Ashoak Upadhyay

UPA’s corrupt, but so are we

ASHOAK UPADHYAY | Updated on May 28, 2013 Published on May 28, 2013

Both rulers and civil society violate public resources for private gain. — H. Vibhu

A minister sells spectrum, the wealthy hijack waterways for townships. Corruption has been socialised.

By any reckoning, the last report card of UPA-II before the general elections it will face next year should have been a statement of its capacity to emerge from the slime of corruption – or for that matter, the dark corridors of indifference that have marked its second term. And yet, the UPA bash failed to deliver more than the self-congratulatory banalities.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Report to the People, meant to sound like the State of the Union by American presidents, was an exercise in self-plagiarism, a rehash of earlier self-adulatory speeches, most notably from the ramparts of Red Fort and at countless other gatherings of the faithful and in air-conditioned halls around the world.

It was also self-parody; foregrounded by the dispirited times the world is passing through – the downturn in the organised economy, the corruption that sticks to so many public faces, and the inability of the policy-maker to offer more than delusions (‘in five years the turnaround’). What sense would the average Indian make of the following excerpt from the speech: “Let me focus today on four key achievements: one, the improved performance of the economy; two, making the growth process more inclusive; three, delivery of better governance and better delivery of welfare and development programmes; and, four, improved relations with a changing and challenging world”?

Parody of accomplishment

What does the passage parody? Not so much the actions that the PM wanted the nation to believe his government had undertaken, as their repeated articulation as accomplished ‘facts’ against mounting evidence to the contrary.

What will the ordinary Indian think of those nine years of the UPA? Memory is not just short, it is pernicious and fickle; a lifetime of good can be erased by a misspoken word. Who among the urban middle classes will recall UPA-I as the author of a radical break from the politicians of the past (with no more of that ideologically-loaded, state-hegemonic rhetoric of muted and regulated private enterprise)? The new rhetoric from 2003 sounded value-free with its accents on private initiative, the “animal spirits” unleashed from the chains of state controls, the focus on production over distribution, of growth as the precursor and precondition of equity.

public graft

Not many in the middle class will remember that break in the economic discourse because it has entered the urban psyche as the obvious and uncontestable route to those coffee bars and malls, the preconditions of ‘culture’ and ‘progress’.

What they will remember is corruption in high office and its origins as the remnant of an old statist system, an idea that flows from a definition dinned into post-graduate Economics students that graft is the result of the misuse of public office for private gain.

Not many will pause to wonder why “public office” should be identified necessarily with departments of government.

So it is hardly surprising that in a 12-city poll by CNN-IBN, urban youth over 18 years said the UPA had lost credibility and PM “no longer enjoys confidence of young urban India”.

UPA sweeps the dust

And yet, stakeholders in the organised, largely private economy, judge the Government’s record unfairly. Underlying the PM’s list of achievements quoted above is a vital life-changing message that middle class Indians will have to thank the UPA for beaming to them.

Over its nine years as the ruling coalition, the UPA swept aside the fragile social compact that India had been made to accept soon after Independence, that syncretic mix of Gandhian austerity with Nehruvian social democracy that produced a national economy united by the overarching and somewhat greasy hand of the state. It had its disparities, but the rural-urban gap was at least attempted to be covered by a discourse of social democracy and equitable distribution. Institutional mechanisms matched economic intent and the pace of growth, that Hindu rate.

The UPA helped the Indian middle class abandon its sullen acceptance of the Gandhian-Nehruvian discourse on how Indians ought to govern themselves, and live and prosper.

The timing was perfect. When UPA-I came to power in 2003-04, the organised economy was already racing upwards.

The global economy too was, and the discourse that underlined it seemed just right for India. Reality matched that seductive narrative of market-driven growth towards a global village shorn of government interference: the urban Indian bought it.

But the new economic discourse did more at a deeper level. Over nine years the UPA Government changed the delicate balance between town and country, a balance fraught with tension undoubtedly, but one in which the village played the alter ego of the city, the conscience keeper of urban waywardness; the Indian village always existed at a subliminal level to remind urban Indians of a different, less hurried and more bucolic way of life to which they could return when in stress.

Over nine years, the policy-maker, without probably intending to, rebalanced that equation by negating the village and the rural economy. Progress, culture became city-centric; so did policy-making.

The village had to be urbanised: its resources, those sacred groves and hills sequestered for industrial growth, tribals turned into security guards.

The idea of India

For nine years the UPA conversed with the urban middle classes and organised manufacturing, its eyes trained on the global audience with an occasional forced bow to the marginalised. The idea of India it positioned and disseminated as an advancing, industrial, new-age urban economy driven by “animal spirits” sanctioned the widespread misuse of the nation’s resources; not just by ministries or departments but by corporations eager to enhance shareholder value and by the middle class Indian nudged towards a ruthless and rootless ambition, aggressive and aimless drive for a contingent present’s artifacts and artifices.

If India’s natural resources are being destroyed, if tribals are viewed as anti-growth ‘primitives’ and urban dwellers are asphyxiated and black money is more pervasive than ever before, it’s not on account of sloppy policy-makers or just lack of institutions, but because our definition of the good life and our social codes have been re-ordered.

A minister sells spectrum, civil society hijacks natural waterways to create townships; both violate the public resource for private gain.

In nine years the UPA, or to be fair, its policy discourse, has ‘socialised’ corruption.

Published on May 28, 2013
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor