The celebration of the fourth anniversary of India’s ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) on May 22 was preceded by predictions in various opinion polls about a fall in its number of Lok Sabha (lower house) seats in the next general election.
The forecast reflected the general perception about the UPA’s decline as a result of its suspected involvement in a series of scams and what Finance Minister P. Chidambaram once called its “governance and ethical deficits”.
The jury is out, however, on the question whether the poll surveys indicate a present-day urban bias against the Congress-led alliance rather than a genuine countrywide reality. Sonia Gandhi’s comment to mediapersons during the celebrations — “you Dilliwalas [Delhiites] know nothing about the feelings of the people” — underlines the divide.
Since the veracity of this assessment cannot be ascertained until after the elections, it can be regarded for the present either as a case of turning a blind eye to an uncomfortable reality or the belief in a tilt towards the Congress in the villages. In justification of the second evaluation, the Congress’ vote share in the recently concluded Karnataka elections can be cited. In the 2008 assembly elections, the party received 34.8 per cent of the votes, followed by 37.6 in the 2009 parliamentary polls and 36.8 in this month’s assembly elections.
What this means is that the public perception of the Congress hasn’t been affected in the last five years. The stability of its support base has survived the various squalls which have been dominating the conversation of the chatterati at the cocktail circuits of Dilliwalas.
At the same time, it is worth pointing out that the political habit of blaming the media for presenting an incomplete picture is an easy way out. Unfortunately, this tactic was adopted to explain away both the poll surveys and the rumoured rift between the prime minister and the Congress president.
Yet the reality may be different. As the prime minister said in his speech, the economy is on the way to recovery. But he did not explain why it had faltered in the first place after a consistent run of 8-9 per cent growth during UPA-I.
Was it because the jump in the Congress’s number of seats from 145 to 206 in UPA-II emboldened Sonia Gandhi and the extra-constitutional National Advisory Council (NAC) led by the Left-leaning social activists to follow populist policies at the expense of reforms ?
The assumption that this may have been the reason is strengthened by the derisive manner in which an NAC member, Harsh Mander (who has since lost his place in the council), pointed out that the boost to the government in 2009 was not provided by the nuclear deal, but the rural employment scheme. It is no secret that the deal was seen by the Left as an extension of the government’s preference for pro-American policies in economic matters as well.
The policy paralysis which affected UPA-II was widely seen, therefore, as a result of the difference in perception between the prime minister, who favoured market-oriented policies, and the Congress president who inclined towards profligate welfare measures.
More than the scams, the government’s credibility has been hurt by the paralysis that showed it as indecisive. Had the economy continued to grow at the earlier rate, the stench from the scandals might have been partially diluted by the “feel good” factor.
If the economy is now recovering, the reason possibly is that Manmohan Singh’s views have finally prevailed. Hence Gandhi’s reference at the party’s Jaipur conclave in January to the “aspirational” urban middle class that had been forgotten until then because of the party’s preference for doles for rural families for engaging in unproductive labour.
Both the government and the party must be aware that precious time has been lost. Moreover, the slowing of the growth rate has made it difficult to revive the “animal spirits”, as promised by the prime minister.
Arguably, the UPA-II has itself to blame rather than the opposition’s undeniable obstructionism for its problems. It failed to channel the success of the 2009 outcome in a positive direction. Evidence of this negativism can be found in the continuing uncertainty about Singh’s future.
Notwithstanding Gandhi’s attempts to bolster his position, sections of the Congress weaken him by naming Rahul Gandhi as his successor, as Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath did on the eve of the anniversary celebrations.
As a result of the Congress’ habit of speaking in many voices, a demoralised Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), once described by a supporter as a drifting kite, has found its feet although it is yet to decide on its prime ministerial candidate despite Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s energetic self-promotion.
Along with Gandhi’s combative approach to the opposition tactics, what is therefore needed for the Congress is to be more candid in its self-evaluation.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst.