10 years later, assessing UPA’s response to IAC

In his most extensive comments on the episode, Manmohan Singh opens up about why the government took the decisions it did
The decision-makers who surrounded the PM and the party president maintained divergent ideological approaches to social and economic development issues, including the causes of the nationwide anti-corruption collective action (Amal KS/HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
The decision-makers who surrounded the PM and the party president maintained divergent ideological approaches to social and economic development issues, including the causes of the nationwide anti-corruption collective action (Amal KS/HT PHOTO)
Published on Dec 11, 2021 05:46 PM IST
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ByBilal Baloch

Exactly 10 years ago, the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement was in full force. Symbolised by the Gandhian activist Anna Hazare, the agitation’s war room was led by the savvy bureaucrat-turned-activist Arvind Kejriwal. It was Kejriwal who brought Hazare to Delhi to energise and lead the nascent movement which implicated ministers — all the way up to and including Prime Minister (PM) Manmohan Singh — in corruption scandals.

Now, on its decennial anniversary, the IAC movement has again drawn attention from a broad range of commentators who question whether the movement had any policy repercussions or if it was simply a reflection of the naked political ambitions of its leaders, namely Kejriwal. Little, however, is known, or discussed, about the inner workings of the government it squared up against. Until now.

In a new book, When Ideas Matter: Democracy and Corruption in India, based on extensive and exclusive interviews with over 120 key United Progressive Alliance (UPA) decision-makers, journalists, businesspersons, and IAC activists from that period, I map out the political and ideological make-up and constraints of that government — the composition of which directly fed its “policy paralysis” reaching a reified summit with its response to IAC.

Between 2011 and 2012, the UPA government engaged in a series of negotiations with the IAC movement. These negotiations were less a result of the decision-makers’ collective desire to actively engage with the movement. Rather, State elites, as part of a division of policymaking power at the executive level between PM Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, established divergent diagnoses in response to the movement. Some leaders urged full negotiation, while others urged counteraction. Several distinct decision-makers were tasked with crafting a response to the anti-corruption agitation, within the Prime Ministers Office (PMO), the Cabinet, the Congress, and with the National Advisory Council (NAC) too playing an important role in this polycentric environment.

Singh effectively shared executive-level authority over policymaking during the UPA rule with Sonia Gandhi. Whereas the PM maintained objective power by leading the Cabinet and the PMO, a statutory body comprising technocrats, civic activists, and some politicians was formed under Sonia Gandhi to offer her executive-level policy input, consequently diminishing Singh’s subjective power in government. This statutory body, the NAC, would be the primary vehicle to design and implement core features of the Common Minimum Program (CMP), which ensured coherence on policy matters among UPA coalition partner parties and allies. Given the backgrounds of the decision-makers who comprised the de facto parallel Cabinet, the NAC would interface between the government and civil society to supplement executive policymaking recommendations.

Crucially, the decision-makers who surrounded the PM and the party president maintained divergent ideological approaches to social and economic development issues, including the causes of the nationwide anti-corruption collective action. This polycentric institutional environment, alongside a large number of parties in the coalition, placed structural constraints on the behaviour of the executive branch to act arbitrarily in response to the emergence of the IAC movement in 2011.

Between August 2010 and March 2012, the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) released reports that underscored the “presumptive loss” to the exchequer that resulted from alleged favours provided by the UPA government to large corporate houses for contracts pertaining to the 2G telecommunications spectrum and extractive industries such as coal. Some decision-makers in the UPA believed that, although some ministers in the government had pocketed illicit funds from the allocation process, the CAG’s logic, which was fully adopted by the IAC, was flawed in its understanding of the government’s push for economic growth in a politically intransigent Parliament. These elites noted also that those who had allegedly profited from the favours were subsequently sidelined by the government and in some cases arrested.

One senior official, who was also a close advisor to the PM and who headed a core institution under the UPA, argued that, while the IAC movement raised the vital issue of corruption, the leaders of the movement “were feeding off the CAG reports, which had over-extended their ambit and did not understand why we followed the processes that we did”. There were, he concedes, “ministers from the coalition parties that skimmed and the authorities rightly looked at this. But this presumptive loss logic was bogus”.

Some UPA decision-makers, chiefly PM Singh, claimed that the anti-corruption movement actively manipulated the CAG reports by failing to entertain the possibility that the economic growth strategy pursued by the government was warped by an intransigent political environment in which a more transparent system of contract procurement had been tabled but held up in Parliament by the Opposition party.

In his most detailed comments on the episode, Singh recounted to me: “We always started [in 2004 when the UPA came to power] from the belief that competitive bidding was the best process to auction contracts, but it was so difficult to put this through parliament and get the states on board. Meanwhile, people were saying, ‘The economy has to grow at 9%!’ And so for that you need coal, you need power, and 2G was part of those inputs. In fact, because there were problems in the TRAI [Telecom Regulatory Authority of India], they themselves said that as far as 2G is concerned we cannot go the competitive bidding route because this would mean too high a price being paid, and that processes of big enrollment of Indian consumers would not run smoothly. But they said maybe with 3G there could be competitive bidding. The irony was that we had been trying to get competitive bidding through parliament for some time.”

He continued: “I spoke in parliament on 2G and coal, but to no avail. We said again, ‘Let’s move toward competitive bidding’, but there was opposition from the state governments which produce coal, many of them are BJP-led, so we could not get this thing moved successfully through the political process of the standing committees. It took us three to four years. By 2012, we were able to put forward the law that made competitive bidding a possible route. But by then the entire government was painted with these scams. It was not just face-saving. It was the only way we wanted to get legislation approved by parliament. BJP blocked us at every path in states where they had a majority. The [IAC] movement’s feeling was that we had purposefully kept these things [procurement of government contracts] in the dark and taken money and pocketed it all to the detriment of the common man. No one understood that it took time for us to get competitive bidding legislation through, while we had to keep the country moving forward through [economic] growth. So my own feeling was that the movement manipulated these CAG reports. I had no reason to believe that anything good was a real motivation behind these reports and their [the IAC’s] uproar.”

Ten years later, as the implications of the IAC movement continue to play out in India’s political theatre, it is perhaps time to pause and look at the other side — why the government acted the way it did.

Bilal Baloch is a non-resident visiting scholar at the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI), University of Pennsylvania, and co-founder of AI startup, Enquire. His book, When Ideas Matter: Democracy and Corruption in India, is out now

The views expressed are personal

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