Three years ago, as the new head of the United Progressive Alliance government, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that its emphasis would be on strengthening the foundations of secularism, as well as promoting economic growth with social justice. Economic growth has been one of the success areas of the government, notwithstanding a touch of inflation and Mani Shankar Aiyar. In a polity where, perhaps, half the people can be categorised as poor by any reasonable standards, there can be no ‘social justice versus economic growth’ debate. The question to answer would be whether there can be any meaningful social justice without economic growth. Where in the past the government’s policies ended up distributing poverty, today with 8 per cent plus growth, it is able to pour significant resources into social safety-net programmes, as well as those that will enhance rural and urban infrastructure and provide impetus for further growth.
If anything, there can be some criticism of the UPA’s pusillanimity on reform. However, the government has had to steer a complicated course. The coalition’s lead party, the Congress, has just 146 seats in the Lok Sabha and has within several leaders with a strong socialist hangover who, along with the Left, have acted as a drag on forward-looking policies. You may quibble about issues, like the government’s control of petrol prices, but on the broad brush ‘holy cow’ areas like FDI in retail, airports modernisation, insurance and banking reform, there has been some movement. Despite vocal opposition from the Left, the government has skillfully walked the geopolitical tightrope to enhance India’s relations with all important nations — the US, China, Japan, Russia, European Union, Brazil, South Africa and so on. It has managed the difficult task of keeping ties with Pakistan on an even keel and built on what it inherited from its predecessor government.
The people are bound to ask themselves in 2009, or whenever the general election takes place, whether they are better off, or were so before the UPA rule. For now, the action will come from each UPA member calculating if it is better to stay together in a constructive way, or to unravel gracefully or otherwise.