You could call it a game of snakes and ladders. And, as our childhood memories will tell us, there is a horribly long reptile that stops us from getting to heaven if we make one wrong move three steps from reaching the goal.
You could say that UPA’s performance has closely resembled a round this board game. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stares into an election year amid a welter of charges and corruption scandals that contrast his personal image as a clean leader, facts are harder to recall than accusations that fly across prime-time television.
And yet, there is plenty in the past ten years that tells us that the UPA – blessed equally with good luck and bad – has had its own feathers in the cap in which politically speaking, the thorns are now more visible.
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India’s GDP growth slowed to 6.7% in 2008-9 from a dizzying 9% that it averaged over the previous three years. And, in 2006/7, the growth was 9.6%, and Resurgent India was having what one could call the China Moment – just short of its giant neighbour.
A year later came a moment of national pride, when the Tatas acquired Anglo-Dutch steel group Corus in a romantic symbolism of the colonial David conquering the imperial Goliath. Soon after, the Aditya Birla Group acquired Novelius and Tata Motors acquired the iconic Jaguar Land Rover in the UK to make it seem that the Indian globocorp was not a flash in the pan.
Go back now 2004, when Dr. Singh assumed power after a surprise defeat of BJP-led NDA and its “India Shining” campaign. Ironically, the shining that BJP spoke of began after UPA took power, suggesting that it is facile and pointless to compare growth in one government’s tenure with the policies of the same period.
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Probably aided by the quiet rural upsurge that voted it back to power, the Congress passed the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in 2005/6, and with it came a slew of spending programmes to boost villages under the Bharat Nirman tag. Alongside came the value-added tax (VAT), whose introduction gave a touch of modern economic governance to India’s reforming economy.
The Sensex hit 10,000 that year, and in January 2008 touched its all-time high at 21,206.77. Somewhere along the way, India’s cellphone subscribers crossed 100 million – and the evocative image of a farmer with a handphone was the stuff development fantasies were made of.
With foreign investments flowing in, rural folk the happiest in recent decades, and new landmarks like the Delhi Metro, the Worli Sea Link in Mumbai and no-frills airlines taking off in a big way, the second half of the last decade was a good time to be an urban Indian.
Or so it seemed.
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There are always nasty surprises around the corner – and not all faults may be of one’s own making. True, the UPA’s grand follies (as historians may not tire of recalling) will be in the way it handled spectrum and coal allocation, inviting allegations of crony capitalism. A special economic zone (SEZ) policy to make India the next China also fell off its pedestal – and, like coal and spectrum, was marked by discretionary measures that smacked of the pre-reform Licence-Permit-Quota Raj.
Unknown to the smug cabinet in New Delhi, a global crisis was unfolding on Wall Street. The same fund-management boys who were gushing over the India Story were themselves in deep trouble.
The earth beneath their own feet gave away in 2008 – while India was a nice portrait on their canvas. The collapse of Lehman Brothers in September of 2008 and the price of crude oil hitting $147 a barrel should have rung alarm bells in New Delhi – but they apparently did not.
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Certainly not fast enough. These were the smaller snakes that loomed ahead of the ladders that India crossed with NREGA, Bharat Nirman and showpiece infrastructure projects.
Looking back, neither the Wall Street collapse nor the fraud at Satyam Computer Services in 2008 could be blamed on the UPA. Its inability to see how its own growth would affect global oil prices, or the fact that the coalition was commandeered by a welter of populists, may be bigger flaws.
And then, the double-digit inflation could also have been the consquence of rising rural wages that led to higher demand for pulses, vegetables and meat.
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The Parliament passed the Right to Information (RTI) law in 2005, and its most visible beneficiary is Arvind Kejriwal, who used it to challenge the UPA on issues related to corruption to grow from a persistent activist to the chief minister of Delhi.
The telling irony is in how the government’s own RTI became Aam Aadmi Party’s ladder--and UPA’s snake. The Congress party’s good intentions paved for its own self a path to political hell. Somewhere along the way, its own accomplishments slipped from public memory, which is proverbially short.
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