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A tale of near misses

The most cursory glance at UPA 's record shows that it has been a government of ‘near misses’, writes Prem Shankar Jha.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2008 22:30 IST

Everyone loves a good race, and we are no exception. The 22 primaries in the United States have, therefore, captured the headlines in all Indian papers. But should the American battle not have provoked some reflection in our country on where we are headed? After all, we too face a general election only months after the American President is elected. Should we not, therefore, be taking stock of what the UPA government has achieved in the last four years and whether it is sufficient to bring it back to power?

The discouraging answer is “almost nothing”. “But how can you say that?” some readers might expostulate. “Have the past four years not seen the country achieve the highest growth rate India has ever known? Has the government not successfully combined this growth with greater equity and social justice by sharply increasing outlays on education, health, urban development, and road-building, especially in the rural areas? Did it not start the long overdue National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme?”

This is true. But politics is all about perceptions. Even where these programmes are making a palpable difference to the quality of life in the rural areas and smaller towns, the credit is not going to the UPA at the Centre but to whichever party or coalition is ruling the state. For it is the state governments that have to implement these programmes. The Centre only doles out the money. Indeed, one of its prime beneficiaries has been Narendra Modi in Gujarat.

This was the fatal flaw in the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) to which the Congress so hurriedly acquiesced in May 2004. The CMP was rightly criticised by many analysts for pouring even more money into programmes that were proven sinks of fraud and embezzlement — where not even 15 per cent of the outlays had reached the poor. But the flaw was intentional, for it was designed to benefit responsible governments like those of the Left and leave the Centre to act only as the banker. The Left benefited in Bengal and also in Kerala. But so did Modi.

This willing surrender of the credit for reform to the states has made it almost impossible for the Congress to buck the cycle of anti-incumbency voting that has become the main single determinant of victory or defeat at the Centre. The Congress was surprised by its victory in 2004, but should not have been. For the assembly elections that had preceded it had shown that the anti-incumbency factor was running strongly in its favour. However, this wave, which had begun to build in 1998, has since then reversed itself. The Congress should have anticipated this and realised that to remain in power it needed to show results for which the credit could not be stolen by the state governments.

That is what the UPA has failed to do. The most cursory glance at its record shows that it has been a government of ‘near misses’. It has almost delivered a signal agreement with Pakistan that would have ended the 60-year-old Kashmir dispute, changed Hindu perceptions of Indian Muslims as being potential traitors and thus destroyed the very ground under the feet of Hindu chauvinists and radical Islamists alike.

It almost delivered a nuclear deal to India that would have made it the sixth accepted nuclear power in the world, and opened the gates to high technology that have been shut for the past 40 years. But after conducting two years of skilled, transparent and sensitive political negotiations with the most difficult power in the world, and after getting everything it wanted from the treaty, for reasons that defy understanding it has developed cold feet and all but backed out.

Its excuse was the Left’s threat that it would withdraw support from the UPA and bring the government down. But was this a good enough reason to back down? The answer is ‘no’. The Left would not only have had to withdraw support but also to vote with the BJP against the UPA in the ensuing vote of confidence. That would have compounded the damage it had already done to itself in Bengal by firing on and killing more than a score of villagers protesting against the forced acquisition of their land.

The UPA would not have found itself in this humiliating position had it not made the most fundamental of political errors on the very first day after its surprise victory. That was to humiliate Mulayam Singh Yadav through his emissary Amar Singh, and gratuitously spurn the offer of support from the Samajwadi Party’s 38 members in Parliament. By doing so, Sonia Gandhi delivered her party into the clutches of the Left. Since then India has been ruled by proxy by the Left.

But what about the economy? Hasn’t Manmohan Singh’s dream team delivered a 9 per cent growth rate? Not really. The economic rebound began in early 2003, a little more than a year before this government came to power. All that the UPA can claim credit for — and this was no small achievement — is that for the first three years in power it did nothing to hurt the build-up of growth.

But here too its self-restraint lasted for only three years. For it has not been able to prevent the Reserve Bank Governor, Y.V. Reddy, from ratcheting up the interest rates in the economy in order to fight an inflation that existed only in his imagination. This has done very little to curb inflation, which is being driven by the collapse of agricultural growth after 2001, by booming steel and cement exports to China and by the relentless rise in the international price of oil — none of which he can even begin to control through interest rates. But, in the meantime, his high interest rates have killed the construction industry, caused a 20-25 per cent downturn in the sales of consumer durables and is inexorably driving the economy into a recession.

Today, J.R. Hicks’ accelerator is gaining a momentum that will soon become irreversible. If the government cannot force a change of interest rate policy in the next couple of months by March 2009, its only remaining ‘achievement’ will also have vanished in smoke.

There are a score of other ‘near misses’ to the government’s non-credit. It had promised to introduce state-funding of elections and political activity in order to cut the roots of criminalisation and corruption in our democracy. But when the issue finally came up for discussion, the UPA’s leaders found that everyone was too comfortable with the current system of privatised, clandestine, funding to want to make a change.

In the same vein, the UPA thundered that it would bring in social security for the unorganised sector, all the many proposals it has received for self-financed health, maternity, life insurance and old-age pension benefits, have been wrecked on the reefs of bureaucratic indifference and its own political passivity.

But its potentially greatest failure of nerve still lies ahead. For two years, Afzal Guru (of the attack on Parliament fame) has been sitting on death row in Tihar Jail awaiting a presidential decision on whether or not to commute his sentence to life imprisonment. The government knows all the reasons why this should be done. It cannot have forgotten that the first Kashmiri militants crossed the LoC in search of weapons and training only weeks after Maqbul Butt was hanged in February 1984. It also knows that hanging Guru now will finish peace in Kashmir, and possibly in India, forever. But it still does nothing. Sometimes the sins of inaction can be far greater than those of action.