UPA 2.0: A Record Examined
It has been more than two years since the UPA2.0 government came to power and seven years since a Congress led dispensation assumed power in Delhi. A lot of water has flown under the bridge during this time and the ruling coalition has firmly put its stamp in many areas of governance. So, this is a good time to review its accomplishments and failures.
The first remark that must be made which ought to quite striking to any observer is its style of governance. All governments attempt to smooth ruffled edges, co-opt rivals within and without the coalition in order to keep the government going but the Congress party has been a veritable past master of a cloak and dagger method of achieving it. The extensive reach of its arms through ‘friendly’ media and the calculated use of the domestic intelligence apparatus – quite openly – has allowed it to wage extended wars of attrition against its political foes.
Even if the battle of the day is lost, this death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy has yielded no small dividends in the long run. Deflation of the burgeoning Lokpal agitation, taming of Jaganmohan Reddy, the Kanimozhi bail saga all testify to this. This has had both good and bad effects. On the one hand, it has managed to buy time and deflect pressure, a necessary step for a government facing a deficit of public trust and a system that would otherwise have had trouble weathering attacks from ‘apolitical’ groups despite willingness to be accommodating.
On the other hand, these underhand tactics are patently transparent and while being a temporary fix will only imperil the state’s credibility among its citizenry in the long run. To be sure, this is not exactly a new development but the emergence of a highly competitive media market, proliferation of NGOs, activist constitutional bodies and a nexus, deliberate or otherwise, amongst various extra-electoral players has added a new sense of urgency to this longstanding concern. It is the failure to reform and strengthen our political institutions that ought to rank as the foremost of UPA2.0’s failures.
Reforms in many critical areas has floundered. Disinvestment has come to a standstill while attempts continue to be made to shore up unprofitable public sector companies and bail out private ones. Autonomy for public sector units such as the oil companies has remained only on paper even as they are being required to “consult” the government on major decisions. Clearly, the opportunities for patronage and influence these milch cows provide are too good to be let go at the alter of efficiency and competitiveness that no one seems to care about.
Important judicial reforms particularly related to the conduct of proceedings in appellate fora have not even begun to be initiated despite a crying need for such change. Development of constitutional law has slowed to a crawl even as two judge benches go about issuing capricious, whimsical and often conflicting decisions without much regard for their implications. Yet, the government has not so much as proposed a bold plan to reform and replace the current system with a more “normal” one like what other countries have. Instead, it has been content with simply trying to “manage” the higher judiciary through various extralegal means even while shifting away a large part of its work to tribunals controlled through executive appointments. Even the much debated bill for the creation of a National judicial commission to regulate the appointment process has not made much headway. Needless to say, a weak judicial system that allows proliferation of frivolous lawsuits while not offering quick and effective grievance redressal in genuine cases has long term implications for social stability and economic development.
The repeated terrorist attacks in Delhi, Bombay and Pune have together not hastened the domestic security reforms the Home Ministry was supposed to have implemented particularly in the aftermath of 26/11. There is little indication that our country’s security forces are any better prepared today to preempt terrorist attacks than they were earlier. Likewise, even as it sympathizes with the efforts of state governments to fight the Maoist threat, the government has shied away from a full throated defense of counterinsurgency policies preferring more to emphasize development efforts in backward areas. With media groups largely dominated by human rights activists and sympathizers with limited tolerance for state violence, the government finds itself caught between discharging its fundamental responsibility to protect state authority and defend the rule of law on the one hand and facing public hostility that would undermine its popular acceptability thereby further delegitimizing its efforts on the other. The recent campaign to withdraw/amend/repeal the AFSPA too has played along the same lines. So far, the government has provided conflicting responses but no coherent and agreed upon strategy barring a modest improvement in media management.
Finally, our foreign policy, as Nitin Pai pointed out recently, is pretty much on autopilot owing to misguided convictions, a lack of direction and a failure of imagination. S.M.Krishna appears to have simply recoiled to faithfully reciting homilies straight out of the playbook of the Nehruvian era. India has a particular knack of picking losers in every emerging foreign policy challenge – we chose Iraq over Kuwait during the first Gulf war, then the Saddam regime over the Shia parties during the second gulf war and now, we faithfully picked Qaddafi over the rebels who dominate the new government. Even as we expanded security ties with Israel and faced relentless cross border terrorist attacks, we virtually always sided with the Palestinians in UN propaganda battles at the height of the second intifada notwithstanding the glaring contrast between what we practiced at home and what we preached abroad. We failed to play a dominant role in ending the Lankan civil war and find ourselves on the back foot in Burma as China extends its footprint in both these places.
With great difficulty, UPA1.0 pushed through the nuclear deal with the United States but UPA2.0 could not muster the courage to follow it up with a well thought out liability law thus failing to consummate it. Again, typical of the old anti-American mindset, India has been voicing its skepticism about the Afghan war despite the obvious dangers of the NATO retreat from Afghanistan. In its anxiety to make peace with Pakistan, the government has made concessions in exchange for limited gains. First, it insisted on not talking till progress was achieved in the 26/11 trials; now it is willing to go forward even without tangible gains in this area so long as no additional such attacks take place which would set back the process. No doubt, the government has calculated that the impending American pull out from Afghanistan will change the dynamics of South Asia – with India and Pakistan likely to find themselves on opposite sides as the Taliban insurgency escalates, the harsh winds in the aftermath could well be felt across India in the form of a renewed and reinvigorated jihad. The ongoing dialogue is an attempt to mitigate (if not preempt) its disastrous effects.Yet, it is doubtful how much India can negotiate with a weak hand; short of a major agreement such as on Kashmir – a very unlikely prospect even with an accelerated timetable – none of the changes can be said to be irreversible or formidable enough to substantially alter the course of events as may be expected to occur. The odds (and I would be happy to be proven wrong) therefore are that gains from these talks, like the ones before it, will prove to be ephemeral, their lifespan prematurely terminated in a violent post-2014 storm.
The moot question is whether UPA2.0 recognizes the impending danger and is going to prepare the country for it or has it bought into its own rhetoric of peace?
The remarkable thing is that all these institutional failures of UPA2.0 have not had much impact on the electorate. On the contrary, it has been accused of not being sufficiently pro-aam aadmi. It is supposed to be anti-people, pro-American (and hence “not independent”) and pro-business. According to this view, the government is expected to sacrifice the long term well being of the state and its institutions for the immediate pleasure of the public today. The defeat of the Left has not dented this ideology of unrequited hedonism in the slightest – it has been effortlessly adopted by other parties in the opposition. Thus, rising oil prices are an issue, national energy security is not; cost of rail travel is a great concern; a bankrupt railway sector is not. Pauperizing the government is apparently the politically correct thing to do and is considered perfectly acceptable because it is “pro-people”! The lack of judicial reform too has not prompted the opposition to take the government to task. It is satisfied with petty political point scoring every time the courts makes some unwarranted observation or infringe on legislative prerogatives. The same absence of constructive criticism hurts internal security as well. The only thing we hear after every terrorist attack is an obsession with POTA with little fuss being made about all the other infrastructural and personnel limitations that might have led to it. No one in parliament has bothered to call for a legislative inquiry into any terrorist attack to examine deficiencies and recommend measures to rectify them. Similar absurdities abound in external affairs. Indian foreign policy follows a path somewhere between realistic and anachronistic but not particularly idealistic; despite the ample scope to take issue with this approach (or the lack of one on many an occasion), the NDA-led opposition has shown little inclination in articulating a contrasting stance.
There is little doubt that institutional weaknesses extend across the board. I have only mentioned here a few key ones but surely there are more. The present UPA2.0 coalition would properly deserve a failing grade for the current state of affairs but for the moribund state of the opposition. With elections coming up in the next two years, more irresponsible populism may be expected from all sides. It appears to me that the ability of Indian political class today to deal with tomorrow’s governance challenges is somewhat dubious. The need for a new vision founded on conservative principles to provide a sheet anchor for a rightward political movement capable of protecting the state, reinforcing its organs and defending the national interest thereby rescuing the country from the morass it is getting into has never been greater.