Four seemingly unrelated yet significant developments that played out in the run-up to the second anniversary of the United Progressive Alliance sum up the second innings of this government.
One exposed the dysfunctional nature of UPA-II, the second reflected the government’s failure in tackling the single-biggest macroeconomic malaise (for some time now), the third indicated the government’s inability to sell a policy decision to its various stakeholders and constituents, and the last reiterated the taint of alleged corruption that’s become, in some ways, the leitmotif of this government.
•Our View: Two wobbly years
•My View: UPA-II: difficult to redeem
First, there were the back-to-back gaffes on the composition of the most-wanted terrorist lists handed over to Pakistan. Then, the release of inflation data showed marginal moderation—the rate decelerated to 8.66% in April—that would be short-lived once the latest hike in petrol price is factored in.
In any case, final data shows that actual inflation is above 9%; it was actually 9.5% in February as opposed to the provisional estimate of 8.98%; in March, the corresponding numbers were 9.04% and 8.30%, respectively.
Third, the cabinet approved the below-the-poverty-line census, but strangely maintained, despite objection by states, that all the identified poor would not be eligible for benefits under various social welfare schemes. Some of the states have already announced their intent to boycott the seminal census.
And fourth, the special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation rejected the bail application of K. Kanimozhi, daughter of M. Karunanidhi, patriarch of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), leading to her arrest—the second shock for the DMK, a key constituent of the UPA, coming soon after a drubbing in the Tamil Nadu assembly elections.
It is no coincidence that all of these happened so close to UPA-II’s second anniversary. They are symptoms of what ails the government. Looking back at the first two years of its second stint in the office, the more charitable conclusion is that the UPA missed out on a huge opportunity.
The tragedy is that while it will, if it hasn’t so already, pay the political price for this, the government’s failure has hurt the nation immeasurably. Never in the history of this country has a re-elected government had as great an opportunity as the one the UPA had in its sights in May 2009. Better still, the government was re-elected to a second term in office with an unexpectedly healthy margin, providing it with welcome political stability.
The first sign that something wasn’t right came during the casting of the cabinet, when the UPA chose to return with the same team rather than infuse younger talent from its ranks to reflect the mandate from the nation that was inspired by Rahul Gandhi’s first serious electoral initiative.
From then on there have been a series of missteps, including the foreign policy blunder at Sharm el Sheikh in July 2009, the disastrous management of the Commonwealth Games, the error in oversight in the appointment of the Central vigilance commissioner, and inaction on the growing allegations of corruption in the allocation of second generation, or 2G, telecom licences till as late as 2010 and that too only after the intervention of the Supreme Court.
Not surprisingly then, the government has spent the better part of the last two years firefighting, leaving little time for serious policy initiatives. The policy paralysis is more than apparent.
A review (by Arjun Kumar, a researcher at Mint) of the policy pronouncements by the government reveals that there has been a dramatic fall in decisions taken by the Union cabinet—it dropped from an average of about 30 decisions a month in early 2009 to just around five in the first four months of this year. There is almost a similar trend in decisions taken by the cabinet committee on economic affairs.
As if these were not enough, the inability of the UPA to manage relations with the opposition and state governments is exacting a big price on the country. The trust deficit between the Centre and the state governments nixed the timely introduction of the single goods and services tax, which, for the first time, would have economically unified the country.
While the opposition has not won itself too many friends with its intransigence, the government, too, has been found wanting—the logjams in Parliament mean significant policy changes are slipped through without much, and sometimes no, debate.
All this begs the question: If the government’s performance is indeed so lacklustre, then why doesn’t it keel over? A simple answer is that no one, particularly the opposition, wants to precipitate a political crisis that could force a mid-term general election.
At this milestone, though, the issue is not about the government’s survival. Instead, it is about its ability to perform and failure to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will provide a fantastic foundation for the predominantly young demography of India to exploit.
The UPA used its second anniversary to brag about its enviable record of staying in power for two consecutive terms. It would do better to look forward and draw inspiration from Leo Tolstoy’s immortal lines: “Life is a process of challenging your limitations and expanding your capacities.”
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org