UPA: Selling Itself Short


It has been called a great moment of rage. With over 800 million eligible voters, more than 100 million of whom would be voting for the first time — half the population being under 24 — the 2014 general election places unprecedented power in the hands of the nation’s youth. But India has rarely been more divided with conflicting ideas and visions for the way ahead. What course the life of the nation takes will be decided by us. But will we vote, and will we exercise that power responsibly?

T5E brings you a series of Op-Eds on the major political parties/coalitions to help you decide.

In this article, Sanjith Gopalakrishnan writes on the UPA.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks during a news conference in Washington“I say the country needs development, they reply: what will happen to secularism? If I say the youth should get employment, they say: what will happen to secularism?” thunders Narendra Modi, the BJP’s PM candidate, in a recent election rally. Facing flak over mismanaging the economy, stalling infrastructural development and being the proverbial stab-in-the-back for our defence forces, the Congress seems to have reverted to its tried and tested plank of secularism with overtones of pro-poor policies. At least on this, it’s on stronger ground than its main opposition, the BJP, courtesy 2002. However, rightly or wrongly, 2002 is proving to be too thin a shield for the barrage of charges against the UPA, which includes plunging India into an economic crisis of sorts.

In this atmosphere of gloom and doom surrounding the economy, Dr. Raghuram Rajan, the newly instated RBI governor, remarked to the effect that India’s economic crisis is largely an imagined one, and the real problem is a PR problem[1]. And statistics back him up on his view, which runs contrary to the one that has been drilled into public consciousness by the opposition and the particularly exuberant Modi. The rate of GDP growth under the NDA rule from 1999-2004 was 5.9%, while under UPA-I it was 8%. UPA-II could not replicate its earlier success (largely due to global factors) but nonetheless, it managed a growth rate of 7%, still comfortably higher than what the NDA could manage[2]. Another common charge levelled against the government is that it has let the fiscal deficit spiral out of control, all the while intent on doling out freebies to the poor. This charge, again, has no basis. The fiscal deficit hovered at 5-6% through the 90’s and the NDA’s rule. During UPA-I this was brought down to 2-3%, but due to the 2008 financial crisis which called for stimulus funding, the fiscal deficit has again gone up to just below its earlier levels of 5%. Writing about growth in the time of UPA, Ghatak et al[2] point out that it is remarkable that UPA has so meekly surrendered to the charge of fiscal indiscipline while the record is so completely in its favour.

The Sensex has nearly quadrupled during the UPA’s term, and our annual FDI flow has gone up by about 10 times. One could go on and on, but true to its harping upon inclusive growth, the UPA has done stellar work in poverty reduction as well, irrespective of where you choose to draw the poverty line and across any social or religious group you choose to look at [3]. In 1993-94, the percentage of population beneath the poverty line was 45.7%. This went down to 37.7% in 2004-05 at the end of the NDA rule. In 2012, the UPA had brought it down to a mere 22.0%. There is disagreement on whether this stupendous achievement is due to the Congress’ flagship welfare schemes (such as the MNREGA) or if it is a trickle-down effect of its growth success. But the results are there for everyone to see.

This is not to say that the UPA has done no wrong. At least on two counts, it has failed to a certain extent. One is inflation, and the other corruption. The high growth policy, combined with higher minimum support prices for the farmers, is a probable reason behind the inflation[4]. A threefold increase in per-capita income during the UPA’s tenure along with rising rural wages would seem to have afforded some relief against the inflating prices[5]. Coming to corruption, while the voter awareness has never been so high, the short-term memory of the Indian voter (much like the Indian cricket fan) has not changed. A party involved in the shameful Kargil coffin scam, or the mining scam in Karnataka not so long ago, claims to be a non-corrupt alternative today. One should also not forget that the landmark RTI bill promulgated by the UPA has done more to reduce corruption and raise public awareness about it in the country than any other movement could achieve.

The BJP’s reluctance to concede that the Congress could be capable of any good has led to them proposing a theory to explain the success of the UPA-I: that it bore the delayed fruits of the NDA’s infrastructural push. I have no doubt that they will fall back on the same theory to explain away their deficiencies if they come to power now.  Again contrary to popular perception, the UPA has not stalled infrastructural development. In fact, infrastructural investment has been at 7-8% of the GDP compared to 5% during the NDA period. As an example, the power generation capacity added in 2007-2012 is roughly the same as what was added in the three previous 5-year periods[6].

For all the noise and hype surrounding Modi’s Vibrant Gujarat summits, his state is surpassed by Maharashtra, Delhi, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in FDI inflows[7]. If the claims about the FDI inflows due to the Vibrant Gujarat summits were true, then leave alone India, Gujarat would have overtaken the whole of China in FDI inflows single-handedly. After this discrepancy was pointed out, the Gujarat government stopped releasing the numbers altogether for the 2013 summit. This dissonance between what the NDA and Narendra Modi want you to believe and what the ground reality is, pervades all spheres. BJP in its attempts to whip up nationalist sentiment paints the UPA as a spineless government surrendering to Pakistan’s threatening overtures on the borders. These charges of the UPA being a treacherous government stabbing their own defence forces from the back due to defective foreign policy are grave and, more importantly, untrue. 2110 civilians and defence personnel were killed in Jammu and Kashmir from 2005 to 2013. Contrast that with the 2085 killed in just two years, in 2003 and 2004 under the NDA[8]!

During one of his rare media interactions, the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh observed that he is certain history will judge him better than the contemporary media. He may well be proved right, because while the alarmist tide stirred by the power-hungry opposition shall settle eventually, the facts will remain. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if his and his party’s reluctance (or maybe inability) to communicate their achievements better shall cost his party or, worse, the country. If it’s the latter, the mistake shall not be his alone. But it will be ours for having trusted loud and tall claims above results.

SanjithSanjith is currently in the final year of the B.S, M.S. program in Physics. You can reach him at [email protected].

Links and references:

[1]Rajan: India is not nearing a crisis, CNN global debate on the world economy.

[2] Growth in the time of UPA: Myths and reality, Ghatak et al, Forthcoming, Economic and Political Weekly.

[3] Poverty by Social, Religious and Economic groups in India and its largest states, 1993-94 to 2011-12, Arvind Panagariya and Vishal More, Working paper 2013-02, Columbia University.

[4]  Raghuram Rajan blames high food prices on frequent minimum support price hikes, February 26, 2014, The Economic Times.

[5] Average economic growth during UPA I & II at 7.7% PM Jan 3, 2014, Business Line.

[6] Power to the masses, G. Sanjith, Your voices, Indian National Congress.

[7] Gujarat, the gateway to India: fact or farce? April 13, 2013, The Hindu.

[8] General Elections 2014: UPA fails to hardsell its security success in campaigns despite drastic improvement, April 5, 2014, The Economic Times.

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