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Why we cannot afford UPA-3 December 26, 2013

Posted by Sharath Rao in Uncategorized.
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The Congress got a rude surprise earlier this month with the rout in the Assembly elections. While the rout itself was in some sense expected, the extent of defeat probably wasn’t. One of the consequences of this appears to be an expectation that this is a shape of things to come for 2014.

Perhaps as part of the effort to stem the bleeding, shore up some support, fundraising wise and otherwise, Rahul Gandhi talking to the FICCI tried to make all the right noises on growth and corruption. Or at least, he tried not to strike the same tone that he did earlier this year talking to CII. So is this the new Congress under a new leader who comes with a new language and a realization that growth and fiscal prudence matter? Is there a panic in the Congress that their rights-based populist vision might not carry the day for them? All of these are questions that are better left to those who follow the party and have inside sources. I can leave you with a question here though: Would you judge someone by what they say they will do or based on what you have seen them do so far?

Let me instead concentrate on how the man on the street might want to reason about 2014.

So, hey common man:

Chances are that for any number of reasons you will vote the Congress back to power. It is unlikely to happen in the manner that it happened in 2009 with Congress getting over 200 seats. But a repeat of 2004 cannot be ruled out, where non-Congress, non-BJP parties get enough seats to prop the Congress back to power. A repeat of the dark days of 1996 is also possible. What does UPA-3 bode for India?

Is there a reason to believe that UPA-3 would be worse than UPA-2. Yes, there is. One simple reason, a reason that is embarrassingly simple to state.

Renewed political capital.

Just like companies raise financial capital in the public markets, political parties and politicians raise (or fail to raise) their political capital in the elections. Each election defeat is a vote of no-confidence. If the defeat involves the incumbent government – as in Delhi and Rajastan recently – the message is – “You have not done a good enough job and you deserve to go”. If the defeat is of the challenger – as in MP and Chattisgarh – the message is – “We are generally happy; we could be happier but its not you who will take us where we want to.”

Likewise, each election victory is a endorsement of all the good and more importantly, a forgiving and forgetting of all the bad. And that is where if UPA-3 comes in, the message is – “Yes, you may have caused a lot of damage, but you know what, never mind. No big deal. No scam matters, nor does the wrecking of the economy. And, guess what, weakening and destruction of institutions, that is ok too. All forgiven, all forgotten, for all time to come.”

The signal it sends will not merely be implicit and in the abstract; it will be concrete and the effects will be on the ground. There will be no investigation of any scam of the past 10 years, there will only be more scams. In 2016 when the opposition asks about Coalgate, they will be reminded that they lost the elections and that they are poor losers and that the charges are politically motivated. Bush was emboldened when re-elected in 2004, although he arguably took decisions on Iraq (‘the surge’) that eventually changed things for the better. Obama, having re-elected in 2012, decided not to negotiate on healthcare reform since he claimed that the issue had been settled with his re-election. Fair enough, but scary when one thinks what UPA-3 will do once re-elected.

Not punishing poorly performing government emboldens politicians and subsequently things only get worse. It is extremely unlikely that a poorly performing government barely manages to return to power having won narrowly and then course corrects. A victory is seen as an endorsement, a ‘lets have more of it’ vote and more of it is what you get. India has already lost several years and in a rush to paint doomsday scenarios awaiting us with the advent of Modi on the national stage, nobody is talking about what it means to have the current crowd back in power. I know I am not saying anything terribly profound, merely pointing something that is seldom talked about.

The basis of appeal here is not personal, it is not based on conspiracy theories about the Gandhis or the predominantly left-liberal media or Mr. Modi’s rhetoric. It is not even necessary to entertain any of that to arrive at this conclusion – we cannot afford 5 more years.

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