Monday, May 24, 2010

Complacent UPA ignores voter rage (May 23, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Maoists are known to be grim and humourless. It was, therefore, entirely fitting that these ‘merchants of death’ should have sullied the first anniversary celebrations of UPA-Mark 2 with another horrible massacre in Dantewada, a heinous act that soured the ringing endorsements of the Manmohan Singh Government in the opinion polls and media.

A reality check on the make-believe political atmosphere of Delhi in the long, hot summer was always necessary. Fresh from its victory in the Lok Sabha cut motion debate and its success in steering the Women’s Reservation Bill through the Rajya Sabha, a gung-ho UPA has simultaneously conveyed the impression that it was also celebrating the 6th year of the BJP’s loss of power at the Centre.

The threat of an alternative Government is an acknowledged incentive for purposeful governance. When voters know that one coalition can be booted out and replaced by another, their threshold of tolerance for non-performance comes down automatically. Yet, a curious feature of Indian democracy is that very rarely does an incumbent Government feel an alternative breathing down its neck. Most existing regimes at the Centre delude themselves into believing that There Is No Alternative.

The unflinching faith in TINA was a factor behind Rajiv Gandhi’s post-1987 arrogance and the complacency of the NDA during the 2004 poll. India is witnessing a re-run of TINA as the Manmohan Singh Government meanders, without any sense of urgency, but with the reassurance that a Congress-led Government is guaranteed until 2019.

When the UPA returned last year, conventional wisdom deemed that with the Left and Lalu Prasad Yadav out of the way, the Government would have greater coherence and attend to some long-term measures. It was felt that investments in infrastructure would get a fillip and some of the irritants in the path of rapid growth would be removed. The hope was that the UPA would also focus on overall quality of life in India. This was certainly the expectation of metropolitan and middle India that endorsed the Congress.

There was also a non-economic concern centred on terrorism. After the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai and the replacement of the absurd Shivraj Patil by the more purposeful P Chidambaram, there was optimism that India would finally get its internal security regime in order. No one realistically believed that all jihadi attacks would cease. What was hoped was that the Government would do its level best to prevent attacks and minimise police and intelligence ineptitude.

A mandate is given for five years and it is both unrealistic and unfair to judge any Government on the strength of its 365-day record. Yet, if an assessment is attempted, the UPA Government’s performance must be measured in terms of popular expectations. In 2014, the scheduled date for the next general election, the UPA will be asked two questions. First, are we better off today than we were in 2009? And, second, are we safe?
More than anything else, it is the soaring rate of inflation, particularly the rising price of food, which has soured the UPA record. A year ago, India faced zero inflation. Today, general inflation is touching 10 per cent and food inflation hovers around 17 per cent. This phenomenal rise plus the uncertainties of the equity market have forced the consuming classes to temper their material expectations and tighten their belts. Since Indian consumers are more flexible and maintain a high savings rate, neither inflation nor the economic slowdown has resulted in the dislocation witnessed in the West.

Unfortunately, the fiscal responsibility shown by the consumer has not been met by a corresponding sense of Government responsibility. The UPA’s showcase programmes such as the NREGP and the proposed Food Security Act may be socially desirable. But isn’t it nationally desirable to demand effective and efficient utilisation of every rupee spent by the Government? This is a question that isn’t merely unaddressed but is thought to be politically unacceptable.

Under the guise of ‘good politics’ the UPA has set in motion a political culture that involves hardworking citizens, honest taxpayers and successful businesses having to bear the burden of Government inefficiency and corruption. India can justly be proud of its ability to ward off the global recession. But that was due to the ability of individuals, service providers and manufacturing companies to cut costs and operate more efficiently. If this sense of mission and sacrifice that corporate and civil society demonstrated had even been partially emulated by the Government, India’s global clout and influence would have been hugely enhanced.

It’s really a question of targets. The UPA has wilfully set its targets so low that it doesn’t see missed opportunities as a failure. Its economic focus is to create a culture of dependency and entitlements — attributes that in the long run will blunt India’s economic competitiveness and make it under-perform. As an economist, Manmohan Singh is probably aware of the long-term effects of this distortion; as a Congress functionary, he knows that unchecked Government expenditure can yield temporary electoral dividends. The politician Singh has prevailed over the economist Singh.

It is this short-sightedness that has also led to the Home Minister retreating from his robust approach to confronting Maoism and yielding to pressure to be partisan. If Maoist terrorism has to be fought back, it has to be viewed as a national problem rather than as a Chhattisgarh problem. Yet, the UPA’s inclination is to let the BJP State Government stew in its own juice and draw collateral benefits from its troubles.

The UPA can afford to be brazen in both the economic and security fronts because it believes there is no worthwhile Opposition. As of today it is right. But it should also know that Indian voters rarely wait for an alternative to crystallise. They first act against a Government and then let the political process fill the vacuum.

Sunday Pioneer, May 23, 2010

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