The first year of the second term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was undistinguished in approach as well as achievement. After being voted back in 2009 following a surprisingly robust first term, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his team seem to have spent the next 12 months in a do-little state bred by political complacency and neo-liberal conservatism. The very strengths of the government have turned out to be major weaknesses. Freed from dependence on external Left support, UPA-II showed a distinct lack of interest in pursuing the social democratic initiatives, including a few pro-poor programmes, that stood out during 2004-2009. With a full term seemingly guaranteed, the UPA behaved as if that was an end in itself and it was henceforth under no obligation to extend itself in fulfilment of its promises. After being pushed and pulled by allies and supporting parties during the previous five years, the Congress and its partners in government appeared happy to stand still or move about directionless in this new-found free space. With opposition from the Right spearheaded by the Bharatiya Janata Party and from the Left led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) weakened considerably, UPA-II thought it faced no threat within or outside Parliament — and was occasionally surprised by the vehemence of the protests on issues that matter.
The first avatar of the UPA had the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest Rights Act, the farm-loan waiver, and the Right to Information Act to count as social-democratic achievements. But under UPA-II, the employment guarantee programme, now known as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, despite some strengthening and expansion, is caught in corruption and deficiencies in implementation. Forest dwellers and tribal people continue to wage a struggle to retain their land and livelihood sources in the face of government-backed demands from mining and industrial lobbies. Farmers and peasants are no closer to any long-term solution to their distress situation and debt-trap. The Right to Information Act is sought to be diluted to favour judges and bureaucrats and those in power. But the defining failure of UPA-II has been its utter inability to control the spiralling prices of essential commodities, above all food items. Recovery from the global economic slowdown has seen inflation climb steadily, but the government's response has been unbelievably inept. Futures and forward trading of agricultural commodities and the cut in fertilizer subsidies have worsened the situation. With the Public Distribution System in a shambles in many States, the poor have no insulation against inflation. Everything points to mass poverty and deprivations widening and deepening.
Another defining failure of UPA-II has been on the law and order front. Its anti-Maoist strategy has met with spectacular reverses — with the extremists scaling up their violence from hit-and-run attacks to carefully planned ambushes and landmine blasts. No coherent policy is in place to deal with what Dr. Singh has characterised as “perhaps the gravest internal security threat our country faces.” It is an open secret that the Cabinet is divided between pursuing a militaristic approach and paying lip service to the imperative need to address the socio-economic roots of the problem. While seeking to crush the armed insurgency through ill-conceived paramilitary offensives, the government has conspicuously failed to ensure that development in the affected regions is not a disguise for mining and industrial projects that alienate people from their lands. In this respect, UPA-II seems to be replicating the failings of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance governments between 1998 and 2004. The growth of the economy and enrichment of the well-off, and not reduction in economic disparities, seems to be the main concern of UPA-II.
Some of the lethargy and indecisiveness can be traced to the divisions within the UPA and within the Congress itself on major policy issues. On anti-Maoist strategy, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram revealed the divisions within the Cabinet when he spoke of his “limited mandate” in dealing with the issue. On the RTI, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Singh are known to hold opposite views. Again, on the issue of caste enumeration in the Census, the Cabinet is divided and unable to proceed in a clear-headed manner. On relations with China, Union Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh spoke out truthfully, if a little too candidly, against the Home Ministry being “overly defensive” in dealing with Chinese companies that wished to do business in India. While a public airing of differences within a government, especially a coalition regime, is not by itself problematic, failure to resolve these differences could have serious consequences in day-to-day decision-making on key issues.
Among the few positives for UPA-II is the clarity and purpose shown in certain areas of foreign policy. Ignoring hawks within his own government, Prime Minister Singh, ably supported by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, pushed for talks with Pakistan. In the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, India showed leadership and a willingness to work with countries such as China, Brazil, and South Africa. Although New Delhi often tailed Washington in foreign policy, as was seen in the case of Iran, it also showed a readiness to work in forums such as BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) and IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa). In domestic policy, the Right to Education Act, which seeks to provide free and compulsory education for children between six and 14 years, should count as a significant positive, even if the hard work needed for implementation, especially in the Hindi-speaking region, waits to be done. The passage of the Women's Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha could have been counted as a breakthrough were it not for the fact that there seems to be little prospect of the Bill making headway in the Lok Sabha. It has been a tale of wasted opportunities. The interesting political question is: can UPA-II, as presently constituted, come out of the slough?