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Economy May 22, 2013

After four years of UPA 2, the India story looks bleak

By Venky Vembu

Even in a culture that values longevity in and of itself, without acknowledging that a long life-span is no measure of a life well-lived, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the UPA political alliance, which completes nine years in office today and the fourth year of its second successive term, has perhaps overstayed its welcome.

Survival in office counts for something only if it is not seen as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for delivering good governance. And on that count, despite all the self-congratulation that the UPA may indulge in today, an objective assessment of its record will concede that it has failed India abysmally.

When the UPA won a second term in office in 2009, against the tide of opinion of political pundits, it had a remarkable chance to script a stellar story for itself and for India. Having broken free of the political deadweight of the Left parties, which had hobbled it for much of its first term, the Congress was widely seen as having won a mandate to get things done.

Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. AFP

Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. AFP

Confidence in India's ability to overcome the malefic effect of the global financial crisis of 2008 and chart a high-growth path was supremely high. As an over-the-top bullish fund manager told me then: "From a political perspective, this is the best I've ever experienced. And I think there is also upside politically. If the Congress executes well over the next three to five years, there is a chance that the next time their position could be even stronger."

But, as the Radiia tapes revealed barely a year later, the UPA 2 government was conceived in corruption - and never really recovered from that taint. Right from the day the election results came in, the back-channel negotiations began for the reappointment of A Raja as Telecom Minister to advance the interests of certain telecom majors (in return for illegal gratification). It was an enterprise in which corporate lobbyists, industrialists, mediapersons and politicians were complicit, and - as the power of hindsight establishes - the sins of those summer days, which set the stage for India's biggest corruption scandal, virtually set the political tone for the rest of the four years.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his party initially sought to portray the tolerance of Raja's corrupt deeds as the unfortunate outcome of the vicissitudes of coalition politics. But, as subsequent exposes have established, Manmohan Singh and other key Ministers knew full well that mischief was afoot, but pointedly looked the other way.

That was the beginning of the slide, and the political capital of the UPA government in general - and Manmohan Singh in particular - was mortally wounded from that episode. But rather than regroup and press ahead with remedial action, the government slid further into the cesspool of corruption.

The long list of corruption scandals of the past few years - and the brazenness with which the UPA has sought to cover it up - may have been enough to induce despair in the people. But it also meant that the UPA had lost whatever little political goodwill it may have had, and therefore felt inhibited from undertaking the necessary but politically unpopular tough decisions to address structural failings in the economy and instead resorted to populist schemes as the cynical expedient of prolonging its stay in office..

Of course, for a political formation that is on artificial life-support, the UPA has a heightened instinct for political survival. Having debased key institutions and harnessed them in the interests of its political survival, the UPA hobbles along quite remarkably. In this process, it has been aided by an opposition that has singularly failed to capitalise on the UPA's many failings - because it is itself in deep disarray.

Today, virtually every opinion poll and survey validates the intuitive perception that the UPA faces a political backlash largely on account of its abysmal record of the past four years. But it may be too early to make projections about the next election based on the current popular mood on the strength of opinion polls and surveys that can never quite capture the complexity of Indian politics. In any case, such surveys have been known to be colossally wrong in the past: much the same prediction was made in 2009 as well - but the eventual outcome proved vastly different.

The manner in which these opinion polls and surveys have been framed also points to an emerging political strategy to pin the blame on Manmohan Singh for the UPA's poor standing today, and insulate the Congress and its president Sonia Gandhi from the political backlash. It's hard to tell with certainty whether this is the party's official strategy, but just the fact that mid-level leaders of the party feel increasingly emboldened to chirp their frustrations about Manmohan Singh as a political liability points to such an endeavour. But it is hard to see how that can conceivably help the Congress' political fortunes.

Opinion polls suggest that if an election were held today, the UPA would be trounced. It's not quite open-and-shut as that, but if the Congress believes it, it gives it the incentive to prolong the agony of this political arrangement, by contriving to stay on in office with yet more artifice and institutional abuse. The political churn is going to get a lot vicious, and what's worse there's no certainty that an election will throw up a decisive outcome for any meaningful political arrangement. For the Indian polity and the economy, it appears, things will likely get a lot worse before they can get better...

by Venky Vembu

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