The first year of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second term in office has been more turbulent than could have been imagined when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was re-elected in May 2009. By comparison, UPA-I managed to strike a fine balance between contending interests while it took some crucial decisions in the very first year and pushed through important legislations such as the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The passage of the Right to Education Act is an important achievement of UPA-II in the first year of its term, but beyond this the jury is out on whether it has the political will to deliver on its commitments to the aam aadmi.
Zoya Hasan is professor of political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
This question assumes significance because the Congress-led UPA-II sees the renewal of its mandate in 2009 as a vindication of the architecture of inclusion it built up during its first term in office. The redistributive policies of UPA-I government contributed to Congress’ electoral success and people expect the UPA-II to follow the same policies.
From the Telangana fiasco to the uncertainty over the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB), UPA-II appears to be losing the momentum it had generated immediately after the election; the disarray in the principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), only further enhanced the initial gains.
There is a pervasive feeling that UPA-II lacks direction and a clear policy framework, as a result, the Centre does not hold. Congress’ own lack of cohesion and ideology exacerbates the problem as it appears torn between differing strategies on key policy issues. UPA-I had its share of troubles, but the Common Minimum Programme provided an agreed road map and the coordination committee zealously guarded against any deviation from it. For this reason, the progressive sections within the Congress together with the support of Left parties in Parliament and non-governmental organizations and civil society groups outside it were able to push through ground-breaking legislations such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and RTI.
Even though Congress had fewer than 150 seats, Sonia Gandhi had a hegemonic position in UPA-I and her decisive pro-poor stance was the hallmark of the government. She doesn’t seem to be playing a similarly decisive role in setting the policy agenda this time even as UPA-II gives the impression of floundering from one crisis to another.
Sitaram Yechury, Politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), talks to Ruhi Tewari about the political ups and downs of the UPA government’s first year in power.
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Indeed, UPA-II government’s first big floor test came within a year of taking office. Even after proving its majority on Opposition moved cut motions in the just concluded Budget session, it is not assured of a trouble-free term for the remaining four years since it is dependent upon the likes of Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav to keep it in power. The price for maintaining these truant numbers is keeping WRB on hold or else understanding between the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal can come unstuck.
It is no surprise then that UPA-II is turning out to be quite different from UPA-I, which was driven by a pro-poor policy consensus and some deft political management, in which Gandhi and the Left parties played a key role.
Both dimensions are missing in the politics of UPA-II. It has not been able to bring testy allies on board and is pursuing policies that essentially please the middle- and upper-middle classes to enlist their support for the Congress. The government has reduced direct taxes besides giving tax-breaks to the rich, while leaving the poor to cope with 18% food inflation.
Instead of a sharp focus on social, health and education sectors, UPA-II is keen on public-private partnerships in education, facilitating the entry of foreign universities, cuts in subsidies, etc. That is surprising coming from a government that returned to power riding on the back of the aam aadmi. But sooner than later UPA-II has to recognize that high growth alone will not reduce social inequalities and find ways to minimise the latter without hampering the former. Presumably, the top leadership of the Congress has the political savvy to appreciate that there is an urgent need to carry people, particularly the deprived, with them or at least be perceived to be doing so.
The reconstitution of the National Advisory Council under Gandhi suggests an attempt at course correction. It is indicative of a shift in the government—party balance to regain political cohesion. The most encouraging sign that UPA-II is seized of the problem of inequalities comes from a growing recognition of the need for a more universal approach to social protection. Such an approach appears to be under consideration with regard to the proposed right to food legislation as against arbitrarily limiting the number of beneficiaries, either by fiat, or, indirectly, through speciously low poverty estimates.
The road ahead is shaky unless the Congress leadership takes some bold decisions to implement its inclusive policies and programmes. UPA-II must grasp the opportunity to build social democracy, albeit an Indian social democracy, to recoup the political capital that UPA-I had earned in the election.
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