Ashoak Upadhyay

The ideological clash within the UPA

Updated on: Apr 15, 2014
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The differences between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have far deeper historical roots than is apparent

No party in post-Independent India could have been slapped with the double whammy that the UPA has been: accused by the Right, posing as the voice of Reason, with squandering away the nation’s resources on misguided populist schemes, and by voices in the Left corner of abetting crony capitalism.

Both accusations sum up the ten years of the UPA fairly accurately if tersely.

But sweeping indictments do not get us closer to the core of the truth and to do that we should focus on the peculiar times in which the UPA came to power, a unique moment in India’s history that sets it apart from the earlier one in which the NDA had ruled.

Looking back, one can see in the two terms a clash of perspectives, of discourses on how the Indian economy was to be propelled forward to what end.

No other government, certainly not the NDA, was the site of such a clash the outcomes of which will now shape the results of the elections.

The first term setting

The first UPA term may have been foreshadowed by the common minimum programme, but the unprecedented growth after 2004-05 vindicated a discourse on growth that had made its way into the policymakers’ world view with some force after 1991.

And as the UPA soon learnt after 2005 liberalisaton was paying huge dividends. But the discourse of growth led by the private non-farm sector driven by markets instead of the state and vouchsafed by India’s period of high GDP sat uneasily with an inherited discourse of social democracy with the state as its pivot. Policymaking till the mid-1980s was grounded on the premise of a strong state dispensing both resources and economic decision making to various economic agents.

So much seems obvious enough. But conventional wisdom has it that the license raj, controls and a calibrated freedom of enterprise was an outcome of Nehruvian socialism, itself an uneasy mix of English Fabianism and Soviet Communism.

But there may be another explanation and the clues may lie in a brilliant and underrated book, India in the Shadows of Empire . Historian Mithi Mukherjee suggests how India’s Constitution, unlike those of other democracies, European or American, located ‘Justice’ as India’s “sovereign legislative principle” in its Preamble --- freedom comes next.

The concept of justice the Constitution framers accepted was not justice under the law “which is based on the notion of universality and impersonality of law and legal procedures.”

It was “justice as equity” that is “anchored in the figure or the person of the monarch.”

Mukherjee suggests that this concept of justice-as-equity was in truth the imperial discourse of justice as equity which had been introduced by the British raj after the 1857 uprising as a way of assuring itself India’s loyalty to a monarch dispensing justice by standing above all laws and specific interests.

Having accepted justice as equity as the guiding light for post-Independent India, the Constitution set about turning it into practical guidelines.

The Directive Principles, Mukherjee notes, “were specifically defined in terms of the duties of the state rather than the rights of the individuals.” Mukherjee suggests the concept of justice as equity gave the dynastic Nehru-Gandhi family monarchical status, the fount of justice as equity.

Imperial and Mai-Baap states

But the monarchical persona exemplified by the mai-baap state and the dynast Mukherjee analyses can be seen to have leeched down into the body politic at large in which “strong” charismatic leaders who are capable of dispensing justice as equity to specific constituencies are conferred with royalty status similar to the one enjoyed by Nehru/Gandhi and claimed earlier by the British monarchy.

For the first time in post-Independent India, this Constitution-embedded idea of justice as equity, the Imperial discourse, came into conflict with the globalised market driven discourse.

If the inherited legacy of a state driven idea of justice had taken root here it was now shaken by another discourse that replaces the state with the market in the name of “freedom.”

That struggle between two ideas or discourses found expression in the first term itself when the UPA abandoned the CMP. But it was heightened in the second with the return of populist legislations.

Policymaking was divided along clearly discursive lines but the fracture was exacerbated by another rift that was unique to the UPA coalition government.

For the first time in post Independent history, the monarchical persona of the Prime Minster was split. Till 2004-05 the PM and the PMO represented one entity, one source of power. With Singh in the seat as PM, the monarchical principle was fractured with sovereign power seeming to rest elsewhere.

The NDA escaped both ruptures not because its PM was “stronger” as a “bare-all” book suggests, but because growth had barely begun by the time NDA demitted office. The discursive conflict was incubating.

Shadows, no substance

The UPA government fell into the cracks opened by this struggle between two opposing world views. Embracing the new discourse as Singh and his team had done was not enough to ensure the victory of the new discourse: that required more than three piece suits and smart phones to work — efficiently.

It called for new institutions to replace the old kind of statist control of resource allocation, new regulatory principles based on the supremacy of universal laws instead of legislative whims.

In the absence of those institutions to judge even the government by a more universal law, it resorted to the old ways of distributing national resources according to the broken lights of “justice as equity.”

Equally, once the economic slowdown set in, the old justice as equity principle came roaring back to usher in a string of “populist” measures marking the return of welfarism.

It is not accidental that Singh should have failed to mention the pioneering rights legislations in his exit press conference. That he should have preferred to be known in history as the man who led India into the nuclear deal with USA should tell us which side of the discursive battle he stood.

Do not be surprised if the history of those 10 years repeats itself after the elections.

Published on April 15, 2014

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