A shadow of doubt
Is there a difference between assessing a ruling party and assessing a government, and has this difference escaped us in recent days? As the second UPA government completes its first year, there is a smug sameness to most commentaries. Broadly, observers have made two points. First, the Congress is better placed than other parties, including the BJP, in electoral preparedness. Second, discordant voices in the government/party may embarrass at times but could turn out to be an advantage, allowing the Congress to appeal to multiple audiences.
Both points can be contested, certainly the second. It’s rather glib to see the Congress as a multi-brand retail chain or as historically an umbrella party encompassing the right and the left. The fact remains at specific junctures the party’s best-remembered governments and leaders have made critical policy choices. To be all things to all men may seem clever politics but can also lead to incoherent governance.
That aside, is guessing the outcome of the 2014 election really the purpose of judging the UPA government’s first year in office? The next Lok Sabha election — like its predecessors — will be decided in the weeks leading up to it, by issues of the moment and by the ability of a party to present a credible face and sell hope, as well as build state alliances. The Congress may well do this. The BJP may well lose again. Yet, what has any of this got to do with the UPA’s first anniversary report card?
So how does one benchmark a government? The state of the ruling party can be estimated by comparing it with the state of the biggest Opposition party. A government cannot be measured against an external entity, not the Opposition party, not even the Opposition in Parliament.
A government is unique in its situation, its charter and its frames of references. It has both compulsions and advantages that a mere political party lacks. It also exists in a specific time and environment. That’s why it’s fruitless to argue that, for instance, the NDA government of 1999-2004 was better or worse than the UPA government of 2004-09. The internal dynamics and external challenges weren’t identical.
A government is graded on how well it has lived up to its potential, on its willingness to maximise opportunities of the here and now, and on the legacy it leaves behind. It is important to see the legacy question as distinct from the results of the following election.
The Bill Clinton presidency (1993-2001) was among the most successful in American history. Its legacy of a technology boom and a robust economy is beyond argument. Yet, the Democrats lost the presidential election in 2000. The BJP-led NDA lost the Lok Sabha election of 2004, but its legacy of telecom and highways upgrade, financial sector reforms and a new course in foreign policy remains. Rajiv Gandhi lost in 1989 but his government’s legacy – cutting taxes, laying the foundations of the IT revolution, speaking up for a post-1947 generation — survived.
Given this matrix, the key question is: has the second UPA government lived up to the mandate it won in 2009? How has it done in pressing ahead with economic deregulation, cutting back on the discretionary authority of the state, making India a manufacturing economy – which would entail, among other things, facilitating a transparent market for industry to buy land from farmers – undertaking the technological and economic restructuring of agriculture, grabbing the chances a declining Europe and a temporarily retreating America have given India? The self-congratulation about having ‘survived the worst recession in years’ cannot hide the fact that the UPA is living off the blessings of an earlier growth cycle, rather than incubating a future one.
The first UPA government was far more conscious of its legacy. On welfare issues, it didn’t want to be outflanked by the Left. The Congress was also worried it lacked permanent footsoldiers, unlike communist cadres and the BJP’s Sangh network. As such, it sought to bring civil society groups/NGOs within its fold as political auxiliaries. Purposeful or otherwise, the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme was symbolic of this strategy. The other component of the legacy was the India-US nuclear deal. It became the issue on which the Congress confronted the Left and refused to be bullied. If the deal didn’t exist, the Congress would still have had to invent a cause to take on the Left and redeem its pride.
A government is concerned by legacy issues only if pushed against a wall. UPA 1 had a point to prove vis-à-vis the Left. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had come to power after 40 years of trying and was determined to establish the BJP and he were equal to the job. In 1991, the Congress was propelled towards liberalisation because the then rising BJP had a right wing economic agenda.
In contrast, UPA 2 and its political core are not being tested by such imperatives. As such, complacency is setting in and the government is shrugging off the legacy question. As Churchill put it in another context, this is not the beginning of the end — but it may be the end of the beginning.