Two days after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the Left wanted to treat him as their bonded slave, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is free to push forward vital legislation and economic reforms that have been in limbo for the past four years. By now, that’s conventional wisdom. But, is it? If one version of political freedom has dawned on the UPA, other compulsions are waiting in the wings.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint.
In all probability, the UPA’s new partner, the Samajwadi Party (SP), is less likely to be doctrinaire on economic reforms. As a result, legislation pertaining to airports, insurance, pensions, microfinance and a host of other areas crying for attention can see daybreak. A large volume of such legislation deals with creating a regulatory environment that takes away bureaucratic and political discretion and brings in depoliticized regulators. There’s no doubt that government will have more leeway in Parliament in this respect.
The limits on this road, again, are political. Given its rather provincial concerns and too-close-for-comfort relations with certain corporate interests, the SP is not an ideal partner. The fact that it is likely to extract a price for its support is well known. Friendship with the SP may result in another contradiction. If the UPA wants reforms that create free and competitive markets, cronyism may be the price to pay for survival.
What is worrying is that the SP cannot be avoided or jettisoned. The political phalanx being organized by an angry Left will ensure that. Centred around the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and parties belonging to the United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA), this new populist coalition can pose a formidable electoral challenge in the coming general election. This will ensure that many states in the north (Uttar Pradesh, Haryana) and the south (Andhra Pradesh) will be hostile territory for the UPA. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), too, poses a threat to the UPA almost across the country.
This poses difficult challenges for the UPA. It has barely eight months to push its unfulfilled legislative agenda. As a result, it will not be in a position to enjoy any electoral fruits from the reforms: They will be left for the next government to enjoy. Equally, there has been no let-up in the populist climate in the country, as represented by the Left-BSP-UNPA political arrangement. This might well force the UPA to pause and think.
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