What this politics portends
The failure to challenge Congress party’s ideology can convert this crisis in governance into a crisis of governability
It may be two years too early to judge the legacy of the UPA government but the signs aren’t encouraging: a host of corruption scandals, misgovernance and an economy in decline is what this government will be remembered for. For a coalition that renewed its mandate in 2009 with much hope, the decline has been spectacular. Political explanations exist abound for the ineptitude of the Congress party-led government but they won’t alter the consequences of the current declivity.
The unravelling of the UPA government has been both swift and spectacular. The Prime Minister’s office seems to be in perpetual fire-fighting mode, dousing one crisis after another. The weakness of the government has emboldened other institutions to encroach upon the functions of the executive. The judiciary, the CAG and the armed forces, among others, have moved in to fill in the governance vacuum. The political space has also been ceded to non-state institutions, notably the media and the civil society. The parliament, from which the political executive draws its power, also stands diminished in the process. In fact, institutional relationships have been badly mangled in the last three years, upsetting the long-established system of checks and balances.
The change in the UPA government’s attitude can be linked to its mishandling of the Anna Hazare movement. Before the Anna Hazare movement last year, the UPA government seemed disdainful of the media and contrarian voices. A ham-handed response to Anna Hazare’s public fast, resulting in government’s public capitulation has seen the UPA lose its nous. Rather than shape and guide public opinion, government policies are now being formulated to satisfy the clamour in the media. As the recent incident of child custody in Norway shows, government policy is being dictated by media reports and opinion pieces — often emotional and obtuse — than by national interest or strategic vision.
With the union government’s vulnerability out in the open, the state governments have moved in to grab their pound of flesh. The buzz of the season is the assertion of power by regional satraps. The central government has been forced to back down on a number of important legislations, policies and diplomatic positions as a consequence of strident and debilitating pressure from regional parties. The opposition-ruled states may be opposing union government’s policies for political reasons but the regional allies of the Congress party have been the real culprits. Mamata Banerjee’s opposition has already led to reversal of decisions to increase FDI in multi-brand retail and to hike passenger train fares. The opposition of the allies is not limited to domestic policy. It has already encroached the domain of foreign policy. While DMK’s insistence led to India voting against Sri Lanka on a UNHRC resolution, Ms Banerjee’s opposition to the Teesta water treaty has created problems for India-Bangladesh relations.
Of course, a lot of UPA government’s weaknesses can be attributed to the problems of running a coalition government. Other coalition governments in the past have also had their share of embarrassments — frequent entreaties to Jayalalitha by senior BJP ministers and sacking of power minister, Suresh Prabhu at Shiv Sena’s insistence in the NDA government, easily come to mind. But those were sporadic incidents, few and far in between. Nothing comes close to the consistent display of weakness and political ineptitude by the Congress party in the UPA dispensation.
This is, however, not the first weak coalition government that India has had. India has perhaps had weaker coalition governments earlier, especially those of the Third Front. But those governments, which ruled India for a few months at different times, were not headed by a national party; the Third Front was always a motley group of regional parties propped up by others from the outside. This is the first time in independent India’s history that the union government led by a national party has capitulated in front of the smaller parties. With India destined to be governed by coalitions in the foreseeable future, the consequences of this capitulation by the Congress party will be long-lasting: the crisis of governance could end up as the crisis of governability. The decline, delay and corrosion in governance has led to a lack of trust among institutions, individuals and parties. This lack of trust means that political blackmail, even at a cost of national interest, is now an acceptable norm in the system. It would need a bold and visionary political leader to regenerate that trust and put governance back on track.
If the Congress party evidently lacks such political leadership, the main opposition party, the BJP is no better. Since its loss in 2004 parliamentary elections, BJP has failed to present itself as a viable alternative to the Congress at the centre. It will be no surprise if the next general election produces a scenario where the three major political groupings — the Congress, the BJP and the Left — do not together add up to 272 seats in the Lok Sabha. The next government will then be a coalition of regional aspirations with national parties left to playing second fiddle. A union government solely at the mercy of the regional satraps is bound to leave the India story in a state of interminable decline.
Election results are hard to predict and it is possible that some of this damage may be reversed by a bold leader surprisingly thrown up after the next elections. But what no leader will be able to reverse is the narrative created since 2004 by the Congress party, aided in no small measure by the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi. The victory in 2004 elections on the Aam Aadmi slogan and the re-election in 2009 on the basis of successful social expenditure schemes like the MGNREGA has shifted the mainstream political narrative to the Left. Inclusive Growth has been accepted as a gospel and no party in India opposes redistribution schemes like the MGNREGA or the proposed Right to Food. Across the political spectrum, there is vocal opposition to increase foreign direct investment, do away with subsidies, to privatise the public sector or to reform the power sector. All parties are united in their opposition to police reforms and labour reforms. Economic reforms is a dirty phrase with most of India’s politicians, bureaucrats and opinion makers.
This is the most damaging legacy of the Congress-led UPA government — of moving the complete political ideology in India towards the Left. If an ideological reversal has to happen after the next elections, political parties or leaders have to now start taking positions which go against the current government’s policies. Unfortunately, no such leader or party is visible on the horizon today. When the disagreements are only about the methods and not the ways and goals of the UPA government’s policies, there is little hope for a substantive change from the next government in Delhi. Ironically, UPA’s biggest success is that its ideological beliefs have been embraced by all its political opponents. It is another matter that in that success lie the seeds of India’s failure.
Sushant K Singh is the editor of Pragati