Decadence and Decline

An obituary for ten years of the United Progressive Alliance

The United Progressive Alliance’s decline was due to failures of both achievement and narrative imagination. DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY / AFP / Getty Images
01 May, 2014

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.

The early years of the UPA thus fused political economy and democratic rights into a coherent vision for a decent society. The pity is that they were unable to sustain it. The NAC had the right hunches but was not backed by the political will to follow them through. Instead, India was presided over by a triptych of figures—Singh, and Sonia and Rahul Gandhi—that reminded one of the business theorist Peter Drucker’s distinction between a leader and a manager: a manager does things right, but a leader does the right things. If Singh was a manager, Sonia, as head of the Congress, was supposed to be the leader; Rahul was the leader in waiting, but was learning to be a manager. Each was affected by his or her own form of aphasia: Sonia Gandhi sounded like an empty mask, with her alien, disjointed Hindi; Singh had a tight-lipped indifference, though it masqueraded as immaculate innocence; and Rahul read Shakespeare as if it were a Noddy drama. This turned out to be critical, even fatal, because the UPA’s failure was one not only of achievement, but also of storytelling.

The debate which emerged about NREGA at the beginning of the UPA’s second term, in 2009, revealed the weakness of the regime’s social and narrative imagination. In a battle between efficiency and justice, the market eventually won, and was embraced by the government as if it were the best guarantor of the commonweal. As Drèze suggested in Frontline in 2009, the complaints of a few economists were judged to be more important than those of millions of workers. The government evaluated NREGA as if it were the sort of development project that an institution like the World Bank would create, criticising it for a lack of accountability, delays in payments, leakage of funds, and the manipulation of muster rolls—that is to say, for the standard inefficiencies of babudom—instead of understanding its ethical and political implications. The act was seen as damaging the farming sector, because the labour of farm hands became more expensive. It should have been seen instead as an experiment in reviving local economies through local projects, a form of employment opportunity and a potential source of empowerment.

The RTI act, too, was eventually criticised for its misuse, and lost its halo. What the UPA failed to grasp was the political space its own act had opened up; RTI was a weapon of the vulnerable against displacement, a figurative aangan where the poor could discuss political strategies and obtain some sense of dignity in the battle for survival. But the regime failed to communicate the power of both the RTI act and the NREGA, because its own understanding of justice and social security was flawed.

In short, the UPA drifted from a rights-based approach to a more technocratic one. In 2009, the government discovered that the idea of cash transfers and a unique identification scheme would be far more attractive and attention-grabbing than the NREGA. The country moved from the sensitivity of Drèze and Roy to the managerialism of the former Infosys executive Nandan Nilekani. If the former emphasised survival and coping, Nilekani made poverty a governance issue.

Straying from its original Gandhian commitment to the poor had devastating consequences for the regime. Roy, Drèze and others resigned from the NAC during the UPA’s second term, claiming that the government was hypocritical about inclusive growth. In an interview with the Press Trust of India last March, Drèze noted, with his meticulous numeracy, “Our social sector programme base is hardly six per cent of the GDP. Even in developing countries, such social programmes amount to twenty-five percent.” He hoped that workers would organise themselves to fight the destruction of such critical experiments.

After that, the decline of the moral imagination of the UPA was easily discernible. The planning commission’s redefinition of poverty was the next embarrassment. It drew the poverty line at a daily consumption level of Rs 29 per person per day, without being able to define the lived world that figure reflected. In this, it went too far in the direction of a technocratic approach to poverty that has existed at least since Independence. Statistics, as the Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler warned, do not bleed. Poverty suddenly seemed to decline to unrealistic levels, which required an explanation. The country faced rising costs of health care, utilities and food, as well as declining nutritional levels, but the commission seemed impervious to the impossibility of a human being surviving on the paltry sum it used to demarcate the poverty line. Skirmishes over the poverty line’s implications for fiscal discipline overflowed into a wider battle over the social construction of poverty and its interpretation. It was as if the various sides of the debate lived in different worlds; the failure of dialogue was damning.

In many ways, the corruption scandals that later dogged the government—the 2G, 3G, Commonwealth Games, coal and Posco scams, among others—emerged from the UPA’s failure of social imagination. Even as the UPA shrank the notion of poverty, it allowed corruption to swell into a monster. Consider the coal-block allocation and Commonwealth Games scams. In the former, the government did not follow a process of competitive bidding; according to the Comptroller and Auditor General, coal blocks worth Rs 1.86 lakh crore, or roughly $30 billion, were handed over, without clear criteria, to private mining firms. The former coal secretary PC Parakh has written that Singh originally wanted to hold open auctions, but allowed himself to be overruled by a gang of politicians running the coal ministry. The Commonwealth Games scam displayed a different texture of indifference. Beginning in 2004, nearly 400,000 people from three large areas of Delhi were displaced, in a series of indiscriminate evictions reminiscent of the last days of the Emergency, to make way for new construction connected to the games. The tournament infrastructure was built with rampant violations of protections like the Minimum Wages Act, and with the widespread use of child labour. The litany of moral failings could go on. The production of the games was like a monstrous urban inversion of NREGA; it was as if the UPA’s left hand gestured at battling poverty while its right hand sought to eliminate the poor.

Corruption turned the state into an inverted commons where coal, forests, cellular spectrums and human labour were strip-mined for private benefit. Singh, despite his ostensible goodness, lacked the will, the courage, the imagination to fight this rot; instead, his reputation for probity glued together the varieties of corruption in his regime. Vital experiments in problem-solving were stifled. The Congress politician Jairam Ramesh, for example, attempted to open up biotechnology from a shareholder club to a stakeholder democracy by creating an independent regulator for genetically modified crops and initiating a national consultative process that would debate their impacts from an agricultural as well as scientific perspective. So far, his attempts have gone nowhere. Even more daring in its simplicity was the ecologist Madhav Gadgil’s classification of forest land in the Western Ghats into “go” and “no-go” zones in order to protect ecologically sensitive areas from the consequences of development, such as corruption, pollution and displacement. Although this taxonomy was the product of a committee set up by the UPA, the regime, in its idolatry of growth and development, rejected Gadgil’s recommendations and convened a second, more sympathetic committee. It was yet another ethical test that the government failed.

The decline of the UPA can be read as three concentric dramas. In the first, the UPA flattered as an act of social imagination, only to deceive as an act of politics. This failure was thickened by the drama of the second circle—serial waves of conspicuous corruption. The third circle was the UPA’s manner of self-projection: its spinelessness, its failure to defend its social activists, and its inability to look allies in the eye and say no to corruption. Unable to project and sustain its better instincts, the regime became cynical about change and contemptuous of its own moral responsibilities—a sure formula for decadence and decline.