The Perfect Storm: The Rise and Fall of United Progressive Alliance

For our second lecture we have Dr. Zoya Hasan delivering an e-Lecture on The Perfect Storm: The Rise and Fall of United Progressive Alliance.

Here’s a brief biography of the speaker:

Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and former Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Chairperson of the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. She was the founding Director of the Centre for Women’s Studies and the Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion in JNU.

Hasan has held visiting appointments at National University of Singapore, University of Zurich, University of Edinburgh and fellowships at, among others, University of Sussex, Rockefeller Centre, Bellagio, Maison Des Sciences Del’ Homme, Paris, and the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin. She is currently a member of the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy (Chennai), Board of the Centre for Equity Studies (New Delhi) and Centre for Multilevel Federalism (New Delhi). She is also a member of the Editorial Board of Secular Studies (Brille), Journal of Human Development in India and Antyajaa: Indian Journal of Women and Social Change.

She was elected President of the Contemporary History Section of the Indian History Congress in 2019.

Hasan has published widely on Indian politics, state, democracy and development, and on issues of equality, social justice and minorities. Her main work is on the Congress Party and on Indian Muslims, especially Muslim women. She is the author/editor of 18 books, including most recently Congress After Indira: Policy, Power and Political Change 1984-2009; Politics of Inclusion: Caste, Minority and Affirmative Action; Agitation to Legislation: Negotiating Equity and Justice in India.

Her forthcoming book is titled: The Right Turn in Indian Politics: Polarisation and the Eclipse of the Congress Party (2009-2019).

Dr. Zoya Hassan delivered the second lecture titled ‘The Perfect Storm: Rise and Fall of the United Progressive alliance’. The Congress Party surprised everyone when it defeated the BJP led NDA in the 2004 Parliamentary elections and returned to power at the head of a coalition the United Progressive alliance. It won again in 2009 with a larger share of seats (206) which afforded the Congress an opportunity to play a stronger role in the UPA. Manmohan Singh became the PM for a second time but by 2011 however the UPA was already on the defensive. It is important to examine why a government that was popular during its first term and was elected with a greater number of seats during its second term and which had delivered record economic growth fell from grace so quickly? Why did the UPA collapse and why its progressive shift couldn’t be sustained. There are sharply differing opinions on what went wrong : according to its critics on the right, the UPA govt was corrupt , it squandered resources on populist schemes like NREGA and the NFSA and it reversed the benefits of liberalization and starved growth enabling sectors like infrastructure, on the other hand UPA’s critics on the left believed that the Manmohan Singh Government had succumbed to corporate influence and became a promoter of crony capitalism which intensified economic inequalities rather than inclusive growth and hence lost the support of the people. This lecture questions the conventional wisdom that declared the UPA an unmitigated disaster and blamed its political and economic mismanagement for its collapse and its inability to counter the BJP. In hindsight, it seems the political crisis that engulfed the UPA was not caused by policy paralysis or crony capitalism and unbridled welfarism (that might have hurt economic growth). The perfect storm was a consequence of concerted efforts by powerful groups inclined towards the right , notably the corporate sector, the middle classes and the media who wanted the end of the seemingly left leaning UPA (at least in rhetoric if not in substance). The annoyance of these groups was possibly provoked by opposition to Sonia Gandhi in particular who was seen to be emphasising a rights based agenda, social welfare schemes including the welfare of minorities which irked a large conservative constituency which had emerged in opposition to the UPA.

The UPA had taken advantage of the high economic growth and the revenue it generated to pilot several welfare measures that had enshrined a new set of socio – economic entitlements through legally enforceable rights. Some of these programmes whose objective was to compensate the poor for the deprivation they suffered signalled an emphasis on state as an instrument for redistribution and indicated an attempt to chart a progressive ideological cause, but some of these programs like the MGNREGA , forest rights act and NFSA provoked a strong opposition which compelled the government to go slow on these policies. Two positions were in plain sight, one was a nebulous social democratic platform that shared misgivings as regards to neoliberal economics, advocated an inclusive approach and favoured larger role for the state and social welfare. On the other hand, many senior leaders in the party and government favoured neoliberalism with high growth and fiscal consolidation and economic reforms, the success of UPA 1 had rested on Manmohan Singh’s pro market agenda and Sonia Gandhi’s pro welfare agenda which was supported by left parties which she leveraged to push this agenda. But the Congress itself was deeply divided on strategy of growth cum welfare. There was no consensus on the way forward with regard to this combination. The important difference was on the pace of economic reforms for accelerating high growth and public investment required for social welfare and inclusive growth. One key political difference between the two UPAs was the absence of left support, the departure of the left created a void at the heart of the coalition under UPA 2, there was no left pressure pushing it in a progressive direction. With hardly any advocates for social agenda inside the party, it was forced to pursue policy that would enlist middle and upper middle class support for the Congress. After the 2009 victory, hubris had set in. During UPA 1 Sonia Gandhi had done the political heavy-lifting while Dr. Singh had run the government. This arrangement which had worked well during UPA 1 collapsed during UPA 2 with the collapse in relationship between the PMO and the Congress. This unique arrangement was also used by its critics to discredit the PM and the Congress party for creating dyarchy and thus weakening the position of the PM. During 2009 with high growth rates the congress assumed that all was well with the coalition and that it could assert its primacy. The mandate was over read as the primacy of the Congress that believed it could override the pulls and pressures of coalition politics. The coalition started to unravel in the early days of UPA 2, with many allies walking out, most notably the TMC. Congress’ own lack of cohesion and ideology exacerbated the situation as there were differences on key policy issues with the sharpest criticism often coming from within the Congress and from within the government. When the economy ran out of steam after the global downturn in 2008, critics blamed the Congress for economic slowdown and its inability to stem the effects of global downturn. For the elites and the middle – classes it raised questions on the UPA’s managerial capabilities and the sustainability of UPA’s social model. They mercilessly opposed the UPA which they didn’t see as their own government, but one that essentially works for the poor as a political analyst put it. The problem with food security epitomized the problem of striking a balance between growth and equity. FSA took long to reach fruition because of differences and attacks it faced as wasteful public expenditure. The public debate on it was prompted by BJP’s strong disapproval of the UPA. Corporate media followed suit in branding UPA’s social policies as bottlenecks to economic growth and presented Gujarat as a haven for investment and growth which played an important part in shaping public discourse from 2012-2013. The political debated quickly proliferated through social media platforms. All these churnings started with uncovering of corruption scandals that took a huge toll on the moral legitimacy of the government and the ruling party, putting it on the backfoot. The 2g and the Coalgate scam put both the government and the corporate sector in hot waters. 2g spectrum was the bell- weather case that rocked the UPA. CAG Vinod Rai’s report on the same which was leaked to the media which created a perfect storm. The media led people to believe that the presumptive loss pointed out by the report was an actual loss with the repeated use of the word scam suggesting that someone had stolen the money. There was no effective rebuttal from the Congress. The barrage of scams left Manmohan Singh’s image tattered and his integrity was in total shambles. By making him into a target of attack the BJP turned him into a political liability. His own handling targeted his reputation and took a toll on his government. Most of UPAs difficulties had arisen from the politics – business network and the scams it engendered. Big business had emerged as a formidable actor in the political and social landscape. Slowing down of economic reforms had also upset the corporate sector. Land acquisition act, 2013 was widely blamed for stalled projects (which in reality had, accounted for only 8 percent of the projects stalled) and policy paralysis. However, the congress was very concerned about policy paralysis and tried to counter these charges (with FDI in retail for instance). The reform campaign came with Chidambaram replacing Mukherjee as the Finance Minister. But the reform agenda couldn’t take off as the Congress was trying to please both sides.

Overall, the Congress was gobsmacked by a combined opposition of the corporates, middle classes and big media who were pushing for a shift to the right. For these groups the UPA was a disaster. The middle class felt politically marginalized which led to a middle – class activism. It was this class that was at the forefront of the anti-corruption movement. The BJP was looking for an issue and corruption fitted the bill perfectly. It was around this time that civil society groups decided to launch a major campaign against corruption. This marked the beginning of the India against corruption (IAC) agitation, one of the biggest agitations in decades. The IAC choreographed the anti-corruption campaign against the UPA government. Arvind Kejriwal of the IAC decided to rope in Anna Hazare, a self – styled Gandhian who had established himself as a crusader in Maharashtra and had forced some corrupt ministers to resign. With Hazare on board, the IAC campaign took off and came to dominate the media headlines. Hazare’s fast was the first real social networking in India making comparisons with the occupy Wallstreet movement and the Arab spring which had also witnessed birth in cyber activism. The social media had mobilized thousands of people for this campaign. Large numbers of middle – class people came out on the streets in support of Hazare. Congress leadership was caught off guard completely by the strength of his support. His 96 – hour long fast brought the government to its knees which he broke after wresting a major concession in the form of a joint drafting committee to draft a Lokpal bill. He succeeded in getting several of his companions called team Anna onto it, who came to be seen as the sole spokespersons of civil society. This was followed by yoga guru Ramdev’s protest in Ramlila Maidan. The govt made a cardinal mistake by launching a midnight crackdown on him and his supporters when he didn’t break the fast. It was clear that the govt didn’t know how to deal with the protests. The midnight arrest of Ramdev was a case of govt overreach for which it was pulled up by the Supreme Court. This turned the tide of public opinion against the UPA. This was followed by Hazare’s arrest and this massive political mismanagement aggravated UPA’s political crisis. The government convened a special debate on the Lokpal and the campaign started to peter out.

By now however it had changed national politics and played a major role in its defeat in Delhi assembly elections in 2013 and national elections of 2014 which brought a right wing party to power. She emphasizes that it was not a spontaneous movement and was conceived and backed by a group of people affiliated/sympathetic to the RSS and it all started with a seminar on black money in 2011 by an RSS backed think tank (Vivekanand Memorial Foundation). She draws parallels between the JP and Hazare movement with the front organizations of the RSS and the BJP playing a key role in both.

It was the end of the road for the UPA, even when the economy has been in a much better shape not just in terms of economic growth but also decline in poverty. But UPA-2 completely messed up its political priorities and the leadership issue and without clarity about political responsibility and accountability about decision making there was no hope of communicating the truth about the scams leave alone highlighting its achievements. It was in a free fall after that. The government had alienated vast numbers of people, especially the middle classes which catapulted the BJP to power in 2014. The Congress lost the battle on the issue of corruption despite introducing the RTI and establishing the Lokpal. Paradoxically, it was the BJP which reaped the bumper anti Congress harvest that the IAC had unleashed by emerging as the champion of anti – corruption. However, she argues there was more to it than corruption and crony capitalism which she suggests is now clear 6 years later that the campaign was not simply aimed at ending corruption but represented a disapproval of social democratic politics and policies by powerful sections of society. The BJP had sensed the decline in the government’s ability to resolve issues and swiftly moved into the political vacuum in which they succeeded remarkably well. The disruption of parliament by the BJP added to policy paralysis. The BJP also received the support of the corporate sector and media houses. The UPA’s socio-political paradigm was pushed away to be overtaken by a right wing Hindu majoritarian government taking over the state. It was a coup in slow motion. India’s socio-political landscape was radically altered. In the end, we have been left with the Gujarat model of politics which means centralization of power, subordination of institutions, suppression of dissent and social exclusion and marginalization of the Muslims.

One of the questions asked was that if the disillusionment of the corporate sector and the middle class was the main cause and what role did Hindu majoritarianism play in bringing the NDA to power? To which the speaker replied by saying that she thinks both were important factors and that the participant was quite right in suggesting that disillusionment , discontent and unhappiness of the corporate sector was certainly an important part even though the sector had done quite well . One of the problems was the kind of concessions being given but they were unhappy with some other legislations. It was quite curious in the way they turned against the government and here the Gujarat CM (now PM) played an important part in wooing them. The sector was the first to endorse him as a PM candidate. On majoritarianism she suggested that the two seem to be going hand in hand in what we have now, can be called Corporate Hindutva. The sector seems to implicitly go along with majoritarianism. They’re willing to set Hindutva aside and support the PM and his government, the whole Tanishq controversy is an indication. Both are therefore important for the success of the BJP so you have an economic support and a political idea that have gained traction.

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