Into the final lap of its five-year journey UPA-II Hobbles
On May 22, the second edition of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) will observe its fourth anniversary—-its ninth since it first came to power in 2004—-under the dark and menacing shadow of allegations of corruption against its ministers and leaders, an economic slowdown that is testing the energy, patience and staying power of the people and a policy paralysis in the government that first stemmed out of its own inertia and then from a breakdown in its relations with the Opposition leading to a complete washout of the second half of the Budget session and a premature adjournment of the two Houses of Parliament.
Like previous years, this time too on May 22, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, UPA chairperson and Congress president Sonia Gandhi and leaders of alliance partners would get together to break bread and present their fourth and final report card of the coalition’s performance in their second innings. But there is an unmistakable air of gloom, if not doom, in the run-up to the occasion as the Manmohan Singh government faces an acute crisis of moral and political credibility—-and does not seem to know how to deal with it in the little time it has at its disposal before the general elections slated to be held sometime in April-May 2014 unless advanced.
Indeed, this has been the story of UPA-2 ever since it came to power for the second time in 2009. Yet there was nothing to show that summer of the ways things would unfold for the Congress. The party had won 206 seats—-up from 145 seats in 2004—- on the strength of the popular support it got for pursuing a pro-people and pro-poor agenda, best defined through initiatives like NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, later prefixed with Mahatma Gandhi’s name), farm loan waivers and the Right to Information. To add to this, it had a formidable triumvirate in Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, with the Prime Minister seen as a mascot of the middle classes, the Congress president as the messiah of the poor and the marginalised and the Amethi MP as an icon of the country’s youth. It was a heady mix that promised a bright future for a party which had gone in for a coalition out of compulsion and was yearning for the day it could form a government of its own at the Centre.
Battered and bruised
But the picture changed within days. Barely two months into office in 2009, the Prime Minister became the first target of attack for signing a joint statement with Pakistan delinking the composite dialogue process from terrorism and making a mention of Baluchistan in the text. After that it has been a torrent.
There have been scams relating to Commonwealth Games, Adarsh Cooperative Housing, 2G, Coalgate, S-band, AgustaWestland choppers and Railgate. The government was dogged by controversies like the appointment of P J Thomas as Chief Vigilance Commissioner (later quashed by the Supreme Court) and vetting of CBI’s status report on Coalgate by Ashwini Kumar as law minister. Allies have been stomping out of the UPA citing reasons ranging from their opposition to FDI to their disillusionment with the Congress on certain issues, including its alleged communal politics. The list of UPA deserters included the Trinamool Congress, the All India Majlis-e-Ithehadul Muslimeen, the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, the Republican Party of India and the DMK, which broke ranks over the Centre’s stand in the United Nations on the alleged human rights violation in Sri Lanka. Besides the spurt of ministerial resignations because of withdrawal of support, a number of UPA-2 ministers have also had to step down on charges of corruption or impropriety. They included the DMK’s A Raja and Dayanidhi Maran and the Congress’s Shashi Tharoor, Virbhadra Singh and more recently Ashwini Kumar and Pawan Kumar Bansal who were made to pack their bags on the same day for their different roles in Coalgate and Railgate scandals. To compound the UPA’s problems, there were a spate of street-level protests including by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal for a jan lokpal bill, by the common people over the brutal gangrape of a young paramedic in Delhi and by agitationists of a separate state of Telangana in Andhra Pradesh. The government even lost the comfort of a high growth rate that it had for the major part of its regime touted as one of its main achievements and saw India’s credit ratings fall. To make matters worse, there were intermittent reports of a rift between the Prime Minister and the Congress president which the party allowed to fester to the Opposition’s glee before denying them, the latest example being over the government’s handling of the Kumar and Bansal episodes.
In short, the government appeared virtually under siege as it lurched from one crisis to another, its ineffective handling of domestic problems compounded by the recent Chinese incursions or by Pakistan’s failure to cooperate in bringing the culprits of the Mumbai terror attack to book. But it ended up surprising doom-sayers by surviving—only because no one wanted to go for early elections and the main Opposition, the BJP, was busy fighting its own demons. In the process, the Manmohan Singh government came to be seen as lame duck and the media, both domestic and foreign, that had once hailed him, branded him “Dr Dolittle’’ and an “Underachiever”. Murmurs within the party for a change of guard at the Centre further eroded the credibility and image of the man who Sonia Gandhi had handpicked for the top job.
Little to showcase?
So, is there nothing that the UPA-2 can brag about as it steps into its fifth year in office?
It did ensure the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha on March 9, 2010, though it would find it hard to get it past the Lok Sabha where the proponents of a sub-quota for dalits, backwards and minorities are arraigned against the proposal that promises to reserve one third elective seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. Also, it managed the enactment of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education in August 2009, extended the scope of MGNREGA and rolled out the direct benefit transfer scheme which aims to make timely and speedier payments of the existing government schemes to the intended beneficiaries.
Barring the parliamentary approval for FDI in multi-brand retail, it has not been able so far to push through Parliament any of the other big ticket programmes and reform measures. These include FDI in insurance and pension sectors, the land acquisition bill and the food security bill which by legally entitling 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population to subsidised foodgrains could be the game changer in the same way that MGNREGA was for it in the 2009 parliamentary polls. But these have now been pushed for the monsoon session in July-August because of its faceoff with the Opposition over the latter’s demand for the resignation of the Prime Minister and later of Kumar and Bansal. And if the two Houses continue to remain paralysed, the government has the option of bringing an ordinance which would need parliamentary ratification within six months.
“THE PRINCIPLE OF BURDEN-SHARING IS FAIRLY DEFINED IN THIS GOVT”
Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari has the daunting task of repairing the government’s image which has been dented partly by its own acts of commission and omission and partly by the relentless onslaught by the Opposition on issues ranging from price rise to corruption and the alleged failures on the economic, internal security and foreign policy fronts. Ahead of the UPA government’s anniversary on May 22, the Congress Minister spoke to Saroj Nagi. Excerpts from the interview:
You have just come out with a multi media initiative to take the UPA’s message to the people. Will we get to see more of these in the coming days?
This was also because it is the ninth anniversary of the UPA and we were trying to tell the story as to how the things have unfolded over the last nine years. A part of our remit is information dissemination. And we are really fulfilling that remit.
With general elections expected next April or May, the UPA-II government has to race against time to do the things it has promised. How difficult is this going to be?
There is a substantial amount of work which we’ve been able to surmount over the last nine years. But there is still some unfinished business for example food security, institutionalisation of the direct benefits transfer and even the right to shelter. There are certain things which are on the anvil, including the land acquisition bill. We do hope that in the Monsoon session of Parliament, the Opposition would allow us to see them through. But if the Opposition remains obstructionist because they feel that the countdown to the elections has started which, of course, is still early days— then all options for the government are open.
So, you will proceed with them because that is what you will take to the people…
Well, I think what we will take to the people is the entire India story over the last nine years. And there is a silent revolution which has taken place in the countryside in terms of empowering people and increasing access to livelihoods. So there is a lot of stuff which has been done. And I think we will holistically present to the people the journey of this country during the UPA’s stewardship over the past nine years.
What you are trying to do is to link the five years of UPA-1 to the four years of UPA-2. But most people would compare UPA-1 with UPA-2 forget about the NDA—and will find that the second edition is not even a pale shadow of the first.
Well, I think, it has to be seen as a continuum because after all it is the same government, it is the same people, it is the same overarching philosophy and it is the same guiding mandate. There are things which we were able to do in the first five years and there was a spillover effect of this in the next five years which we are now trying to accomplish.
But UPA-2 does not have the same verve.
When you benchmark a government, you have to benchmark it on five broad parameters—-political stability, social cohesion, economic development, internal security and international relations. And on all these parameters, you take a long view over nine years and don’t go over it episodically in terms of the cut-and-thrust of day-to-day television debate. I think the UPA has squared itself pretty well.
In 2009, you had a formidable combination in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Amethi MP Rahul Gandhi as the mascot of the middle classes, the poor and the youth. The Prime Minister’s image has now taken a beating. The basic burden would now seem to lie on Sonia Gandhi to win the elections.
I think the principle of burden-sharing is fairly defined in this government between the Prime Minister, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Mr Rahul Gandhi. We thankfully have a paradigm which (a) is unquestioned in its supremacy as in the leadership of the party and (b) is effectively able to communicate their policies or their programmes to the people. I would not agree with this assessment that the Prime Minister’s credibility has taken a beating. I think the Prime Minister is an honourable man and no amount of mud-slinging and no amount of insinuation or conjecture can take away from that reality.
Has the Karnataka election result frightened you to the extent that there is a dark shadow of corruption hanging over this government which you have to deal with? After all, the BJP paid for it in Karnataka.
We need to make a distinction between fact and hyperbole. The essential charge of alleged corruption against this government stems out of certain C&AG reports. The Supreme Court has recently held in the Cairn-Vedanta case that C&AG reports are not the gospel truth. Therefore, we need to make a distinction between the Karnataka case and what has allegedly happened over the last three years and come to certain very sober and realistic conclusions. It is our hope that the people will also be able to make that distinction or at least try and see that that distinction is made.
The charge of corruption has corroded the image of the government. The Congress has earlier also lost elections on the issue of corruption whether it be against the backdrop of the Bofors controversy or when Indira Gandhi was prime minister. It could bounce back only by playing on the communal-secular divide.
At times innuendo and conjecture score over fact. In 1989, there was this entire campaign constructed around the Bofors allegations. It is unfortunate that it took 14 years and in 2004—and that too under the NDA governmentthe Delhi High Court held that there was not a shred of evidence and hundreds of crores of rupees had been wasted in a futile investigation. The NDA government did not even have the gumption to challenge it in the Supreme Court. So, that is the reality. We do hope that people would see through this charade of politics by insinuation which the BJP has been trying to construct and sift fact from fiction.
Insofar as substantive allegations are concerned I think they have to be tested out in the court of law. There are various matters which are now making their way through various platforms of the judicial process. Most of our colleagues hold that they have done no wrong. I think we should wait for the judicial verdict.
Packaging the coalition: Fusing UPA-1 and UPA-2
With little to show for the year and the coalition’s second term, the Congress has begun to package the two editions of UPA as a single entity so that the impressive achievements of the first five years rub off onto the post-2009 phase and shine-n-comparison to the performance of the NDA that it had dislodged in 2004. “We see it as a continuum,” maintained Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari when asked about the two UPAs.
In fusing the achievements of UPA-1 and UPA-2, the ruling dispensation was perhaps trying to dilute the comparison between the two editions. Indeed, there is speculation that the UPA-2’s undoing may be brought about not so much by the BJP-NDA as by the track record of UPA-1, which had gained a healthy ideological sheen from the outside support of the Left parties till 2008 and Gandhi’s emphasis on inclusive growth, participatory governance and the aam aadmi.
The government is now expected to come out with two reports on May 22—an annual report card for the year and a composite one for the entire nine-year period of the UPA to highlight its performance. At the same time, it is expected to launch an intensive drive to correct the image of UPA-2. About Rs 180 crore are expected to be spent by February 2014 on hard-selling the achievements of the two UPAs through an ad blitzkrieg.
The first salvo is being fired with a multi-media campaign that focuses on many aspects of Bharat Nirman that showcases how education, roads, telephony, mid-day meal and other schemes of inclusive growth and participatory governance have unleashed a silent revolution and transformed lives, particularly in rural India and the hinterland. Being released to coincide with the UPA’s anniversary, the ad clips of the “Glimpses of India Story” carry the tagline of “Meelon hum aa gaye, meelon hamen janaa hai” to subtly convey the message that only UPA-3 can take the India story forward.
WITH KUMAR GONE, WHAT AWAITS DR SINGH?
By Vijay Dutt
From Hon’ble to not so hon’ble. Dr. Manmohan Singh is going through a bad phase. He was denuded of being the Prime Minister with the real powers that the high office vests. He was revealed as a front man. This impression gained—in fact confirmed what most believed—that although he has been Prime Minister of India for a long time, he acts on the wishes (read directives) of the Congress president. This stripping of Dr Singh happened during the crisis when senior ministers Pawan Bansal, the Railway Minister and Ashwhini Kumar, the Law Minister, got embroiled in rather unsavoury activities.
Both from Chandigarh have been close friends of Dr Singh. The reports were that he could not defend Bansal because of revelations by the CBI, which showed that his nephew sister’s son—was allegedly taking money for postings, up to Rs 10 crore. Since only Bansal could appoint at senior positions he became a suspect.
But Dr Singh tried to save Kumar rather doggedly. The TV channels showed only Bansal driving to the Prime Minister’s house and not Kumar. In fact no one knows when he went to Dr Singh to resign. Afterwards during an address to the Press he very pointedly did not mention Sonia Gandhi, but chose to praise Dr Singh.
The story that was put out was that Mrs Gandhi “rushed” to 7, Race Course Road to pressurise Dr Singh to sack both the Ministers. Dr Singh, it is said, tried to save Kumar and even offered that he could shift him from Law and give him some non-descript ministry. But Mrs Gandhi did not relent and Dr Singh had to ask Kumar to resign.
The print media and discussions on TV channels gave a clear indication that Sonia indirectly chose members of the Cabinet. The Cabinet formation is the prerogative of a prime minister but Dr Singh does not have that privilege. This impression in the people scared the Congress for whatever reason. One wonders if Dr Singh threatened to resign. Rumours did float that Dr Singh was likely to be replaced. Whatever it might be Congress has been repeatedly issuing press notes affirming that Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh are on the same wavelength in every decision and the two ministers were sacked with the agreement between the two.
The latest press note also said that Dr Singh would continue as prime minister until 2014. He has apparently been assured that he would continue to enjoy the privileges of a prime minister until the general election. One is not sure of powers.
But notwithstanding the series of press notes claiming that both Dr Singh and Sonia Gandhi act in unison, it has been proved that Dr Singh has a proxy status. The charade of both on the same wavelength and having implicit trust between each other is over. Mrs Gandhi wields the real power while Dr Singh has the responsibility of managing the governance as suggested by her.
Why was Dr Singh reluctant to remove Ashwin Kumar while Mrs Gandhi was determined to get rid of him fast. She knew she would have her way, but instead of calling him on the rax, she went to him. She might have remembered that while in UPA1 Dr Singh had shown some spirit. He had dug his heels and unilaterally put the government in danger when he forced the Left to withdraw support on the Indo-US nuclear deal. It was a rare demonstration of his boldness and independence. So Mrs Gandhi did not leave anything to a sudden burst of resistance from Dr Singh.
Now why Mrs Gandhi wanted Kumar out too while Dr Singh wanted him retained? One has to start from the beginning. Dr Singh’s biggest mistake was his turning a blind eye to all scams, believing that he was doing a favour to Mrs Gandhi. But he got tainted instead. Most believed that both were somehow not interested in catching the scamsters.
But in the case of Kumar, Dr Singh is believed to have been keen to retain him because he was a shield between him and the coalgate. Once Kumar went, Dr Singh, who held the coal portfolio for over three years, would be the target for inquiry. As for Mrs Gandhi, it is said that once she heard of the existence of a tape with the CBI and with a private TV channel, she was alarmed. It was said that in the tape Bansal’s nephew is recorded saying that two per cent and five per cent had to be paid to and names them. Mrs Gandhi had rushed after all such rumours and asked Dr Singh to boot out Bansal and Kumar. It would show that the Congress does not shield the corrupt or those who break rules.
But such lately discovered love for probity could boomerang on Dr Singh. Kumar had put his neck out in trying to protect Dr Singh in the Coalgate case, not even telling truth to the Supreme Court and then calling the CBI Director against the Supreme Court directive to allegedly doctor the CBI’s status report on its investigations. And since a joint secretary from the PMO was present and helped in the doctoring, Dr Singh could become a suspect.
The love for probity would then cost Dr Singh his job, notwithstanding the press note that Dr Singh would be Prime Minister until 2014.
“It is the ninth anniversary of the UPA and we are trying to tell the story as to how the things have unfolded over the last nine years. The UPA narrative will be carried to the people and will be built around the five benchmarks of political stability, social cohesion, internal security, economic development and international relations,” said Tewari. He denied any resemblance to the India Shining campaign which had proved disastrous for the BJP-led NDA in 2004. But deep down, Congress workers are a worried lot, notwithstanding their recent victories in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka and the realisation that the BJP-led NDA remains divided on who will lead the election campaign. With less than a year remaining, the party and the government have to race against time to mend the badly dented image of the Congress and the UPA. It is a tall order. But they clutch at the hope that the Gandhi family, the support of rural India and the disarray in the Opposition would help them win the day and build another coalition post-2014.
(The writer is a Delhi-based political analyst)