Nine uninterrupted years in office cannot be made light of. After all, the last government to reach this milestone bowed out of power 36 years ago. Besides, history has held that feat to be dubious because Indira Gandhi, whose first stint lasted 11 years, from 1966 to 1977, imposed the Emergency in 1975. In the event, the United Progressive Alliance government cannot be faulted for feeling a sense of achievement in staying the course, and that too in an environment rendered unpredictable and difficult by coalitional politics. Yet what ought to have been a champagne-popping moment for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi has turned into a mere statistic thanks to the regime’s track-record of misgovernance, corruption and worse. If anything, there is astonishment over the government’s durability in the face of unceasing scams and scandals. UPA-II’s biggest accomplishment would appear to be that it is hanging in there — and thinking up ever new ways to fend off the next crisis.
It is not that things went swimmingly for UPA-I, one of whose low points came in July 2008, when the government was accused of purchasing support to pass a crucial vote of confidence. But the unedifying drama did not in anyway detract from Dr. Singh’s image as a man of unimpeachable integrity. UPA-I’s shortcomings were more than offset by the overriding advantage it derived from pushing the envelope on social welfare. The 2009 mandate was for a largely progressive government that combined a string of landmark rights-based legislation with measures such as the farm loan waiver. By contrast, UPA-II’s balance-sheet is a story of overwhelming negatives. From misused and wasted funds in the Commonwealth Games to massive irregularities in the allocation of precious natural resources such as coal and spectrum, the scams have unspooled one after another, revealing brazen execution and complete disregard for norms of governance. But rather than learn from its misadventures, the government sought to clumsily cover up its tracks, bringing not just further ignominy on itself but earning the wrath of the Supreme Court which was hearing the coal block allocation case. Team Manmohan has attempted to salvage its reputation by sacking Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ashwani Kumar from the Union cabinet. But that is unlikely to change adverse perceptions about a government seen to hold institutions in contempt, be that the office of Comptroller and Auditor-General or the apex court itself. As the UPA enters the final year of its second term, it will surely also reflect on the damage the scams have done to the image of the Prime Minister himself.