The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- For the UPA, the time for taking tough decisions is running out

The prime minister's rating the United Progressive Alliance's performance as 6 out of 10 was probably not too far off the mark. The country is still on an even keel, even if it has not charted a radically new direction with any measure. In part the assessment of the government will depend upon how consequential one thinks its sins of omission will be in the long run, what the opportunity cost of postponing key decisions is going to be. The prime minister himself left it unclear where exactly he thought the government fell short. But there are four key deficits in this government's performance that are likely to prove extremely consequential: administrative, institutional, secular and political.

The first deficit is clearly administrative. The prime minister had laid great stress on administrative reform, but there is no sign whatsoever that serious administrative reform will happen any time soon. The proposals of civil service reform that have been floated as trial balloons will barely make a dent in the problem. The Administrative Reforms Commission is unlikely to yield any tangible results for one simple reason. You cannot get serious administrative reform unless you have a clear sense of what the purpose of government is, what role it should perform and what tasks it should refrain from doing. A promiscuous expansion of government functions and lack of clarity about its objectives will misdirect the energies of any system. In short what administrative reforms require is an underlying political philosophy, not simply technical tinkering with evaluation procedures.

Far from clarifying the principles underlying reform, there is good evidence that this government is moving in a retrograde direction on the administrative front. The finance minister, P. Chidambaram, simply did not get what was fundamentally wrong with his taxation policy. It reinstituted a scheme of arbitrary exemptions and gives greater discretionary power to government officials. Hardly sound principles of administrative reform. Second, while the government has made modest (and they are actually modest) increases in government outlays for the social sector, the mode of spending this money is still pretty traditional and misapplied. Finally, although combating corruption is a good idea, the precedent of having the Central Vigilance Commission vet any significant government purchase before it takes place is a recipe for paralysis rather than a catalyst for making government more decisive.

The second and most important deficit is the credibility of public institutions. No one expected the UPA to be able to surmount the political constraints that would allow it to freely deal with the issue of tainted ministers. But this government has gone out of its way to undermine whatever little credibility and impartiality was associated with sovereign functions of the state. It has used commissions of inquiries with disastrous cynicism, manipulated the Central Bureau of Investigation, demeaned high offices such as those of the governor, and shows no sign of restoring public confidence in these institutions. The Bharatiya Janata Party at least is having an open debate on Gujarat; the Congress will still not freely discuss the Nanavati Commission report. The day is not to far off, when even hitherto credible institutions like the Election Commission will become part of political football. India has lots of things going for it, a dynamic economy, and great social innovation. But if its public institutions lose their remaining vestiges of credibility, the consequences will be catastrophic.

At one level, we ought to be grateful to the UPA that the intellectually coercive colonization of intellectual life that the National Democratic Alliance had fostered has abated somewhat. But this government still has enough of the shades of the old Congress's cynical interpretation of secularism to be a cause of worry. The flirting with the idea of reservations for Muslims in Andhra Pradesh, the proposed introduction of 50 per cent reservations in Aligarh Muslim University ' a move that is against the modernist traditions of that great university, and the sense that small ideological coteries can still call the shots in the education establishment, suggest that the UPA has still not learnt the lessons from the Eighties. The government still has convinced a large section of voters that its interpretation of what secularism and a concern for minorities require is not merely cynical. This will harm both the real interests of the minorities and the project of secular citizenship at large.

Finally, there is a political deficit. The Congress's policies seem not to be linked to any political strategy. The party has not made headway in the Hindi heartland; it has split in Kerala and Pondicherry, ceded ground to parties like the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra. It looks like it will lose ground in both Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In short, the first year in power has not put momentum behind the Congress. Although the prime minister is getting high approval ratings, the party itself is not on a roll. The usual story in Indian politics is that power generates its own momentum. The fact that this has not happened should worry the Congress. It is a sign that the government is still not seen as a government with a difference: the changes it is proposing in any sphere are incremental at best. The disarray in the opposition is probably disguising the political challenge Congress still faces. The BJP was hoodwinked by the great ratings Vajpayee used to get and Congress is in the danger of falling into the same trap.

Unless these four deficits are addressed decisively, the UPA's achievements will remain precarious at best. But the danger is that the time for taking tough decisions is fast running out. The cycle of state assembly elections coming up next year will only put more pressure on the government's finances. There is every reason to believe that the government will slip on Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act targets, and simply postpone our fiscal woes. Any substantive investment in infrastructure or social sector outlays takes a long time to yield political dividends. The fact that the government has not even got started (even the education cess money has not yet begun to be spent effectively) suggests that even the modest policy shifts it is proposing might not accrue tangible gains for its reputation. At the very least, its policies are not designed to bring about a significant realignment of Indian politics.

Of course it helps a great deal that while the government may score 6 out of 10; the opposition is in complete organizational and ideological disarray, incapable of taking political advantage of the chinks in the UPA armour. But it would be foolish of the Congress to assume that this situation will last forever. Indeed, it is a silver lining for the BJP that it's going to go through this process of purging and churning now rather than later. But most importantly, the opposition's disarray does not necessarily mean gains for the Congress. There is, in the near future, more likely to be an even greater fragmentation rather than consolidation of the political system. It is a measure of the UPA's success that it will credibly survive for some time to come. But it is a sign of its potential weakness that it will not be able to change the landscape of Indian politics decisively in its favour.

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