An insider’s tale of UPA’s success, failure, writes Karan Thapar
Montek Ahluwalia’s telling of the UPA’s 10 years, in his book, Backstage: The story behind India’s high growth years, raises an intriguing question: Why, after achieving so much, as he convincingly argues, did it crash out in disgrace?Updated: May 15, 2020 14:39 IST
Unlike the British, we do not write memoirs. Which is perhaps why Montek Ahluwalia begins his book Backstage: The Story Behind India’s High Growth Years with the insistent disclaimer: “This book is not a memoir.” He wants to convince the reader it’s “a travelogue of India’s journey of economic reforms.” But, sophistry apart, this is definitely a memoir, and that’s the principal reason why you would want to read it. More important, it is the first insider account of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)’s decade in power, written by someone who served at the very heart of that government.
Ahluwalia’s telling of the UPA’s 10 years raises an intriguing question: Why, after achieving so much, as he convincingly argues, did it crash out in disgrace? At the time, we thought the answer lay in the corruption scandals and policy paralysis that surrounded the government, made worse by the belief that Manmohan Singh was a weak leader and the country was yearning for a more decisive prime minister. Ahluwalia’s book suggests an interestingly different answer.
First, however, let’s recall the key achievements of that decade. The UPA gave us Right To Information, the nuclear deal, the rural employment guarantee scheme, Aadhaar and the biggest-ever reduction in poverty. But it was on the economic front that it excelled. “The performance of this government in the first seven of its 10 years was outstanding. The economy clocked an average growth of 8.4% in this period, the fastest growth rate ever”, writes Ahluwalia. “Pulling 138 million persons above poverty was hailed internationally as a major achievement.”
If I’ve understood Ahluwalia correctly, the first problem was that the UPA responded inadequately, even incorrectly, to the 2G and “Coalgate” controversies. In the process, it allowed them to become scandals that shrouded its successes.
Ahluwalia says the UPA should have flagged a critical question about the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG)’s conclusion the exchequer lost money because spectrum and coal were sold cheaply. “The question to ask is whether the decision to charge a lower price was justified for achieving the broader objectives of policy. That is what a real performance audit would have done, but the CAG never attempted this.” Unfortunately, the government didn’t either.
Yet, if it had, it could have made a convincing case. “The logic of the lower price was that it would stimulate a faster growth of telecom, which it clearly did,” Ahluwalia writes. “Faster expansion of telecom also led to a faster growth in GDP … (and) an additional flow of revenue.” All of this, he says, “needed to be taken into account … (but) no such effort was made.”
To be fair, Kapil Sibal did try. But he only said it once and when his zero-loss explanation was ridiculed, he never repeated it. Yet, it was the truth and by failing to stand by it, the UPA forsook its most credible defence for a sullen silence.
The second part of Ahluwalia’s answer is political. “Manmohan Singh never bragged about his achievements. He genuinely believed it was best to let the results speak for themselves. But because neither he, nor his party, projected these achievements, they never formed part of the political discourse.” And once they were taken for granted, they were soon forgotten.
In fact, this reluctance to claim credit also infected the Congress. “I remain puzzled why the Congress party was unwilling to claim credit for reducing poverty”, comments Ahluwalia. Consequently, the Congress never established “the UPA (economic) strategy was working in a way that earlier strategies had not.” This silence cost the party recognition of its greatest achievement.
Ahluwalia ends by revealing, “I have often urged Dr Manmohan Singh to write his memoirs but have had no luck so far.” The former PM is waiting for history’s verdict, confident it will be kinder than that of his contemporaries. Yet, that could be hampered by his refusal to leave behind his side of the story. Ahluwalia’s account of the UPA years will, no doubt, help but you do expect former PM’s to speak for themselves.
In contrast, how different is the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi? They’ve even claimed credit for what their predecessors did! Until Ahluwalia spoke out, the UPA’s silence helped them.
Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story
The views expressed are personal