The great letdown

There are parallels in the mandates that Rajiv Gandhi's Congress won in December 1984, and Sonia Gandhi's UPA in May 2009. In both cases an aspirational electorate brought back an incumbent to power on a promise of optimistic change. A fortnight from the second anniversary of UPA 2 you can also begin to see parallels in the pace with which the Congress of 1984 squandered its mandate, and the UPA now.

Rajiv Gandhi was undone by his party's old guard, who he had taken on frontally a bit too early in the day. He had not yet prepared his party, or public opinion, for the break from the past that he articulated so bravely in his speech at the Bombay AICC session (in 1985). When the formidable immune system of entrenched old interests struck back, he did not have the time, support base or firepower to fight back. The move downhill began just as his government entered its third year, and gathered momentum on way to the 1989 elections.

UPA 2 began its decline even before it was two. For one, it had brought along its Bofors from UPA 1, the telecom scam. But to call the telecom scam primarily responsible for UPA 2's predicament would be to oversimplify the case. Because in politics, a scandal or an event can spin so out of control as to destroy a strong, elected government and a popular, credible leader only if the political ground for that has been prepared by, what else, poor politics and leadership.

Rajiv Gandhi's politics started going downhill with his pandering to the Muslim Right on the Shah Bano judgment that alienated moderate Muslims within his own party, liberals among his voters, and gave the Hindu Right a cause. From then to Bofors, and the shilanyas at Ayodhya to please the devout Hindus instead, it was one long series of political blunders with no redemption or recovery. UPA 2's blunders are of a different nature, and a direct result of fundamentally flawed politics.

This government was voted back to power by a resurgent

India making a bold and widely hailed move from the politics of grievance to the politics of aspiration, something this newspaper also underlined on the day after the results in a front-page editorial ('Hands down', IE, May 17, 2009). But it would seem that, once elected, it forgot all about that aspirational young India and slipped back into its own, old, povertarian, everything-is-wrong-where-are-we-headed discourse. Not a step was taken on economic reforms, if anything some were reversed as so many Central ministers, now full of the arrogance of re-election, were back to the old Congress instinct of extortion and rent-seeking. The return of this depredatory governance fed directly into the alienation sparked by the government's inability to take the telecom scam head-on. The others that followed, Commonwealth Games and Adarsh (though the Centre had almost nothing to do with it), only fed that rising anger.

From day one, UPA 2 seemed like it was embarrassed by the very factors that had given its voters such an aspirational belief. It was shy of talking growth, employment generation, modernisation, even national pride. It was shy of even sending a thank-you card of some kind to those who had voted it back to power. In 2009, the UPA won almost every single city in a rapidly urbanising India. Yet, rather than reform urban governance, it sat silently as one urban agency after the other became more corrupt, more whimsical and more cruelly authoritarian, and most in cities under its own governments. Ask anybody in Delhi who has to take an MCD permit to build something or get a certificate from the DDA. Can you even get a birth certificate, a driving licence, a passport in time without paying somebody? You are first not told what you can build, and after you build, the same guys come to demolish it. In Mumbai, no apartment buyer knows how much square-footage he is paying for and what he will get. All cities are so short of school and college seats, and a child is doomed unless her uncle is a big shot who can swing her into a decent school. Dr Singh's government and Sonia's Congress party should have begun to address these issues from day one in their second innings. They did nothing of the sort, and the result is the mainly well-heeled, but angry and humiliated, city folk who are walking around with candles, "mera neta chor hai" tattoos and demanding that their MPs be fed to vultures or dogs, or both. An aspirational society is an impatient society. Even more so when it is so young, and getting younger.

Nobody in the Congress or the UPA has been talking to this India, whether in cities or villages. This has been the quietest, the most shy government in India's history, and nobody can govern this country from the trenches. If the mood at Jantar Mantar is anti-politician, or for an apolitical system, this has been an incredibly apolitical government, which is its own and India's tragedy. Because in a democracy, politicians must speak with people, to sell their ideas, plans, explain their mistakes, promise redress, and so on. But here, Sonia and Rahul rarely, if ever, speak in public. They almost never speak to the media or make an intervention in Parliament and rarer still on behalf of the government. The party behaves as if this government has been outsourced to bureaucrats. The prime minister too speaks rarely and his minders seem to not only draw great comfort from it, but also take pride in it, as if they have a prime minister they need to protect, and hide from public interaction and gaze. If you do not speak to the voters for two full years, they will turn to somebody, to the courts, to high-decibel TV anchors, to Anna Hazare.

Petrified Congressmen are today coming out in self-serving defence of politics and democracy. But their own party set up this government as if politics was India's curse and only what was apolitical was virtuous. How else would you explain the formation of the National Advisory Council (NAC) with a statutorily mandated position, and to which Sonia Gandhi related (in public perception) much more strongly than to her government? In the name of civil society, the NAC was not only given the powers to draft legislation but also to attack the government and its policies relentlessly. That is why the Congress now sounds so hollow when it questions the demand that "civil society" draft the new Lokpal legislation. If Sonia's civil society can do it, why not Anna's? And please stop giving us sanctimonious lectures on Parliament's sovereignty over law-making.

These, the de-politicisation of its own political approach, and a clinical but systematic distancing of the party and its top leadership from its government, are UPA 2's equivalent of Rajiv Gandhi's premature assault on the old guard and the Shah Bano bill. Telecom and other scams have filled the moral space thus vacated to become today's Bofors, and to symbolise popular anger. Howsoever good the results of May 13 for the Congress, they will not reverse this downslide. But they will provide a breather. If Sonia, Manmohan Singh and, most importantly, Rahul still want to reverse the slide, and not write off 2014 as well, they will have to totally reboot their politics. And remember not to repeat the mistakes Rajiv made in his government's second half, though the spectacle the Congress created at the PAC, unfortunately, reminded you so much of Shankaranand's shameful JPC on Bofors.

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