The long death marchhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-long-death-march/

The long death march

UPA 2 has ignored the lessons of coalition management it seemed to have picked up in its first avatar

UPA 2 has ignored the lessons of coalition management it seemed to have picked up in its first avatar

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is known to affect animals like the deer,moose and elk in North America. Some of its characteristic behavioural symptoms,a disease monitoring website informs us,include,“decreased interaction with other animals,listlessness,lowering of the head,blank facial expression and repeated walking in set patterns”. Some affected animals have also shown “hyper-excitability and nervousness”. As it completes three years in power,the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) 2 in general,and the Congress in particular,shows many symptoms of CWD. While there is no treatment available for CWD-affected animals as the disease is both progressive and fatal,there is still hope for the UPA and the Congress.

The Congress,now in government at the Centre continually for eight years,has equalled the time it was out of office between 1996-2004. It must undoubtedly take the biggest share of the blame for the current state of ennui. In 2004,the Congress was sprightly and quick-witted,enabling it to pull off an incredible victory. The aam aadmi campaign,the urgency to build alliances and bridges in different states,the willingness to talk,sacrifice and make concessions,as well as the ability to see the larger picture,were all crucial to the success of UPA 1.

By this stage,UPA 1 had ticked most boxes. Working around the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP),it enunciated a series of policies and programmes that not only made it visible on the ground,but also gave the impression of a working government. In the name of the aam aadmi and inclusive development,the government reached out to different groups,sections and regions. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme,Right to Information Act,Bharat Nirman Programme,Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission,cooked mid-day meal scheme,National Rural Health Mission ,Sachar Committee report,second administrative commission and the value-added tax reforms,among others,promised to make a difference to a majority of people.

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Today,in sharp contrast,it is more or less a death march. Missing is the sense of urgency,the desire to inspire and please,make a difference,to reach out and consolidate. Displaying a clear lack of unity of purpose and a marked preference for muddling through,the alliance either waits for things to happen or reacts impulsively without necessary consideration. The NCMP today seems to be history only to be dusted and remembered annually. The “governance deficit”,“policy paralysis”,“deep freeze” and so on often used to highlight the poor status of decision-making is a result of the preference to drift in the wind. Consequently,the areas crying for attention increase day by day,further piling on the pressure.

At the same time,the display of “hyper-excitability and nervousness” at regular intervals has further reduced its credibility. Baba Ramdev’s arrest,the reaction to the Anna Hazare agitation and the Telengana movement,and more recently the announcement to stop distribution of NCERT textbooks of political science,were all knee-jerk reactions. The now “dangerous” to democracy textbooks were prepared based on the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005,which had been approved by the Central Advisory Board of Education,the highest advisory body to advise Central and state governments on education in the country. Further,UPA 1 itself had flagged the formulation of the NCF 2005 as one of its major achievements. Similarly,Ramdev,Anna and Telangana were first given a long handle and by the time reason came to the forefront,the horses had bolted.

To attribute non-performance to “negative opposition” and “coalition compulsions” is blatant falsehood. The Congress in 2009 had much more room for manoeuvre as compared to 2004. First,its main challenger,the BJP,was returned to Parliament in a weakened position. Moreover,it was also struggling with a leadership transition issue. Second,the Left,which often pretended to be the main opposition party though it was with the UPA,was decimated. Its diminishing hold in West Bengal and Kerala only added to the Congress’ advantage.

Third,no coalition-maker in the past was spoilt for choice like the Congress in 2009. While previous coalition-makers begged for letters of support,parties unilaterally offered to support the UPA. Even one-time allies,despite being left out,continued to support the UPA. The alliance definitely had the numbers,and to blame the opposition for everything is trying to be too clever by half.

Similarly,the claim of “coalition compulsions” holds no water. If UPA 1 could deliver,despite being a more fractious coalition,what is stopping a more cohesive arrangement from moving forward? The primary reason is the undoing of the coalition “learning curve” and the failure to institutionalise a meaningful coordination mechanism. Despite a greater diversity of parties,the BJP was able to manage the NDA because of multiple coordination mechanisms. UPA 1 itself pulled through fairly well because of the elaborate coordination setup in place.

The Lokpal Bill,railway budget,National Counter Terrorism Centre,Central Sales Tax compensation,Teesta river water-sharing,foreign direct investment in retail and so on,are some examples of not being able to carry the allies. It is clearly the absence of a functioning coordinating mechanism that makes us hear the death rattle so often. Coordination mechanisms in the past have not only tackled unpredictability,but have also acted as bringing-together institutions. By serving as rules for interaction and as a safety valve,management mechanisms help engage with uncertainty,posturing and disagreement,enabling partners to reach compromises away from the public glare. At the same time,they have helped build and consolidate relationships by enlarging the arena of commonality. Most importantly,they have made partners feel that they are important and participating members of the coalition.

Unless the Congress is willing to ignite the spirit and passion which catapulted it to power eight years ago,it should be prepared to sit and watch from the other side.

The writer is with the department of Political Science at Panjab University,Chandigarh