and ultimately, the PMO's -- to direct Finance Minister P Chidambaram to create an elementary education fund with the cess -- just as it has done for highways.
But Chidambaram, backed by Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, has flatly refused to establish such a fund. The Rs 13,000 crores cess collected over the past two years lies unused for education. This is higher than the Rs 12,537 crores budget allocation to elementary education -- a crying shame!
The UPA's record on international relations and defence is no better. There is no perceptible change in India's external posture. The 'strategic partnership' with Washington continues with all its inequality. At one point, the UPA considered sending troops to Iraq and is keen to help the occupation government write a constitution. India continues its close military relationship with Israel without pressing for an end to the unjust occupation of Palestine.
There has been a welcome improvement in relations with Pakistan and China, especially Pakistan. But India's Nepal policy is an embarrassing mess. Relations with Bangladesh are troubled. No attempt is being made to put them on an even keel. On multinational institutions like the WTO, World Bank, etc, India toes a pro-Western line -- witness its support for Pascal Lamy for the WTO, against a Third World candidate.
The UPA promised to update and campaign for the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi Plan for complete global nuclear disarmament. It hasn't done so. India is no longer playing a pro-peace global role. It's itself furiously stockpiling weapons-grade plutonium and building nuclear war-fighting capabilities. Another grave disappointment is defence spending. The UPA has raised by an unconscionable 26 per cent since June last -- when there is an urgent need to cut it and use the money for public services.
That India should be the world's largest importer of arms while being among the lowest one-fourth of the globe's nations in its human development rank is a matter of great shame. If the UPA does not change course right now, the people may not give it another chance. They don't like politicians who play games with issues dear to them. A score of 6/10 isn't good enough!