I HATE WATCHING INSTITUTIONS AND REGIMES DIE. To me, the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance were legendary. The alliance was a microcosm of Indian society and reflected the interests of all minorities, marginal groups and castes. It was like a giant family, and absorbed all the strains and stresses of political life. But today it’s like a crumbling haveli emptying out, with only a few members tenaciously hanging on.
The UPA was like a fairy tale, one that actually began in 1991 with the masterstroke of liberalisation and the rise of Manmohan Singh. By introducing economic reforms, Singh created new expectations, and exorcised ideas like class warfare that had dominated the mindset of a generation. Young people now read about the virtues of Indian nationalism—patriotism, non-violence, nation-building—in official textbooks, but were never asked to live them out as previous generations had been. Nationalism became an act of nostalgia. The city became preeminent, and a new sense of the body developed that did not belong to the age of scarcity and the ration card, but to the age of consumerism and a more open sexuality. All this was aided by the artefacts and ideals of technology—including the mobile phone and social media—and by a growing diaspora that played out new possibilities of efficiency, mobility, meritocracy and a certain vision of the good life. When the first UPA government took office in 2004, it represented not just a political regime, but a circus of new worldviews.
The regime began to create from this circus a unified social imagination. Initially, the UPA’s policy approach was broadly twofold. It had an economic dimension championed by Singh (who seemed like the cartoonist RK Laxman’s Common Man, except with a PhD) and Montek Singh Ahluwahlia, and a social dimension shaped by the National Advisory Council, which comprised some of civil society’s best and brightest, including Aruna Roy and Jean Drèze. In 2005, Roy, along with Harsh Mander (who joined the NAC in 2010) and others, helped conceive and pilot the Right to Information bill, which became one of the greatest civic acts of recent decades. That same year, together with Drèze, they created the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which expanded the idea of rights to include a right to employment. Rather than remaining abstract, rights now extended to the everyday survival of marginal groups. The poorest, the landless, the widowed and the orphaned knew that employment was now almost an everyday affair. The Ministry of Rural Development’s 2014 annual report on the NREGA claimed that it provided employment to an average of fifty million households per year since 2008. That is roughly one-fourth of all rural households in this country.
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