The romance between voters and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) appears strained — by an unusual coalition of a midlife crisis and a seven-year itch.
It’s only the second anniversary of the UPA-2 government — nearly halfway into the life of its term — but the coalition has been in power since 2004, making it a continuous run of seven years.
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Manmohan Singh is the longest serving prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Even under normal circumstances, disillusion would have set in and alternatives would have looked more attractive. A torrent of scams and some slipshod policy moves could have made it far worse.
Even the skies seemed to be conspiring against it — the Congress lost two of its most efficient and popular chief ministers in helicopter crashes in the last two years.
Yet, things could have been far worse.
An HT-C Fore survey across 14 cities, polling 10,126 people, reveals that there are still a few silver linings in the clouds for Singh and Team.
Yes, people are unhappy and are on the lookout for alternatives. There is a feeling that not enough is being done to fight corruption and inflation; the voter is looking for faster reforms but also more welfare measures.
But people still prefer the UPA to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the Left.
And for good measure, substantially more people feel the UPA is more concerned about their welfare in comparison with opposing political formations.
Between 2004 and 2009, the UPA made a new social contract with the people. It entailed creating a political constituency for economic reforms by lavishing the extra resources generated by growth on unprecedented social welfare.
In 2009, people voted for UPA's return. Unfortunately, during its first term, seeds of the scams that would shake it up in its second term were also sown. The siege the UPA fights today was foretold in its impressive victory two years ago. From the peak it reached, the route ahead was only downwards for the Congress.
Its success made both the allies and opposition parties nervous on the one hand, and on the other, it made the Congress complacent. Squabbles began among its leaders.
By the second year, all these factors had fermented enough to make the government look weak and indecisive. Corruption and inflation became the rallying points of all forces arraigned against the UPA.
Politics is more about perception than reality and the UPA’s saddest failure is in managing perception. This survey shows an overwhelming majority of people perceive that this government is not serious in fighting corruption or inflation.
This perception — based on some realities — is self-inflicted as the government's information management has been poor. For instance, it faltered in countering the figures being thrown about as the 2G scam’s cost to the nation.
To streamline perception management, the PM set up a group of senior minister to brief the media, addressing a festering inadequacy — and put an end to too many ministers airing their views on everything.
Communication is the key - counsellors trying to rescue romance often tell couples. The seven-year itch notwithstanding, UPA can possibly rediscover the old spark with the 'aam aadmi', with the right moves. But look over the shoulder to see what competitors are up to.
Graphics | Two years of UPA-2: People's verdict