The Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the helm will complete 100 days of its second tenure on 29 August. The build-up is undoubtedly tepid, in contrast with the euphoria that preceded the series of ambitious 100-day agenda pronouncements by several key ministers on their first day at work. In fact, the UPA, preoccupied with its firefighting against the onset of drought, the ill effects of the global economic crisis, the
relentless spread of swine flu, missteps in foreign policy on Pakistan and defusing the feud between the Ambani brothers that has made for the most riveting corporate battle in modern India, is desperately seeking a second wind. That, as Mint reported on 13 August, could mean a cabinet expansion and reshuffle of key portfolios.
It would have been difficult to imagine such a set of circumstances on 16 May, when the Congress party swept to victory in the general election with an unexpectedly wide margin and with fewer coalition members. It was indeed a dream win.
Not only did the principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), suffer a humiliating loss, the UPA’s and Singh’s biggest critic and former ally, the Left, suffered a virtual wipeout in its bastions of Kerala and West Bengal. The Left’s parting of ways with the UPA had plunged the government into a political crisis that eventually forced the trust vote on 22 July last year. At the same time, other allies, including the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which shied away from any pre-poll alliance with the Congress party, suffered similar electoral reverses.
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The Congress party, with 200-plus seats in the 15th Lok Sabha, was on a roll; and incoming ministers rode this wave of euphoria. Ambitious promises included reservation for women in the legislature, a radical overhaul of the country’s education system, judicial reform and removing bottlenecks that impeded development of key infrastructure projects, especially roads.
But with less than a week to go before the 100th day of its new tenure, even the most ardent government backer will concede that the gap between intent and delivery has been huge. Worse, the shoulders are slumping, differences within the cabinet are on the rise and there is confusion among the cadres, especially with the leadership not signalling any fresh resolve.
What went wrong? Why has euphoria given way to disappointment? Actually, it could have been worse for the UPA but for the fortuitous distraction provided by the gripping imagery of the slow and steady implosion of the BJP.
Losing momentum? (L to R) Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and defence minister A.K. Antony at a recent party meet in New Delhi. Manish Swarup / AP
The primary reason for disillusionment is the fact that the UPA has been unable to cope with the burden of expectations—created entirely of its own accord. It is one thing to promise the moon in the run-up to the elections and then deliver on that as a functioning government. Not only does it require inordinate planning and energy, there is also the element of luck. While there was no visible evidence of the former; in hindsight, it is clear that the government was blindsided by the drought—especially its scope and impact. The UPA compounded the problem by renewing its pledges as executive promises that would be delivered in 100 days.
The UPA’s predicament is quite similar to what is besetting Barack Obama—the first black president of the US. Like the Congress party, he too made a host of promises. Unlike the Congress party, however, he kept them vague and used his powerful oratory to drown out any uncomfortable questions. At his 100-day mark, people were still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now, six months into his tenure, he has been unable to translate promises into specific deliverables; the Obama administration seems almost adrift and opinion polls show that Obama is facing a sharp fall in popularity as he struggles to meet expectations. In the Indian context, there are no opinion polls that can empirically establish what is apparent anecdotally.
The UPA has compounded the problem by not providing any credible government narrative when doubts have emerged. Not only has the response to almost every challenge been delayed, very often there have been multiple responses with some of them contradicting each other. If there is a clear rationale for government action, then the UPA has failed to articulate it. In the absence of an official narrative, it is not surprising that all kinds of theories have gained ground.
It is clear, then, that the UPA is facing a visible loss in momentum and has eroded most of its social capital. While the government’s longevity is not in any doubt, it will definitely have an impact on the UPA’s ability to push forward any contentious policy changes. The next 100 days should be revealing.
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