Four long, tiresome years

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Illustration: Anand Naorem
Illustration: Anand Naorem

The UPA-2 completes four years in office on 22 May. And what a tumultuous four years it has been. Allegations of corruption, public protests, ally troubles and infighting have marked this government’s tenure, although Congress functionaries would have us believe that despite a few blemishes, this has been a period of achievements.

“On the four index points of political stability, economic development, social cohesion and international relations,” says Information & Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari, “the UPA government will be acquitted honorably with regard to its performance.” Many would argue that is as far from the truth as it gets.

When the UPA assumed power in 2009 for a second consecutive time, it had both political will and public support on its side. The people had entrusted the Congress-led government with power once again, and the Opposition was in disarray. Everything was in place and all that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to do was to ensure five years of good governance to repay the faith the country had shown in him. What has followed has been nothing less than political hara-kiri.

The 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) in New Delhi set the tune for the rest of the UPA-2’s tenure. Incomplete stadia, filthy quarters for the players and a last-minute rush to meet deadlines exposed the rampant corruption in organising the Games. There were allegations that contracts were awarded without proper tendering and that the rot had spread throughout the Organising Committee.

Faced with media outrage, the PM had to finally step in to ensure that an international embarrassment could be avoided. A CBI inquiry into the misappropriation of funds led to the arrest of Congress MP and Chairman of the Organising Committee Suresh Kalmadi.

The Congress though refuses to own up to the charges. “There were misdemeanors by some ministers who have been dropped,” says Congress General Secretary Shakeel Ahmed. “The investigation is on and if found guilty, the courts will take action.”

But, CWG was only the tip of the iceberg. The episode that really put the government under a cloud was the 2G spectrum allocation scam in 2010. Huge irregularities in allocating spectrum to telecom companies to operate 2G licences in the country led to what the Comptroller & Auditor General’s (CAG) report pegged as a notional loss of Rs 1.76 lakh crore to the exchequer. DMK MP and then telecom minister A Raja was held accountable by a CBI probe and subsequently jailed. Another DMK MP M Kanimozhi also had to do time because of her involvement in the out-of-turn allocation of spectrum. An entire session of Parliament was washed out by the BJP demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the allegations.

Raja alleged that he had all the while kept the prime minister’s office (PMO) in the loop, a charge that could not be proved. Nevertheless, one charge the PMO could not deny was of looking the other way when the nation’s resources were being looted. A charge that was to be repeated again in the coal block allocation scam in 2012.

In August 2012, the CAG came out with its report on the irregularities in the allocation of coal blocks, estimating the notional loss at Rs 1.86 lakh crore. Once again, the problem was the lack of a proper procedure when deciding allocations. In 2005, the UPA-2 government had brought in a Bill for ensuring proper procedure but till date the matter has not been resolved.

The issue got out of hand for the government as the prime minister had also held the portfolio of the coal ministry during the UPA’s first tenure. Sustained pressure from the media and the Opposition forced the government to set up an Inter-Ministerial Group (IMG), which recommended the cancellation of several coal blocks.

The matter, still under CBI investigation, kicked up a storm when former law minister Ashwani Kumar reportedly vetted the agency’s closure report to be filed to the apex court. The Court came down heavily on the CBI for this conduct and reprimanded the political interference in a case of national importance. Ashwani Kumar was forced to resign on grounds of impropriety and the prime minister’s image took a beating, as Kumar was seen as his man in the Cabinet.

Things would only take a turn for the worse when the very next week saw another scandal rock the UPA’s boat. Former railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal was taken to the cleaners by the media over allegations of nepotism and bribery. It was found that Bansal’s nephew, Ashok Singla, had taken money from people in lieu of jobs in his uncle’s ministry. Whether Bansal was party to his nephew’s actions or not, it was just too much heat for the government to take. Bansal had to go, and the UPA-2 was left with egg on its face.

The controversies surrounding the Congress-led government’s tenure in these four years seem to have clouded all the good work it has done. Party members readily admit that they have not managed the situation as well as they would have liked. Congress MP Sandeep Dixit admits that the biggest failure of the UPA-2 has been its “inability to engage with the people and put its point across”. He adds that till the time the good work it has done is not known to the people, how would they judge the party? Most partymen feel that whenever the government found itself in the docks, the leadership should have gone to the people to explain their point of view, instead of waiting for things to blow out of proportion.

They feel that the Congress has failed to capitalise on the various new development schemes it has introduced during the time. The Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) scheme introduced on 1 January 2013 for instance, is aimed at checking the leaks in the public distribution system (PDS). Under this scheme, the amount due to a beneficiary is directly transferred to his bank account, which is in turn, linked to a unique identification number. The object is to remove the middlemen and thus ensure that the leaks are plugged. Operational in 43 districts, this scheme will soon be introduced in 70 more districts in the country.

The UPA-2 will also be credited with having introduced the Right to Education Act (RTE) in 2009, which made education compulsory for all children in the age of 6-14 years. Although it was the only new legislation brought by the UPA-2 government in its first three years in office, it also augmented the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA). Linking all this with the Mid-Day Meal programme has seen a climb in the literacy figures of the country. The money spent on these programmes has made this the highest spending government on education in independent India. In the long run, this has ensured that governments can no longer use non-availability of funds as an excuse to not promote education.

The net has also been widened on healthcare spending during the UPA-2’s tenure. The National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), a flagship scheme, was introduced in 2005 by the UPA-1. Under this, the Central government works in partnership with state governments to build health centres in villages and rural areas. The Centre has also come out with health insurance for the poor in the form of the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). Under this scheme, people below poverty line (BPL) are insured for health cover and the premium is paid by the Central government. The amount allocated for the RSBY is Rs 1,500 crore. This scheme ensures that those under the BPL can avail the facilities of private hospitals with the insurance cards they have.

Among other schemes started by the UPA-1 government and taken to stage 2 by the UPA-2 include the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNURM), Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), Rajiv Gandhi Gramin Vidyutikaran Yojana, Indira Awas Yojana, National Rural Water Supply and the MGNREGA.

All such programmes and schemes aimed at the aam aadmi are the populist measures this government hopes will earn them the votes in the 2014 General Election. “We have built and consolidated on all our Bharat Nirman programmes,” says Sandeep Dixit. “More money has been allocated to each scheme. Our programmes have really taken off. We have exceeded our agriculture production and our horticulture production too has seen the highest growth ever.”

Two important legislations in the pipeline — the Food Security Bill and the Land Acquisition Bill — are also expected to give the UPA-2 new ammunition to counter the Opposition. While the Food Bill aims to put in place a programme, which guarantees cheap foodgrains to 70 percent of the population, the Land Bill is aimed at giving a better compensation to families whose land has been acquired by the government. Since most acquisitions happen in rural areas, this is supposed to be an empowering tool for the rural people.

Unfortunately for them, allegations of corruption and wrongdoing on allocation of resources and interference with the apex court-appointed investigations have clouded the achievements of the UPA-2. There are discernible signs of discord even within the Congress’ own ranks. The fact that both Union ministers forced to resign on the same day were seen to be close to the prime minister has also put a question mark on the leadership. Add to it the growing Narendra Modi frenzy and doubtful allies, and you have a heady four years, probably the most troublesome ever faced by any government at the Centre.

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