What broke UPA II

A spectacular defeat like the one suffered by the United Progressive Alliance II government could not have happened without a confluence of reasons. A consistent and careful messaging by the opposition and organisational and financial muscle of the BJP, among other things clearly played a role in UPA’s loss. What one cannot deny is that UPA II lost public confidence based on its abysmal record in office over the last five years. I’d like to focus today on one factor that created the greatest anger against the UPA and one more that gave people no reason to support it unlike in 2009.

Corporate Dolonomics

Arguably, the most important factor that led to the negative perception of the government was the massive and unprincipled doles given to large corporations, which we know as 2G, coal and other scams. Free or highly subsidised allocation of public resources to the wealthy and the connected was the very basis of all the scams, and it is undeniable that these doles caused the greatest public anger against Manmohan’s government.

It would be interesting to see how things will play out in the newly elected industry-friendly government. An argument that has been made in Modi’s favour is that he protected businesses from paying exorbitant bribes in order to conduct business. I would welcome it if businesses do not have to pay bribes to survive in the new dispensation.

But, ‘business friendliness’ does not stop there. There will be demands for large doles to large corporations including subsidised public resources for private profit, the very fact that contributed most to the downfall of UPA II. There is no reason to believe that corporate dolonomics will change in the current dispensation, and there are good reasons to believe that it is going to increase dramatically.

Failure on the social front

In 2009 many had a reason to support UPA that they did not have in 2014. Despite the noise made about the NREGA, Food Security Act and the so-called socialist commitments of the Congress, UPA II completely failed on the social front. The Food Security Act was brought in towards the very end of the government, and in a very cynical way. This was in sharp contrast to UPA I, in which the landmark laws were brought in the very first year of the government, demonstrating true commitment. UPA II was nothing but empty rhetoric that is clear to those who did not get an extra KG of grain home through the Food Security Act.

Perhaps owing to the pressure of The Left in the first tenure, UPA was in the business of delivering on the social side. The exit of The Left and UPA’s comfortable victory in 2009 led to the rise of hawks such as Kapil Sibbal and Chidambaram, while voices of people like Jayaram Ramesh were stifled. UPA II consistently undermined existing programs including NREGA, and it introduced the Food Security Act in the most cynical manner, but with no one available to fool.

Early legislation of progressive laws and faithful implementation of public programs contributed greatly to the success of UPA I. NREGA, old-age pensions, health insurance and other forms of social protection were implemented well in states like Andhra Pradesh during YSRs tenure, which was the pillar of UPA’s success in the 2009 election. UPA II did precious little on the social front, having failed on food security, right to education, health and other fronts. While UPA I created the strongest right to information law in the world, the efforts from 2009 onwards were to undermine the existing law, with the attack led by none other than the Prime Minister.

Election lost or won?

Paradoxically, the vision offered by the BJP in this election had the same basis that led to UPAs loss of public support. This makes me question how far it was an election in which people wanted to throw the UPA out for what it was and how far we elected BJP for what it promises to be. [After all, I am from Tamil Nadu where we have elected DMK to power at the end of a very corrupt AIADMK government (and the vice verca) – not because we believed that the alternative will be corruption-free, but because we have to punish those who indulge in it].

Let’s think for a moment if there is a CAG report four years from now arguing that there was a large notional loss to the government when some public resource was given at tremendous subsidy to corporations, will it be accepted by the public since the government was voted on an industry friendly plank – or if it will lead to the same kind of anger that one saw against the UPA?

Interestingly, BJP’s victory in this election would not have happened without the deep support for its state governments in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the basis of which has been the delivery of public services including a highly effective PDS in Chhattisgarh. If the incoming government starts undermining these programmes, will it lead to a loss of support in the states along with the same kind of anger against the incumbent government in other parts of India? After all, ignoring the social sector contributed to the defeat of the India shining story in the recent past, and the loss of State Chief ministers such as Chandrababu Naidu. In contrast, commitment to public services has been at the heart of public support for the most successful Chief Ministers of the current era in India.

If 2014 were a vote against the UPA, it is possible to understand how the BJP won even though we know that it would continue dolonomics and that prominent voices in it demand the dismantling the few measures of social protection that India has. But if 2014 were a vote for the specific vision put forward by the BJP, then perhaps, India is poised for a change in directions. The answer to these questions are only likely to be available five years from now when we get a chance to evaluate what actually will be implemented by the incoming government.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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