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Making sense of political success

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman
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NEW DIMENSIONS OF POLITICS IN INDIA — The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in Power: Edited by Lawrence Saez, Gurharpal Singh; Routledge, 912, Tolstoy House, 15-17 Tolstoy Marg, Connaught Place, New Delhi-110001.
NEW DIMENSIONS OF POLITICS IN INDIA — The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in Power: Edited by Lawrence Saez, Gurharpal Singh; Routledge, 912, Tolstoy House, 15-17 Tolstoy Marg, Connaught Place, New Delhi-110001.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman

This book represents an elusive, but very vital genre of scholarship on Indian politics, which is the interface of politics, policy and regime. Professional economists of rival ideological persuasions sigh away from commenting on politics invariably by citing their limitations on the subject, although they reign over writings on Indian policy making ironically. Thus, this book should serve as a precedent for this genre owing to its varied themes and inter-disciplinary approach. It is indeed distressing to see how little is known about the policy interventions by non-Congress regimes in 1977 and 1989 or any other regime in the history of modern India for that matter. Both these non-Congress regimes departed remarkably from the erstwhile Congress governments which they replaced amidst enormous public expectations. There are possibilities of several volumes on these lines in Indian politics since the early years of Nehru’s first government.

The book seeks to evaluate the UPA rule during the period 2004-09. The book splits the entire gamut of policy regime under three particular sub-themes: governance, secularism and security. Its editors are prominent scholars based at two major British institutions. They explain the choice of these three themes in the following words, “these three features constitute important fault lines between two main national political parties in India (Congress and BJP) and provide an interesting departure to explore the new emerging trends as well as the strong underlying continuities between the UPA administration and its predecessors.” The introduction to this book is very insightful. The editors, like other prominent observers of Indian politics, consider the 2004 parliamentary election as unique. However, what led to the victory of UPA against the general forecast of NDA return remains somewhat a mystery. An important attempt was made in a volume edited by Yogendra Yadav, K C Suri and others published by Oxford University Press on this theme. Yet, the puzzle remains unresolved.

James Manor’s chapter demonstrates that UPA’s return to power was determined by reasonably successful implementation of its several anti-poverty programmes. Some of these were launched during its rule. Just as UPA’s victory in 2004, its return to power in 2009 has remained a surprise. He argues that India moved to a post-clientele politics during this period. Apparently, UPA and its coalition partners are not the only beneficiaries of these policy changes although they launched quite a few of them. There are some partners of NDA-run state governments who also reaped electoral benefits. Another important contribution is by Shailaja Fennell who explains how the marginalised have been the victims of exclusion particularly in the domain of education. Her narrative demonstrates how the regime has fallen short of meeting its agenda contained in its Common Minimum Programme (CMP). The author, however, recognises a qualitative shift in the education agenda, and hopes its pro-poor direction would remain in the coming years.

Distinct feature

Owing to the multi-religious character of Indian society, secularism stands out as the most crucial distinction between the rival visions of UPA and NDA regimes in India’s political discourse. Gurharpal Singh evaluates the legislative and administrative aspect of the policies to promote communal and social harmony of the Congress led UPA government. His chapter discusses the text book controversy, setting up of Ministry of Minority Affairs, and the regime’s ambition to implement affirmative action policy for Muslims. He warns the implications of the implementation of affirmative action policy for Muslims in the form of backlash from the BJP and its Hindutva outfits. Without doubt, India’s political environment has dramatically changed since the late 1990s with the rise of BJP, and politics of state secularism has to take new meaning, and its advocates must recognise that the intended beneficiaries should not become its ultimate victims in the shadow of India’s fierce competitive electoral politics. Added to the richness of this contribution by Gurharpal Singh is another very insightful chapter by Steve Wilkinson. This chapter offers detailed discussion on Sachar report and Muslim backwardness question. Apparently, he describes the Muslim situation more as a social and economic time bomb! What is interesting is that India’s ruling elites are accustomed to sitting on such time bombs and these warnings by academics are of little consequence for them. Another important addition to this section is a chapter by Rochana Bajpai, which analyses the politics of affirmative action policies in India during this period. It concludes that the UPA Congress has been far more committed to identity-based quotas than the Congress party of the 20{+t}{+h}Century. It also suggests that the party would profit if it develops its justifications in the shape of greater common good.

The section on security has three important contributions. Kanti Bajpai has made a comparative assessment of the approach of UPA with NDA regimes. By focussing on India’s approach to USA, China, and Pakistan, he has argued that UPA has applied negotiation and accommodation to deal with these countries as opposed to coercion. There are evidences of ideological differences, according to Bajpai, in the approach of both these coalitions towards foreign policy. In another contribution, Lawrence Suez has argued that UPA has demonstrated continuity in its energy policy. He also shares concern about India’s challenges to meet the energy requirements for its citizens. The final chapter in this part grapples with India’s anti-terror laws. Under the UPA regime, Indian state has formulated several new anti-terror laws not just to deal with Islamic terrorism but also the growing threat of Maoists.

All in all, various chapters of this book offer useful insight to the challenges the Indian state has been confronting in nation building. While coalition politics and regimes have their own ways to deal with these issues, there are ideological differences that often play out in the determination of various policies. This is an important book for students of South Asian politics and public policy.

Secularism stands out as the crucial distinction between UPA and NDA




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