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Is UPA the same as NDA?

Daya Varma

Soon after the BJP-led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) was removed from power in May of this year, it should have been foreseen that this development could divide and may even split the left . The first issue was whether the left parties, which won more parliamentary seats than ever before, should or should not join the government. In my view the left should have joined the government because electoral battles are fought to win political power, not to shun it. The exceptions to this view presuppose that not sharing power now will yield more power in the near future. However, given the relative strengths of left parties in various states this is unlikely to happen. Although it was easy for some professional critics to quickly reach a definitive view that the left should not join the UPA (United Progressive Alliance), there was a debate on this among lesser folk. However, though there appeared to be no unanimity on this issue, yet there was no sharp division either.

Little has changed for the common man

In the last four months of UPA rule, the UPA government in Delhi has taken a few positive initiatives in some areas and failed on some other issues. But has this experience proved that the Congress is no different from the BJP? Does it mean that the UPA is following the same policies as the NDA? If so, there was no need to rejoice in the defeat of the NDA nor does there appear to be any reason to worry about the BJP coming back to power. For those in the Indian Diaspora who hold the view that BJP and Congress are the same, it will be better in fact if the BJP soon returns to power, because they do not have to live under BJP rule and thus do not have to mince any words in their criticism, which is what they are really good at. 

In reality, though, the UPA is not the NDA and neither is the BJP the Congress. Given India's size, large population and regional heterogeneity, there is a room for all political trends in India and there is a clientele for diverse political viewpoints. Only political parties like the Janata (and others in the past), which had wanted to become an alternate Congress, have gone into relative oblivion. All other parties have remained, stagnant or localized, but alive nonetheless. In any case, there is no reason for the existence of two BJPs nor is there any political space for two BJPs. So Congress cannot become BJP nor can the BJP become Congress and yet survive. 

Those of who think that the victory of the UPA over the NDA was a positive development realize nonetheless that there is a sound basis for putting pressure by every means possible to force the UPA to take up issues of concern to the people and lay the ground for a secular and democratic polity. In fact, the greatest achievement of the election is the potential creation of a space for progressive forces to mobilize on a whole variety of issues that impact the real lives of people. But this pressure requires mass mobilization, pointing out what is positive and negative. For example, every pressure should be mounted against inviting World Bank and Asian Development Bank "experts" from participating in Planning Commission meetings because India has all the expertise and needs no advice from such bodies, which do not have the interest of India as their primary motive. Bargaining with these organizations for specific projects may be a different matter. Another example is the urgent need to correct the (mis-)education of the people, in particular the youth, over the last several years by the bigotry and hate propaganda carried out by the forces of the Sangh Parivar with the full support of the organs of the state. The fact that these organs are now in the hands of individuals who have talked of "detoxifying" textbooks of hateful prejudices masquerading as "fact" that were inserted by the previous regime is a positive step. But it will take the concerted effort of many people and a struggle with all those who have been infected with RSS ideology but still remain in positions of power to make substantive changes. This is a long-term project and the government will only do something positive if activists put enough pressure on it. Carping criticism from the sidelines is not going to accomplish much. 

Since coming to power, UPA has done some positive things. Among these is the creation of an advisory panel with several progressive persons as members to implement the Common Minimum Program. This is the first time that independent left and progressive people have been associated with the central government in an influential capacity. Another example is the railway budget that has measures to make travel more affordable for common people. The railway budget or management of railways should be judged in terms of facilitating its utilization by ordinary people and not just in introducing more elite express train services between the metro cities to make travel for the well off faster and better. In this sense, Lalu Yadav’s Railway Budget was a positive departure from the past several exercises. Likewise, the weaknesses of Chidambaram’s budget should be remedied by providing alternate feasible policies. The Communist Party of India (CPI) found Chidambaram budget reflecting major concerns of the Common Minimum Program (CMP) and "pro-people", while pointing out certain weaknesses. It may be less pro-people but certainly is not anti-people because nothing has been done to take away from them what they have or to inflict additional misery upon them. 

The democratic left is not currently in a position to provide alternative governance in India even if one assumes that it has a well developed and workable economic and social policy. Constructing an alternative force does not require a merciless attack on UPA from the left; it may only lead to further isolation of the left given the sentiments of the Indian people. Unreasonable criticism of UPA or for that matter of any bourgeois institution does not weaken these institutions the least bit. It only isolates us and the more isolated we get the more desperate we become in our war of words. May be that is all some of us can do or wish to do. (

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