Sometimes success makes you forgetful of the significance of your achievement while failure, particularly if it’s recent, looms large on the horizon. I fear that could be the case as we consider assessments of the first year in office of UPA 2. Foremost in those evaluations come Shashi Tharoor, Jairam Ramesh, rising prices and, of course, the Naxal massacres in Dantewada. Without doubt they’re critical negatives in the government’s report card. No one would deny that. But there is another side to the story which lies buried and unexcavated.
The three big challenges that faced UPA 2 in May 2009 were: negotiating the economic downturn, maintaining the trajectory of Indo-US relations inherited from George Bush and handling Pakistan at a time when Af-Pak was changing the dynamics of South Asia. Even if there are still lingering concerns in all three areas, the government has implemented sensible responses. At times it could have acted faster or with more conviction but the clouds have parted and sunlight could lie ahead.
First, the economy. It’s now certain that 2009-10 will see at least 7.2 per cent growth. The year after it’s likely to touch 8.5 per cent. Even if figures for industrial production have dipped a bit they remain comfortably in double digits. And now with the 3G spectrum auction delivering upwards of Rs 60,000 crore, the fiscal deficit reduction target should not be unattainable. Disinvestment, if implemented as announced, would remove all doubt.
The big problem, of course, is inflation. Yet, for three months it hasn’t crossed ten per cent and food prices are slowly, if painfully, creeping down. A decent monsoon should finally slay the dragon. But till then apprehension will persist. This is a brighter picture than we could have expected when 2008 gave way to 2009. No doubt better management of the buffer stocks would have eased matters. Perhaps sugar should have been more adroitly handled. And the return of Europe’s economic woes means exports will remain under pressure and possibly growth too. But the smiles are back and a little bounce too. That’s something Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Montek Ahluwalia can be justifiably proud of.
The Indo-US-Pakistan situation — which is how I would combine in one the other two challenges — is more complex. The outcome is also less clear. But recall for a moment the fears of early 2009. Candidate Obama had spoken of involving America in the search for a Kashmir situation, a theme Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mullen picked up after the inauguration. Robert Blackwill warned India it wasn’t a priority for the new administration. And as Af-Pak unfolded it became clear that America’s dependence on Pakistan gave Islamabad influence, even leverage, in Washington that could only be discomfiting for New Delhi. The dynamics of South Asia shifted to India’s disadvantage. The dreaded Indo-Pak hyphen seemed visible once again.
The worst of those fears haven’t materialised. We know Obama isn’t Bush. But he still has a special relationship with Manmohan Singh. America supports India’s role in Afghanistan and hasn’t overtly involved itself in Kashmir. If there is pressure on both counts behind closed doors — and there may be — it’s being handled with discretion. Again, this is better than pessimists feared. On the terror front the co-operation from Washington is as good as realists hoped.
Though the challenges ahead are serious and urgent — and some, like the need for economic reforms, require courage the government doesn’t show — the PM and a few of his ministers can afford a small smile of satisfaction this Sunday morning.
The views expressed by the author are personal