Two weeks ago, a reader, Amod Shukla, made a very valuable observation. "What reforms," Mr Shukla wrote back in response to my inaugural column (Clean up the Leftovers, Chanakya, May 15), "have the UPA 2 initiated after being freed of their dependence on the Left?" You don’t have to be a wily political animal with a shaved head (or Mr Shukla, for that matter) to know the answer: none of any consequence.
After the latest round of state elections, the UPA can be forgiven for thinking that it is sitting pretty. Getting a key ally, the Trinamool Congress, to send the Left into the wilderness in Bengal was worth the bouquet of roses Mamata-di gave Sonia-ji many times over — although I would have expected the gift to have travelled hands the other way. In Assam, the Tarun Gogoi government got another term, replicating the Centre's priorities about maintaining peace as a prerequisite for development. In Kerala, victory for Oommen Chandy was pyrrhic. But in these inflationary times, even pyrrhic victories have decent resale value.
As a round of applause goes around the shamiana, however, I can't help but recall that all the UPA 2 action we've being seeing over the last few months has been at the behest of the courts. And the latest election successes haven't put the piranhas back into the river. And if there's one fish with sharp teeth still snapping at the UPA, it's corruption.
I'm picking on the much chewed-upon issue of corruption not because I expect the government to wave a magic wand and make hera pheri in high places vanish overnight. I'm picking on it because I see tackling corruption as an opportunity for the UPA 2 to get out of the doldrums it's been in since it was sworn in on May 21, 2009. Battling against corruption has always been the right thing to do. But battling against corruption is now also the wise thing to do.
The UPA doesn't have the luxury that, say, AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa had before the assembly polls in Tamil Nadu (or the BJP has in Delhi): to do nothing and just wait for the rotten apples in the ruling coalition to do their job for them. Neither Jayalalithaa nor the grubby hands in the BJP are pure as driven snow. But not being in power leaves you relatively free to simply rail against corruption; being the incumbent leaves you with little excuse. However, with the push already having been given by the courts and initial inhibitions (hopefully) lost, the UPA 2 now has the advantage of pushing for a flotilla of reforms — whether it be in banking, judiciary, financial services, land, foreign direct investment — all retro-fitted with strong anti-corruption devices.
And the summer of 2011 is such a nice place to start. Get things going now and along with the tried and tested 'aam admi' mantra, a push for reforms keeping corruption in mind could bear fruits in 2014. With assembly elections next year in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Gujarat, you even get the perfect track to test this game-changing vehicle on.
Despite the muck of financial sleaze lapping all around him, I still can't think of a better person than Manmohan Singh who can be the Great Salesman of the Clean-Up Job. But the government should quit the ad-hoc manner in which it has been taking action against the rotters in its flock. Sure, Suresh Kalmadi got the chop for the Commonwealth Games mess. Sure, A Raja and Kanimozhi are in the clanger for making 2G money disappear. But if one takes a snap poll today, I can bet my bottom R1.27 lakh crore that no one will believe the UPA took these actions on its own bidding. The timing of the CBI let loose on Karunanidhi and Family — after the Tamil Nadu polls were conducted — remains a talking point that can't be drowned out by homilies or pointing at Yeddyurappa.
Sonia Gandhi calling up Jayalalithaa to congratulate her may send shivers down the collective spine of the DMK leadership. But it does little to reassure people. The UPA must now take the bull by the horns. Dumping corrupt allies will be a wonderful beginning — after one has done the maths, of course.
There is another big ticket gesture the UPA government should consider: bringing about reforms that will lift the fog on electoral funding. Political parties raise money for both elections and inter-election purposes through donations, the bulk of which are unaccounted for. While parties are tax-exempt, they have to file income tax returns that are ludicrously underwritten. Election expenditure limits are a farce as they apply only to candidates, not to parties or their supporters. Add to this, there are no real disincentives for receiving under-the-table donations. To board up this gaping hole is to tackle institutional corruption at its very source.
The UPA has one extremely valid reason to make electoral funding transparent: corruption upsets effective public service delivery and infrastructure development, the very two tickets that are now the UPA's USP. Soon enough, voters will make this connection — if they haven't already.
And then, people may finally stop seeing this government as forever being forced to react at gunpoint. Belated happy birthday, UPA 2!