Let's say that you're a young, urban voter. You can see that India in 2012 has — both despite as well as because of government — opportunities for you and there is a decent living to be made. Knowing what you do of the UPA government's policies and past record — not to mention the reputation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a reformist who, as finance minister, pried open the doors of liberalisation 20 years ago — you may be likely to cast your precious vote for the Congress-led UPA if elections are conducted any time soon.
But of late, you have been confused. Whatever the reputation and selling point of the UPA may be, you're less certain of what the alliance of 'like-minded' parties is as a facilitator to your aspirations. And the problem isn't that the largest party in the coalition has suddenly changed its colours. In fact, as finance minister Pranab Mukherjee was almost at pains to point out in Parliament during his Budget speech on Friday, the need for reforms and reduction in subsidies, the requirement of creating infrastructure conducive to more private sector participation, and the need to realise that India is now more connected to the global economy — essentially the necessity to make money and then see it distributed among those less equipped to make enough — are more than ever. As a young voter, you understand this; even appreciate it, considering unlike a generation before, you are aware that hand-outs don't work in the middle or long run.
But then, despite such knowledge and visible willingness to act on such knowledge, the UPA seems to be doing little. It seems to be doing nothing because allies such as the Trinamool Congress will have nothing of any changes. As a voter, you are well within your right now to ask yourself: if I want the UPA to return to power in the Lok Sabha elections, will I be approving Congress policies or the diametrically opposite ones of the Trinamool Congress?
Last week's fiasco that foll-owed the Railway Budget is the latest case in point. Union minister for Railways and Trinamool Congress MP Dinesh Trivedi suggested the need to implement the first steps to take the Indian Railways "out of the ICU". Mamata Banerjee vehemently reacted by stating that "[the Trinamool] will not allow the railway hike". I suspect that Banerjee had to react the way she did in front her constituency. By 'sacrificing' Trivedi, she can place the blame for the rail hike at the Congress' door. Even if she genuinely believes the rail Budget to be "anti-people" (which I suspect she does), with the UPA asking for a debate on the Budget in Parliament, the main task of saving the Indian Railways could still be achieved without any roll-back.
All this is splendid realpolitik. But it is terrible brand dilution for the UPA that it should not go into general elections mode with. The coalition's 2004 common minimum programme states: "To ensure that the economy grows at least 7-8% per year in a sustained manner over a decade and more and in a manner that generates employment so that each family is assured of a safe and viable livelihood." Coupled with the other priority "to enhance the welfare and well-being of farmers, farm labour and workers, particularly those in the unorganised sector, and assure a secure future for their families in every respect," this set the tone, content and agenda of the UPA's 'inclusive growth' project. The insistence on wealth creation has been the UPA's brand equity, not the relatively redundant business of 'keeping communal forces at bay'. As far as I know, there has been no (internal or otherwise) change in the common minimum programme. But because of an ally, Banerjee's Trinamool, there certainly appears to have been a departure from it.
As we saw in the recent assembly polls, the voter is getting more picky and regional parties are obliging him with a more clear-cut choice. The UPA has benefited in the past from advertising what it is not. Today's young voter, however, is more keen on knowing what the UPA — or, for that matter, the NDA — is. If to vote for the UPA means both pushing for FDI in retail as well as opposing it, encouraging agricultural labour to move into manufacturing as well as discouraging it, this coalition that still appeals to many can end up being too many things, opposing things included, to too many people.
It is wise to be pragmatic so as to stay in power. After all, a political entity can do more in government than if it's out of power. But 'coalition compulsions' have their limits and Banerjee's constant stonewalling of government policies doesn't bode well for the UPA. A ruling coalition at the Centre is not a glass of water that changes its colour after a few drops of ink are dropped into it. A voter knows that the glass he wants may not be holding sparkling water. But he'll certainly not want a glass in which contaminants have changed its colour. The post-Rail Budget tantrums from Kolkata should be the last time the UPA indulges in Banerjee's shenanigans. The next time, the UPA leadership must call her bluff.