UPA’s ides of March in February polls

The possibility of a brilliant Congress showing in UP is slender given that the party is fighting with the SP for the Muslim vote

Five Indian states go to the polls next month and which way they vote could have a profound effect on the functioning of the ruling coalition. By all accounts, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is currently stuck in a deep rut largely of its own making.

No significant reforms either of the economy or the administrative system have been carried out for several years; the country’s growth trajectory has been reversed with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself admitting that the country is going through difficult times and that growth will plummet to seven per cent from 8.5 per cent a year ago; and public discontent at the corrupt, non-responsive bureaucracy continues to ride high.
The state polls will be a significant test for political parties and all eyes would be on the Congress Party, the dominant partner in the ruling alliance. Though the focus is on Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state which sends 80 members of Parliament to the Lok Sabha, the results from the other four states — Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur — would be equally important in terms of their
psychological impact on overall political sentiment.
The Congress had done rather well in the 2009 parliamentary elections in all the five states that are going to polls next month. In the 2009 polls, the Congress had secured one of the two Goa seats, bagged both seats in Manipur, won eight out of 13 Punjab seats, won all five Uttarakhand seats and wrested 21 of the 80 Uttar Pradesh seats. The Congress’ performance in Uttar Pradesh was particularly impressive given that its tally of seats was more than that of the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party, which could win only 20 seats, and only two less than the Samajwadi Party (SP), which won 23 seats.
The Congress’ 2009 Lok Sabha performance in Uttar Pradesh was significant because its vote share had climbed quite dramatically since the 2004 general elections — from 12.04 to 18.25 per cent. The BJP’s share had plummeted from 22.17 per cent to 17.5 per cent while the BSP had surged ahead to become the biggest vote catcher — up from 24.67 to 27.42 per cent. The SP had declined, securing 23.26 per cent of the votes in 2009 as compared to 26.74 per cent in 2004.
Even though the Congress had come second in terms of seats and third in terms of votes in 2009, its victory was cause for celebration because this was the first time in many years that the party’s fortunes had seen an upturn in that politically important state.
This time too, the Congress leadership seems to hope that it will significantly improve its electoral standing in Uttar Pradesh and use that victory to propel the party and government out of the corner it has painted itself into. Such a denouement would end the policy and administrative stasis that is dragging down growth, perpetuating shortages and leading the government towards bankruptcy.
Unfortunately, the possibility of a brilliant Congress showing in Uttar Pradesh is slender given that the Congress is unashamedly fighting with the SP for the Muslim vote, desperately juggling every caste equation possible and dangling the age-old promise of development. The Congress’ record on development in Uttar Pradesh, anti-corruption measures and support for Muslims is far from credible. Moreover, it has clubbed itself with the other two main political contenders, by sharing the anti-Mayawati plank and is thus squabbling for the negative vote. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati for all her faults has emerged more relevant, her development promise is more credible and she has managed to set the political agenda in the state.
Less than a dramatic Congress showing in the polls would inevitably drag down the government, severely impair its functioning and put pressure on the party leadership. The Prime Minister, already hamstrung by politics and intransigent allies, would find himself with virtually no elbow room and little ability to effect the changes so necessary to correct the dangerous instability in the economy and polity.
Such an outcome would be unfortunate because it would certainly put on the backburner crucial issues such as anti-corruption laws, administrative reforms, implementation of the Unique Identification Number project, measures to curb criminalisation of politics and so on.
The country’s power sector is one example of how administrative and policy stasis is leading towards catastrophe. A recent report by Deutsche Bank has warned that accumulated power sector losses have crossed `820 billion and massive tariff hikes are required to save the country’s power system, which is caught between environmental concerns and high prices of imported coal. If nothing is done soon, this sector would become terminally ill but no politician wants to raise power tariffs and annoy the electorate.
The UPA leadership has been rolling out freebies to stay afloat and a poor showing at the state polls would also hinder if not totally scupper efforts to curb populist policies and spending by the government.
Subsidies would not be slashed for fear of offending the common man or the farmers’ lobby, leading to soaring budgetary deficits, increased government borrowings, higher inflation and so on. The government is already heading down this slope; political panic could lead to a plunge into fiscal irresponsibility.
Such a scenario, however, though likely is not inevitable. This is because the principal Opposition party of the country, the BJP, is not in great shape either. It has long lost its ideological sheen and is increasingly perceived as being as corrupt and opportunistic as the Congress.
Yet, the ruling coalition, the UPA seems terrified of the BJP. The ruling coalition appears to be ravaged not so much by the main Opposition but by its internal contradictions. In the process, it is becoming both irrelevant and ineffective. A poor showing in the February state polls will exacerbate the UPA’s problems.
The poll results will be out in early March and political fortunes will be made and broken. However, it is not only the politician who should beware the ides of March but also the ordinary citizen.

The writer is an independent security and political risk consultant

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