What did the UPA in?

The Congress alliance risked running a welfare programme-oriented government while at the same time giving a consumerist direction to the economy

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Published: Friday 16 May 2014

The UPA had given sops under MGNREGS to attract rural voters ahead of elections

After a bitter and what at times seemed a gladiatorial contest, we have a decisive verdict.

Take a bow: psephologists in the media. You have been proved right. In fact, many of your expectations have been exceeded.

In the euphoria, however, let us not suspend our critical faculties. It's early days yet and we must ask ourselves what does the verdict mean? So far we have got answers such as peoples' desire for change, peoples' anger against an arrogant government, a victory for a party with a development agenda. There is some truth in all of them. But don't we say all these things every time a long-time incumbent in government loses? We mouth such platitudes till the media circus lasts and then forget to take stock of the import of verdicts.

It is pretty obvious now that we will have a Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre. Modi has been lauded for his administrative acumen and the development agenda he has pursued in his home state Gujarat. In the run-up to the elections several of his achievements—both actual and phoney—have been tom-tommed. It's  natural then that the verdict be seen as an endorsement of the so-called Gujarat model.

In a similar vein, the verdict is also being seen as a rejection of UPA's model. It is time we analysed threadbare each of these models. Many an apologist of the UPA has credited it for its welfare schemes like the MGNREGA, the Forest Rights Act and the Food Security Act, all its flaws notwithstanding. They have argued that in spite of inflation real incomes of people have risen.

Read more on Gujarat and other development models

There is merit in these arguments. But what did the UPA in? Before we consign this government to the pages of history, there is I believe, one lesson from its tenure. The perils of running a welfare programme-oriented government while at the same time giving a consumerist direction to the economy. Peoples' incomes have risen all right. But so has their spending. And not just on basic items. Today its common for the lower middle class to spend on TV sets, mobiles and motorbikes. While it would be wrong to generalise, it would still be safe to say that people's incomes did not keep pace with the aspirations generated by a consumerist economy. And is it possible to check people's aspirations in an overwhelmingly consumerist millieu.

History shows us a hiatus between aspirations and wherewithal often leads to investing faith in messiahs—some of them authoritarian. It also helps when one is inundated with images of a successful and efficient counter-model: in this case, the Gujarat model. It's a veritable tizzy and many of us do not separate the wheat from the chaff

This of course is not the only reason for the fall of UPA. But the new government will do well to keep this in mind. It's another matter that on given evidence it does not seem to have any inclination towards such an endeavour. Good luck to it.

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