Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

A year of living indecisively

The inability of the Prime Minister and the Congress president to push official policies in the direction of meaningful social change leaves the public confused…

24 May 2010
The Hindu

A year of living indecisively

Siddharth Varadarajan

As Manmohan Singh completes the first year of his second term as Prime Minister, it has become something of a cliché to accuse him of weakness. His inability to take action against Ministers accused of corruption or sheer inefficiency is an obvious indicator of his lack of power within the government. The dissonance on various crucial policy matters is another. However, these symptoms are more a reflection of structural weaknesses in the current ruling system than of individual failing on Dr. Singh’s part.

There are, in fact, two sources of weakness in the United Progressive Alliance arrangement. The first is induced by the compulsions of coalition government, the second by the nature of the ruling party itself. Though the Congress won many more seats in 2009 than it did in 2004, it is still dependent on smaller parties whose agendas are mercurial and unpredictable. But this is a derivative problem, something of mere arithmetic importance, because it begs the question of whether the current problems faced by the Prime Minister would evaporate if the Congress had a majority of its own. Would the examples of rent-seeking, influence peddling, patronage, inefficiency and insensitivity we see in the functioning of various Ministries and government departments disappear if they were run by Congress Ministers? Would the government have the ability to deliver on its promise of social and economic inclusiveness if it were staffed only by the Congress? Only the hopelessly naïve would believe that.

Of the two structural flaws that have weakened the Prime Minister and his government, then, it is the second which is the more decisive. The nature of the Congress is a serious, foundational weakness, a constitutive flaw standing in the way of policy changes that could allow it to transcend the current political constraints and deliver to the people of India the kind of governance they deserve.

Much as the Bharatiya Janata Party would like us to believe it, the existence of two power centres in the government is not unique to the UPA. It is true that as Prime Minister of the NDA government, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was also the undisputed leader of the BJP. But the dyarchy in that arrangement involved a split between the authority of the party and the sangh parivar, rather than between party and government, and Mr. Vajpayee was certainly not the head of that family. As Congress president, a Member of Parliament and head of the UPA, Sonia Gandhi has a legal and political mandate of the kind the RSS never had. But the problem is that she is not being decisive in the exercise of her mandate. Many of the problems the NDA regime ran into sprang from the sangh parivar’s assertiveness. In contrast, the UPA’s problems arise from Ms Gandhi’s failure to lead from the front.

Within the Congress party today, there are at least three ideo-political trends competing for dominance and the divisions and differences between them are apparent on a number of issues. There is first the social democratic paternalism of the party machinery as represented by Ahmed Patel but also Pranab Mukherjee, A.K. Antony, Veerappa Moily and others. This school recognises the importance of inclusiveness not as an end in itself but as an instrument to put political space between the Congress and the BJP. It cannot move beyond the paradigm of tokenism, little alliances and reservation. Instead of boldly embracing the Sachar committee’s comprehensive recommendations on ending Muslim marginalisation, for example, or pushing for a Communal Violence bill that has real teeth, or encouraging the emergence of dynamic Muslim leaders within the Congress, this group is more comfortable making a deal with a clerical section of the community. It is not a coincidence that this group is also the one making the demand for the inclusion of caste enumeration in the census as a short-sighted means of beating the OBC parties at their own game.

The second ideological trend within the Congress is that of technocratic populism, as represented primarily by Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Ministers like Kamal Nath and others. This section has a certain disdain for the ‘consensual,’ accommodative politics of the old school but ends up being quite anti-political in its approach. Not surprisingly, their approach finds the widest resonance with the mass media and upper middle classes. The Telangana fiasco was the first disastrous product to emerge from the technocrats but there have been other bad ideas as well. Mr. Chidambaram rightly questioned the logistical difficulties involved in conducting a caste census but sees no problem in the state’s ability to collect and keep confidential the iris scans and ten finger prints of 1.2 billion Indians. The Maoist insurgency is seen as something that can be ended through an “expanded mandate” to use military means, and healthy debate and disagreement are looked upon with suspicion. The technocratic populists are also impatient with environmental norms and public hearings if they come in the way of highways and roads and factories and mines.

There is a third trend, too, but this is currently the weakest, despite being led, in a manner of speaking, by Rahul Gandhi as he attempts to renovate the Congress from the bottom up. Though there is a strong modernising element in Mr. Gandhi’s approach, his approach is inherently political and calls for greater attention to be paid to the voices and aspirations of those who have become disconnected from the socio-economic mainstream over the past two decades. This trend within the party, whose ranks include Digvijay Singh, Salman Khurshid, Mani Shankar Aiyar and also Jairam Ramesh, believes that the Congress can have a political future only if it reflects the concerns of the marginalised. It knows the limits of the paternalistic and technocratic approaches and is pitching for the emergence of the Congress as a modern political party that is democratic in its outlook and approach and its internal functioning — something which it is not today.

To be sure, the boundaries between these three groups are not neatly drawn. Depending on the specific issue, shifting coalitions get formed and Ms Gandhi often ends up mediating one way or another.

What makes this struggle within the Congress even more interesting is that it is happening against the backdrop of big money making greater and greater inroads into the corridors of power. As is clear from data on the rising net worth of MPs and MLAs, formal political structures may be getting atomised but the dominance of super-rich national and local elites is getting more and more consolidated.

The principal achievements of UPA-I came because Ms Gandhi and the Congress party provided strong political backing to initiatives like the Right to Information and the National Rural Employment Guarantee. But in UPA-II, so far at least, that political backing appears absent. The fact that there is dissonance within the Congress and the government on diverse issues is a good sign, an indication that contestation is under way. But the inability of the Prime Minister and the Congress president to mould and shape this debate and push official policies in the direction of meaningful social change leaves the public confused. Initiatives are being proposed or taken, like the Women’s Reservation Bill and the Food Security Bill, but there is a danger of these ending up as incomplete measures even as attempts are made to roll back the gains already made like the Right to Information.

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act remains unchanged despite promises. The land acquisition and rehabilitation policy of the government is in a mess, affecting the lives of millions of people. There is a danger that militarisation and securitisation will take the place of politics as a means of resolving internal conflicts. On the first anniversary of the UPA’s second mandate, it is time Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh took urgent stock of their joint enterprise.

3 comments on “A year of living indecisively

  1. bhandaru srinivasrao
    June 26, 2010

    Kudos to Sonia, Singh – Bhandaru Srinivas Rao (I.I.S.)

    Last week, the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre has announced a 14-member National Advisory Council. Significantly, for the first time, the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh and the UPA Chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, seems to have taken utmost care to ensure nominating only apolitical personalities with excellent professional and academic track records.
    Does the ‘realization’ have come among the political parties, especially the Indian National Congress, while choosing people for such an important panel? Has the ‘mind set’ of Congress leadership changed for good?
    The members of the high-profile NAC include eminent scientists, academics, intellectuals and civil society activists. While four members of the previous NAC — Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze, N.C. Saxena and A.K. Shiva Kumar – have been re-nominated to the panel, the rest are new faces.

    The new names include agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan, technocrat V. Krishnamurthy, also a member of Planning Commission, economist Narendra Jadhav, Mirai Chatterjee, coordinator of social security at NGO SEWA, civil rights activist Farah Naqvi, vice-chancellor of North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, Pramod Tandon, and former IAS officer and social activist Harsh Mander.

    Ram Dayal Munda, MP, entrepreneur Anu Aga of Thermax Ltd and Madhav Gadgil of Agharkar Research Institute, Pune, have also been nominated to the new NAC that is expected to push for inclusive growth and social justice.

    In its last incarnation during the first tenure of the United Progressive Alliance, the NAC became identified with signature social sector reforms such as introduction of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Right to Information Act.
    It is no secret that it is a brainchild of Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi Sonia. It is also informally called as UPA's Planning Commission for social agenda. On 23 March 2006, Sonia Gandhi had resigned from the post of chairmanship of the NAC after Office of profit controversy. On 29 March 2010, she was back as the chairperson of NAC.
    Though it was initially meant to guide and implement in the Common Minimum Programme of the UPA-I, now it was asked to play its role to foster the social agenda of UPA-II. The NAC serves as an interface between the government and the Congress party.
    That the other members of this council are nominated by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Chairperson, give credence to my argument – that’s change in the ‘mind set of the party leadership.” The funds for the functioning of this council are provided from the budgetary allocation for the Prime Minister's Office.
    I wish to join those millions, who wish to hail Sonia and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for overlooking claimants among political parties. Indeed, a good sign, as those who nominated not only high-profile and eminent personalities, but can guide the country impartially in designing and implementing the social agenda of the UPA-II to benefit those who need the help most.(22-06-2010)

  2. Anonymous
    May 24, 2010

    You have missed out on mentioning the fact that ministers who have serious allegations of scams continue on while others, against whom there is a mild suspicion with little evidence, have been asked to leave.

  3. bharat
    May 24, 2010

    Brilliant analysis of the various interest and ideological segments within the Congress party. Very insightful piece

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on May 24, 2010 by in Indian Politics.



%d bloggers like this: