The regular exposes of the UPA government’s varied incompetence and venality and the growing cacophony over corruption seem to suggest a crisis of government and the possibility of mid-term polls. This post examines the current political conditions and argues that despite all its acts of omission and commission, the UPA appears likely to finish its term in office.
The leader of the opposition in India’s Parliament and senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member, Shushma Swaraj, recently declared that the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government may fall well before finishing its term and exhorted her party cadres to be ready for elections. Coming as it is after an unending series of crises which have marked the second tenure of the UPA in office over the last two years and more, this does appear a possibility. That things have reached this state after an emphatic election victory and without any real alternative set of policies or electoral rival in sight is almost entirely due to the lack of competence of the Congress. But will the government actually fall? And what after that?
The one lesson which the BJP seems to have internalised, even if subconsciously, from the successive electoral routs of 2004 and 2009, is that neither its present electoral alliance nor its political strategy are going to win it elections. The electoral alliance it has, has been shrinking and does not give it the pan-India cover necessary to cross the half-way mark in the parliament. As for its political / electoral strategy, it has not been able to find the golden mean, which its myriad well-wishers keep asking it to find, between its rabid Hindu nationalism and a universal appeal. That is a pursuit, undertaken with much energy and faith under former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which has been now largely given up as unachievable. The BJP, much as many want, cannot become a non-denominational right-wing party, perhaps because there is no such space in the Indian polity. In other words, the BJP has realised, even if it does not say so explicitly, that it is difficult to unseat the Congress from power with the alternative agenda it provides, even when the Congress has been weakened, as it was in 2009 after the bruising nuclear pact vote.
Given this situation, the only recourse for India’s opposition seems to be to break the Congress electoral alliance and use an internal breakdown in India’s ruling party to come to power. Fortunately for the BJP, the Congress led UPA has given them one opportunity after the other in its second term. It is a long list which started with the wrangling over ministries right at the formation of UPA’s second government and continued with an unending litany of errors, corruption, turf-wars, policy log-jams and incompetence. While part of this has been a result of a certain vision and policy framework which sees India as a putative superpower growing on the foundation of a private sector which has been unshackled two decades ago after many years of ‘socialism’, it is also inherent in the very nature of Indian politics and administration. Whatever the causes and antecedents, corruption and incompetence, combined with a certain arrogance have come to define the UPA in its second term in office.
And it is corruption, rather than price rise which too has been unprecedented and sustained for the past two years, which has provided the first real opportunity to hit and hurt the UPA government. Its led some of its senior ministers into jail along with top leaders of its ally in government, the Tamil Nadu based DMK. However, it is instructive that neither the BJP nor the other parties in the opposition, including the Left, have been able to successfully take up the issue of corruption. This has been done by a relatively unknown ‘social worker’ popularly known as Anna Hazare whose fasts-unto-death on the issue have shaken the government like none other has. There is a fair amount of conjecture that Hazare’s movement was planned, or at the least helped, by the BJP’s parent organisation – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Whatever be the veracity of that, its indisputable that Hazare’s movement has pushed the Congress party and the UPA government into a corner and the prime beneficiary has been the BJP.
However, the origin of the present crisis cannot be tied to corruption. To understand it one has to look elsewhere. The defeat of the BJP led government in 2004 was not a result of a coherent policy alternative from the Congress, nor was it based on a mass movement of any form against the incumbent government; rather it was a spontaneous protest vote against the economic and social policies of the BJP led government which were commonly referred to as “India Shining”. The Congress was as surprised with its ‘victory’ as was the BJP gobsmacked by its defeat. The UPA was a post-election-result hurried patchwork of parties to keep the BJP out and did not really change many of the economic policies. What it did however were two things extra.
The UPA put in place an institutional mechanism for tempering economic policies to reduce their adverse impact on the poor and working people. This led to the initiation of a range of social security measures and other progressive legislations which perhaps have been quite unprecedented in recent Indian history. These initiatives, both in their legal form as well as in the manner in which they are implemented, leave much to be desired, yet the point cannot be stressed enough — they are unprecedented and they do, however imperfect, provide real relief to those who need it. It may be too soon to measure their impact in the regional, class, caste and other segments. Moreover, most have not been able to either identify nor understand the nature and extent of this social agenda of the UPA. Some are, perhaps, blinded by ideological blinkers and are in observing what should, otherwise, be apparent. It is difficult to deny that the Congress victory in the 2009 elections was, to a large part, due to the impact of its social agenda as well as the tempering of pro-market economic policies.
It is here that the Congress has managed to re-establish its post independence role of being the great tent accommodating all shades, opinions and perspectives while keeping the extreme positions in each of these out. The real achievement of Sonia Gandhi is to re-establish this traditional post-independence role of the Congress and it is this which is the secret of its revival under her leadership.
Sonia Gandhi has kept the economic reforms team of Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and others at the helm of policy, in fact they have been strengthened. However, what she has also done is to offer a strong institutionalised voice to various shades of left-of-centre and radical opinion through the mechanism of the National Advisory Council and by forcing the Congress to play the political card of support and sympathy with the poor and vulnerable, in large part by making her son Rahul Gandhi focus sharply on this.
Today, the Congress, despite all its acts of omission and commission, remains the only political force which can mediate the contradictions of India – providing opportunities for capital while also providing some redress to the poor and vulnerable; reining in capital just enough to reduce its most egregious excesses while providing space for social protest which does not spill over well drawn limits; and finally, calibrating social welfare in ways which keeps enough numbers of the poor and vulnerable with a stake in the present order.
With the growth of the economy and the extension of market relations into more areas and regions of our national life, the tensions and contradictions between profit and people have a tendency to rise. That is evident from the mass of reports and movements all over the country. The Congress method to deal with this contradiction is to contain some of the more egregious aspects of the profit drive while conceding some of the more pressing demands of the people. The BJP’s strategy in dealing with this has been to shift the battle from the field of political economy to culture and religion. In other words, they have perfected the art of using communalism and religious divisions to break popular struggles and demands, which eases the pressure on capital and its profits, thus easing the contradiction. We can, for convenience, call them the strategy of the carrot (Congress) and the strategy of the stick (BJP).
I would agree that this is too simple a picture of the political strategy of the two contending political blocs. It is true that the Congress has used not just this metaphorical stick — religious, caste, language and regional divisions — but often enough the real one too, while the BJP has also taken up social agendas sometimes. However, looked at over the time and space of independent India, this broad categorisation should hold. As a strategy, it appears obvious that the Congress’ way would be preferable in ‘normal’ times as it is less risky and more stable for the State, the ruling classes and administrators. It is also better for the people since this allows for the existence of spaces to organise, mobilise and agitate on a relatively wider variety of issues.
However, when there is a crisis in the political economy, as happened in the 1970s and 1980s, it creates conditions where the strategy of the stick becomes increasingly attractive — not only for the ruling classes and the State but, crucially, for important sections of elites in our amazingly segmented society, who then provide the footsoldiers of support for the BJP. There is, though, a time lag of a decade or so between the emergence of a political economy crisis and the rise of rabid right wing politics.
However, what is important for our discussion here is that we are not at present in any form of a crisis. In fact, the Indian economy appears to be on a long-term upward swing and a much of the UPA’s social agenda has been financed from this. Given this objective condition, it seems unlikely that the BJP, with its stick, will be able to convince either the power-wielders or the voting masses of its suitability for office. One symptom of this fact, or in other words, one possible proof of this hypothesis, is that the BJP – despite being without power and with many possible opportunities to attack the government – is perhaps more riddled with dissensions and divisions than is the Congress which is having to deal with unending crisis. This is so because the BJP leadership realises two things at once : the opportunity provided by the UPA and the inability of their party to seize that. And this inability is directly linked to the deficiency of their larger political programme and strategy.
It is because of this that I would forecast that the UPA government should be able to weather out this storm and remain in power at least through their term. It can also be termed the TINA factor (There is no alternative). Whether the UPA government sees out its entire term in office would also depend on other contingencies, including how badly the global economy tanks and how well India’s government manages this crisis and also on whether corruption takes down one of the top political leadership of the Congress – Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi or Manmohan Singh.
The success of this forecast also depends on how well the Congress continues to manage the different contradictions inherent in the system. It is not an easy task but one which, historically, only the Congress has managed to meet in India. As of now, despite all the heavy artillery of the anti-corruption movement it appears that the Congress led UPA government has not lost this plot. If this assessment is correct, then Shushma Swaraj’s exhortation to her cadres will have remained an empty call and the intense battle among the BJP leadership for prime-ministership would remain a flop-show.
While the possible failure of the BJP surely is good news, the blight of India’s politics remains the absence of a progressive and radical alternative to the Congress.
A shorter version of this was published in Daily Times, Lahore.