As India awaits the verdict of one of its most hard-fought and bitter general elections, Finance Minister P Chidambaram said Monday the UPA government had failed to gauge the change taking place in the country in 2010 and 2011 — when anti-corruption protests hit the streets of Delhi and elsewhere — and realise the extent of anger that was building up.
The 2014 results, he said, will be the “product” of those “crucial years”.
Chidambaram was in conversation with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta after Gupta’s book Anticipating India — The Best of National Interest was released.
The finance minister said that both Gupta and he came to the view, with different sets of data, that the Congress did not draw the right lessons after returning to power in 2009.
“The cities of India voted us to power, except for Bangalore. And all the poorer states to which we had directed many of our anti-poverty programmes did not vote for us. We got fewer seats in the poorer states and we got many more seats in the affluent urban areas of India,” Chidambaram said.
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“It is not that we did not notice it, but we didn’t draw the lessons that we should have drawn after noticing these facts and work out a more consistent philosophy or policy that would appeal to the vast majority of the people of India.”
Not just the government but the political class as a whole, including the main opposition BJP, “completely failed” to understand the changing mood of the people, he said. Looking back, he said “it is clear that opportunities were missed” and “crucial mistakes were made”.
While the finance minister said the “promise of a new dawn may be a false promise”, senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad contested it hotly and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid chipped in on a lighter note and asked whether the dawn he was referring to was spelt “d-a-w-n” or “d-o-n”.
Khurshid said he did not foresee the rise of either a new “dawn” or a new “don”. “I think there might be uncertainty for a while. But I don’t see a new dawn. We are trying to see the DON doesn’t hang around for long,” he said.
Debunking the doomsday predictions for the UPA, he said Chidambaram will be around to finish the budget work. “We are not going away. This is a promise. We are here and we are here to stay.”
Prasad contested Chidambaram’s observation saying he too thought there could be uncertainty when the election process started at the beginning of the year. “But, the more I have campaigned and travelled, now I believe the situation may not be there. We are going to have a very stable government,” he said.
Chidambaram and his cabinet colleague Manish Tewari claimed there was a problem with the UPA government’s communication efforts, especially in 2010 and 2011.
“It is quite clear that the critical years were 2010 and 2011…Whatever will happen on 16th of May, I think, will be the direct product of those critical years – 2010 and 2011. Looking back it is quite clear that opportunities were missed, it is quite clear that crucial mistakes were made and looking back it is quite clear that even the principal opposition party did not see the opportunity in 2010 or 2011. Those were the critical years,” he said.
While Chidambaram evaded a question on whether there was a disconnect between the Congress party and the government, he said the political class should have communicated more with the people during those years. “The disconnect between the political class and the people grew. And I think whoever noticed it first and began to communicate is going to reap the benefit now,” he said.
“The political class completely failed to understand the change that was taking place. The government did not communicate what it was doing. Nor did it realise the extent of anger that was building up. The principle opposition party did not see the opportunity either. There were internal differences there, they are quarreling among themselves and they were at a pretty low point too. I think the people’s voice was clearly heard in Bihar. It surprised everyone. It surprised the Congress which ended up with four seats, it surprised the BJP which won 91 out of the 102 seats it contested. It surprised both ends of the political spectrum,” he said.
Elaborating on his view that India has changed, the finance minister said the country has moved from being a “petitioning society to an aspirational society”.
“That treating the people of India as petitioners we should give up…Nobody is any longer resigned to their fate,” he said. Chidambaram also pointed out that UPA-2 should have drawn lessons from the fact that it was not the poorer constituencies but the more affluent constituencies that voted it back to power in 2009.
Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, however, disagreed saying the verdict in 2009 was both from rural India as well as urban India but agreed that the aspirations of the people keep changing and the country has become aspirational.
The lively discussion saw several noted personalities chipping in. Former chief election commissioner S Y Quraishi said he was a little upset with the fact that “loose talk” by the political class has increased in this election season and felt political leaders should enforce discipline instead of depending on the Election Commission.
Manish Tewari said the information and communication paradigm shifted completely between 2004 and 2014. The discourse had become more democratic by 2009, moving away from the top-down model, but it was marked more by cacophony. “I do admit that 2010-2011 was the inflection point and had we managed that inflection point a little better, the problems that we had with our messaging would not have been there,” he said.
D Raja of the CPI said the relevance of the Left parties will be felt more after May 16th. He disagreed with the view that the Aam Aadmi Party could capture the space of the political Left in India. Raja said there was little difference between the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP in terms of economic, foreign or other policies, which give rise to the need for an alternative. “There is a need for an alternative on which the Left is working…I don’t think the space of Left can be taken by anybody,” he said.