Unlike the first UPA government, its second edition did not spell out a common minimum programme. Instead, the Congress-led government began by reiterating its commitment to pursue the neo-liberal agenda. It announced that it would take up those policy measures which it could not push through in its first term in office. The government also promised to bring in some welfare measures for the aam aadmi. On foreign policy, the government stated that it would adhere to the path taken by the first UPA government of aligning India's foreign policy in tune with the strategic alliance with the United States of America.
The one-year of the UPA government has been notable for the following:
Firstly, it has totally failed to tackle the relentless price rise of essential commodities particularly food items. This has been the biggest cause for people's suffering in the past year; for the poor it has meant less food and more hunger and malnutrition.
This is not a "failure" as such but an outcome of the determination to pursue neo-liberal policies. Food items and other essential commodities are traded and speculated in the market in a big way. The forward trading system is the playground for big trading companies and corporates. The government is in the least interested in curbing these interests who are making huge profits.
Secondly, the Congress led government is in the grip of finance capital and the sway of big business. It believes in cutting taxes for the rich; providing a tax bonanza for big business and maintaining favourable terms for foreign finance speculators. The Direct Taxes Code which the government proposes to usher in will make India one of the least taxed countries as far as the rich are concerned. In the last financial year, the government provided Rs. 80,000 crores of tax concessions to the corporates. The disinvestment of shares in the profitable public sector units is the favoured agenda of both Indian big business and the US corporate interests.
Every sphere of policy making, whether it concerns the pricing of gas, the allocation of telecom spectrum, opening up of mining and minerals, the financial sector, retail trade or allowing foreign educational institutions into the country - bears the imprint of a government pandering to big business and their foreign finance collaborators.
Thirdly, this type of growth under the neo-liberal regime has spawned crony capitalism. The nexus between big business and politics has become the hallmark of the Congress regime. The legitimacy provided to foreign capital flows from dubious sources through the Mauritius route and other tax havens; the huge illegal mining business flourishing under political protection; the refusal to discipline and penalize law breaking and tax evasions on a large scale on the part of the super rich - all this has promoted a unhealthy and perverted capitalism which is celebrated as India's growth story.
What this has produced is corruption and illegality on a large scale which affects every sphere of society. The first year of the government has seen the IPL affair, the 2G spectrum allocation scam and the mining scandal of the Reddy brothers. All this can be directly sourced to the nexus between big business and ruling politicians.
Fourthly, the UPA government's concern for the aam aadmi has proved to be shallow. The Congress and the UPA government are conscious that some relief has to be provided to the people who are the worst victims of the neo-liberal policies. During the UPA I tenure, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the farm loan waiver and the Forest Rights Act were some such measures. These were part of the Common Minimum Programme and came into being mainly due to the consistent pressure and struggles waged by the Left parties.
However, under the UPA II, the government has failed to legislate even one substantial measure for relief. The proposed Food Security Bill would have in no way enhanced food security for the people. After one year, the government is still debating how to bring about such a measure. The Public Distribution System has been further weakened and curtailed. The plight of the farmers does not seem to concern the government which has cut the fertilizer subsidy by Rs. 3000 crore in the current Union budget.
The Common Minimum Programme of the first UPA government had promised to increase public expenditure in education to 6 per cent of the GDP and in the sphere of health to 2 to 3 per cent of the GDP. As far as education is concerned the combined central and state expenditure is still below 4 per cent. In the case of health the combined budgetary allocation of the Union and state budgets was a meager 1.06 per cent of the GDP in 2009-10, far below the target of 2-3 per cent.
Fifthly, the UPA government has failed to utilize the favourable political atmosphere and the strength of the secular forces in parliament to push for firm anti-communal measures. It seems visibly reluctant to come to terms with the Ranganath Mishra Commission report recommending reservation for the minorities on the basis of their socio-economic backwardness. There has been a noticeable lack of political initiative in dealing with the simmering problem of Kashmir.
As far as tackling the Maoist violence is concerned, the UPA government tends to treat it solely as a law and order problem without realizing that some of its own policies like the licence for indiscriminate mining in the forest areas is alienating the tribal people. Moreover, it finds itself hampered by its own partner in government, the TMC. Mamata Banerjee has declared that there are no Maoists in West Bengal and therefore there is no need for joint operations against them.
Sixthly, foreign policy under the Manmohan Singh Government has remained steadfast in its fealty to the United States. As a quid pro quo for the nuclear deal, India has agreed to buy billions of dollars of US arms and equipment. The End Use Monitoring Agreement which would allow American inspections on Indian soil was signed. The Civil Nuclear Liability Bill which has been introduced in parliament to meet the demand of the United States is patently against the interests of the Indian people. The growing military and security collaboration with the US and Israel affects the pursuit of an independent policy.
India has gone along with the United States which is targeting Iran on the nuclear issue. It once more voted against Iran in the IAEA, unlike other non-aligned countries. India is not playing the role of a leading non-aligned country. In contrast, President Lula De Silva of Brazil has stood up to the United States and refused to go along with the campaign for further sanctions on Iran. President Lula has visited Tehran for talks with the Iranian leadership to find a way out of the impasse and to come to some agreement with the help of Turkey.
One of the few positive aspects in foreign policy is the Prime Minister's refusal to adopt a confrontationist stance towards Pakistan despite what sections in his government and party wish.
The great potential of shaping an independent foreign policy and strengthening of multipolarity by India's vigorous diplomacy and energising forums like the Bric, Ibsa and the trilateral meetings of the foreign ministers of Russia, China and India is being underplayed.
Politically, the striking outcome of the first year of the UPA government is its increasing vulnerability. In May 2009, the UPA won the elections but failed to get a majority. The Congress leadership ignored this reality and became complacent with the unilateral declaration of support by parties like the BSP, SP, RJD and the JD(S). By the end of the first year that complacency has been shattered. During the last budget session, the Congress had to adopt the tactic of bargain and striking deals to garner support from amongst these parties. The last three weeks of the budget session have witnessed the manouevres to prop up the government's majority against the cut motions and the struggle to ensure the passage of legislations. The cynical use of the CBI for political purposes is undermining the credibility of the agency. The wheeling and dealing that saw the postponement of the Women's Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha and the introduction of the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill - all portend a tortuous path for the future.
If there is an impression of drift and being directionless, the Congress government has only itself to blame for this plight. After thinking it can go ahead with its own policy prescriptions, it now finds itself in a position where its partners in Government often look at things differently and assert themselves. There is growing opposition within parliament. As far as the people are concerned, their experience is of a government increasingly callous to their sufferings due to price rise, while it showed great solicitude for big business and the corporates when it felt the impact of the global recession. After the first six months of the government, there has been the rising tempo of popular struggles and movements. A peak in this struggle was reached with the April 27 hartal called by the 13 opposition parties. A spate of struggles of different sections of the working people have taken place. The struggle is on against the harmful policies of the government and to defend the livelihood and the rights of the working people. The question is whether the UPA government has learnt any lessons from its first year in office.
[This article is appearing in People's Democracy, May 23, 2010]