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Home > India > News > Columnists > Neerja Chowdhury

Four years on, UPA losing direction

May 21, 2008

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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] will be hosting a dinner for United Progressive Alliance MPs at his residence on May 22 to mark the completion of four years in power, and from all accounts the celebrations this year will be low key.

This is not surprising, for the UPA is under the weather because of spiralling inflation which has touched the 7.8 per cent mark and poses the biggest challenge to the government. The BJP is sharpening its knives and attacked UPA for its 'unkept promises'.

The mood in the government is sombre. Remarked a senior cabinet minister dejectedly, "I don't think I am in a mood to go over our achievements of last four years, though there are many."

On the plus side, the Congress has run a stable coalition at the Centre for four years, managing the division between political power represented by Sonia Gandhi [Images] and a government headed by Manmohan Singh. The growth story has gone on for four continuous years; foreign exchange reserves stand at over $300 billion, which would have been inconceivable in 1991.

For all the shortcomings in implementation, this government will be remembered for enacting the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and its extension to the whole country, and the path-breaking Right to Information Act which will increasingly be an empowering tool for the citizen. The Domestic Violence Bill will give succour to battered women.

The Women's Reservation Bill was tabled in the Rajya Sabha on the last day of the Budget session. Nowhere near passage, given the resistance from the OBCs in every party, the government will have to create a political consensus on it de novo, if it is serious about reservation for women in legislatures. The government tried to correct its pro-rich image by going in for a Rs 60,000 crore loan waiver for farmers, though inflation wiped off its magic within weeks.

The singular failure of the government has been on the agriculture front, which has recorded only 2 per cent growth but 60 per cent of the population depends on it for its livelihood. Suicides by farmers continue, wheat was imported at double the prices paid to our farmers, the per capita intake of food dropped by around 10 per cent between 2002-06, no matter what George W Bush [Images] may say. This government, has talked about 'aam admi' but, like its predecessor, pursued polices which have helped only those who inhabit the India that is 'shining'.

According to one of its reports, 77 per cent of Indians spend less than Rs 20 a day and yet India has the second largest number of billionaires today. India is surging ahead but 'Bharat' is lagging way behind. It makes for heightened social conflict, which we are witnessing in the form of agitations against SEZs or against prices. There is a widening disconnect between the rulers and the people they claim to represent and it manifests itself at election time. That is why parties are caught by surprise at electoral outcomes.

At the end of four years, the Congress is increasingly buffeted around by its allies, and the alliance is fraying at the edges. The more the Congress gives into the demands of its allies, the more it is pushed around. Union Shipping Minister T R Baalu openly defended his act of seeking special favours for his son, dragging the Prime Minister's Office in an unseemly controversy, and the Budget session of Parliament had to be curtailed.

The Supreme Court's verdict reinstating Dr P Venugopal as the director of the prestigious AIIMS after a prolonged spat with Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramdoss, came as a slap in the face of the government which had enacted a special law to show Venugopal the door under pressure from its junior southern ally.

West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya described Manmohan Singh as a 'failed prime minister', even as the PM described Buddhadeb as the best chief minister in the country.

Even the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which has been the Congress' oldest and staunchest ally, was talking about withdrawing support to the government if it went ahead with the Women's Reservation Bill, even though Lalu Prasad Yadav was party to the Cabinet decision to table it in the Upper House.

This is the tip of the iceberg. In a coalition era, every government has to contend with compulsions and maverick leaders. The UPA has failed to draw a `Laxman rekha' beyond which no party should be allowed to push the government.

A major failure of the government and the ruling Congress is their inability to encash their achievements. There has been little sign of street campaigns to take these to the people. The Congress has shown no inclination or will for drum beating. The sniping by a senior Congress leader like Arjun Singh [Images] shows a weakening of the leadership's authority.

It goes without saying that inflation will be the UPA's Achilles heel. Onion prices had devoured Congress state governments in the Hindi states in the winter of 2003. Experts may discuss the rising prices of foodstuffs or of oil worldwide, but that does not mitigate the suffering of the common man who casts the vote.

Unlike 2004 when Sonia Gandhi took things into her hands and hit the road and stitched up alliances, there is a lack of grip this time, as if things are on auto pilot. Cabinet meetings get over in minutes. People are glibly talking of a third front government in 2009 supported by the Congress.

Some see a method in this madness. The Congress, they say, is not exhibiting a killer instinct because it realises that the mandate in 2009 is likely to be more fractured than it was in 2004, that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati will be a player and may give whoever comes to power a real run around and that whichever government is cobbled together may not last long. And it is only after that, that the Congress' chance will come. What is more Rahul Gandhi [Images] needs at least another two years to come into his own.

While the explanation seems far fetched, for no political party can afford to think like that, the situation is clearly one of drift, as if no one is in control. There is disappointment with the government and a growing restiveness amongst farmers, workers, and the middle classes. Barring Haryana, the Congress has lost successive elections in the last four years -- Punjab, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, UP, Gujarat -- which has done nothing for its morale and it now faces a tough challenge in Karnataka.

With the triumvirate -- PM, Finance Minister P Chidambaram and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia -- pulling in one direction and the Left reining them in, the result has been confusion, with no clear cut signals about what the government stands for. The Indo-US nuclear deal was on, off, and now some believe it may be on again. As a result, the UPA has fallen between many stools.

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