The second incarnation of the United Progressive Alliance government (UPA-II) presents a curious spectacle. A combination of ineptness and good fortune marks the closure of its 100 days at the helm of India.
A government led by a party that lacks administrative experience is exempt from the charge of ineptitude: UPA-II attracts them with force. If anything, the political turbulence of UPA-I should have equipped UPA-II to handle matters much better. After all there are few, if any, bothersome alliance partners and the government has a clear mandate to govern. These are rare advantages in a fractious and indisciplined polity.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The conversion of these advantages to suitable ends, however, is an altogether different matter. There are two combinations under which such a constellation can be used to good effect. The first is a mix of political shrewdness and ruthlessness. If anyone in recent memory had those attributes, it was the late P.V. Narasimha Rao.
The second combination is that of administrative sagacity and sound political management. Given that these two attributes could not be found in a single person, the Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi combine was the best option under the circumstances: a dyarchy that worked well in view of the understanding and trust between the two partners.
That has changed. Not that trust and understanding have evaporated between the two, but other factors have entered the equation. At nearly 76, this is surely Singh’s last tenure as prime minister. His priorities are geared towards securing his legacy. Perhaps that characterization is unfair for a person of the Prime Minister’s calibre, but what else can one call his disastrous engagement with the Pakistani leadership?
At the same time, the politics of the Congress party has veered towards populist channels, very different from the party’s earlier, reformist, streak: Many in its top leadership feel they have found a formula for lasting political power. This is reminiscent of the 1970s when another prime minister thought along similar lines. They should know better: Lasting political power in a democracy is a mirage.
Between these two unstable girders of a legacy-hunting Prime Minister and the leading political party in a populist mood, the roof of good governance is collapsing. Pressing issues such as managing the drought and reviving a slowing economy have received only ad hoc attention. There are other matters of great importance for the long-term future of the country that have not been addressed. How to initiate the next round of economic reforms? How to arrive at a meaningful consensus on climate change in the country? How to deal effectively with Pakistan and China? These issues cannot be pushed aside merely because one can’t see them clearly on the horizon.
One reason why UPA-II has been able to get away with this state of affairs is the rebellion, to the point of implosion, in the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party. That is a piece of good luck that is letting the government get away with what it is doing.
The UPA-II government: incoherent or incompetent? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org