National Interest: UPA 3,the chance

Old and tired,UPA has an opportunity to refresh itself thanks to Modi,Mulayam,Mamata. Can it use this?

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Published: June 23, 2012 1:08 am

Old and tired,UPA has an opportunity to refresh itself thanks to Modi,Mulayam,Mamata. Can it use this?

Our national politics had remained more or less frozen since the middle of 2008,when the Left walked out of the UPA over the nuclear deal. Something,therefore,had to give at some point. The change has now been triggered by the presidential election.

National political equations are being rewritten. Key players have been forced to reveal their cards. The Congress is an unexpected gainer,provided its leadership now has the courage and agility to build on this fortuitous turn. The NDA and the BJP seem to be in disarray,though there are new opportunities for them as well. The build-up,the shifting and shuffling of alliances have all begun ahead of the 2014 general elections as the combatants stir themselves out of the trenches.

The gains for the UPA include the more formal arrival of Mulayam Singh Yadav in its tent,the fraying of the most unlikely — but vital — alliance between the NDA and Nitish Kumar’s JD(U),and the sudden,self-inflicted irrelevance of its most difficult ally,Mamata Banerjee. Is it all negative for the BJP and NDA? Not quite. If the NDA hopes to win in 2014,it would need Naveen Patnaik,J. Jayalalithaa,the dominant anti-Congress party in Andhra Pradesh and,with luck,even Mamata in its camp. The presidential election has given it its first opening in eight years to resume business with Patnaik and Jayalalithaa. It is most likely that Jagan Mohan Reddy,who is replacing the TDP as Andhra’s leading (and now dominant) regional party,will vote with the NDA too. Mamata has an issue with 33 per cent Muslim voters in West Bengal,but she has done business with the NDA before and is now bitter and lonely enough to take a new look at life. Further,the BJP,and,more importantly,the RSS,have also made their first moves to indicate that Narendra Modi will be their candidate for NDA’s prime minister in 2014. That’s why it is not all negative for the NDA,howsoever silly it may have been made to look right now. Our national politics is not only out of the freeze,it’s bubbling with action.

This provides the UPA a sudden chance to repair and rebuild its broken government. For nearly eight years,the coalition has carried on with generally the same cabinet. Its senior-most people have been more or less frozen in their positions,barring the one departure (Shivraj Patil) and shift (P. Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee to home and finance,respectively). But that,too,was in the winter of 2008. The key ministers have meanwhile only grown older and tired. At the same time,the so-called younger ministers (of state,mostly),have also grown older and more bored from having had to do no work. Old age,fatigue,boredom and lack of further ambition make a deadly mix,as this cabinet is filled with people who know they have no future beyond 2014.

Which is exactly what has bedevilled the performance of UPA 2. There have been no fresh ideas,no motivation,no energy. The cabinet has for too long been trapped in a “what else can I do under the circumstances” mindset. The result is a total policy paralysis. The latest turn,therefore,brings an opportunity the UPA cannot afford to lose. What provides it even greater impetus is a bitter realisation at the topmost levels of the Congress party. That the economic decline and popular malaise will guarantee them not just a defeat in 2014 but,if you simply go over the electoral map of India state by state,an aggregate in two figures,for the first time ever. They can no longer draw comfort from their blasé backroom managers’ favourite “but look at the state of the BJP”. In the current state of disaffection,the voter may decide to simply vote against the Congress/UPA,irrespective of who,and how deserving,their rival is.

Pranab Mukherjee’s elevation gives Sonia Gandhi an opportunity to launch,in effect,UPA 3. But that is only if she is willing to do something on a wider,more audacious scale than the usual Congress incrementalism. It is easy to bring one more senior minister into the Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS) and fill the “vacancy”. But she,and the prime minister,could put an energetic new minister into finance,not distracted by daily demands of political management and fifty-five or whatever number of pointless,aimless and inconclusive GoMs. He will need to sweep the floor clean of really the most incompetent,unimaginative and arrogant bureaucratic team that the finance ministry had collected since 1991. External affairs is ripe for a younger,more active minister too. S.M. Krishna is a decent man and his diplomatic skills have lately been tested rather severely by Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes. But he really needs to move on now,to a Raj Bhavan,maybe,and his favourite All India Tennis Association. Similarly,defence needs a modern new leader,somebody who would look like leading the armed forces and providing the bridge between them and the wider national worldview,than be obsessed with collecting good conduct testimonials from them and generally banning the entire world’s arms manufacturers and bringing more of the CBI crawling into the MoD now than in the previous 60 years since Independence,a reference to CBI being his perennial anticipatory bail.

The crisis in UPA 2 is at the very top. Politically,it is the silence of Sonia,Rahul and Manmohan Singh,their lack of inclination to explain policies and actions to the people,to sensitise and mould public opinion in support of their actions. At the top of the governance pyramid,it has had a group of very old,tired people,with no new ideas,but many old prejudices,insecurities and mutual antagonisms. The cabinet,particularly at the most important CCS level,is also imbalanced. It is a rare CCS with nobody representing not just the Hindi heartland,but also all of north India,Maharashtra,Gujarat,Andhra Pradesh and so on. You cannot constitute a CCS for political convenience and hope that it lasts for ten years. Time has come to look for new talent. Why not embrace a loyal and experienced ally like Sharad Pawar,even if Mulayam Singh Yadav doesn’t select himself for one of the spots there? The truth is,this cabinet was constituted in 2009 with “accommodation” as the first principle. That is why it has so many former chief ministers holding nothing portfolios. Many of them need to be sent back to their states,or to Raj Bhavans.

Mamata’s overreach,and the BJP’s unveiling of the Modi card have given the UPA an entirely unexpected opportunity to redeem itself. But it has only about 12 months in which to do so. The two areas where it can make a quick recovery — and difference — are the economy and foreign policy,areas of the prime minister’s strength. If it can initiate an economic recovery,unclog the energy sector,modernise the thinking in oil,power and coal ministries,stamp out the 1980s negativity and vindictiveness from the finance ministry,and make some substantive breakthroughs in our (lately) improving equation with Pakistan,it will have something positive to tell the voter rather than just,hopelessly,defend its conduct over the various scams and failures. It will take some doing. But the three most fascinating Ms of our politics,Mamata,Modi and Mulayam,have “conspired” to somehow create that opportunity for UPA 2.

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