The Congress’s sharp pro-poor agenda signals big change

The BJP, to be seen as victorious, has to cross its previous mark of 303 because of its own sloganeering and setting of expectations

Rahul Gandhi is using experiences from his Nyay Yatra to create exciting political narratives (photo: @bharatjodo/X)
Rahul Gandhi is using experiences from his Nyay Yatra to create exciting political narratives (photo: @bharatjodo/X)

Jagdish Rattanan

As the long-winded election campaign plods on, a lot has already changed on the Indian political scene. For one, the Congress party, for the first time in more than a decade, is able to clearly and in sharp relief articulate its political position before the electorate. This is the Indian National Congress standing firmly to left of centre, less a question of degree and more a question of direction, position and the quadrant the party occupies in the current political landscape.

What is emerging from the party of liberalisation and privatisation is now no longer a tentativeness on the agenda of social justice, wealth/income inequality or workers’ rights. On the contrary, it is a determined placing of the flag, a sharp turn to the left, never before as clear as it was during the era of bank nationalisation under Indira Gandhi. The response of the electorate, anecdotal at this stage, shows that the party is finding resonance and is in sync with the mood of the nation.

A commitment to this ideological positioning is critical to the revival of the Congress, and while some will say the position has been forced by circumstance, it nevertheless appears to have been embraced wholeheartedly by both rank-and-file and top leadership. Way ahead of the announcement of poll results on 4 June, this is a significant outcome.

It is worth noting that the BJP, to be seen as victorious, has to cross its previous mark of 303 because of its own sloganeering and setting of expectations. The INDIA alliance has to pull the BJP below 272 to claim victory. Barring the possibility, extremely remote at this time, of the Congress and/or the INDIA alliance faring very poorly at these polls, what we have is a party that will shape the direction of policy in India in the days ahead.

This is a role that the Congress had abdicated, sliding into irrelevance and ceding ground to the BJP in the absence of a clear political direction tied into a cogent positioning of the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the party. Without that, what we had was a toothless attack on the BJP’s communalism and corruption that did not carry conviction and did not work with the electorate. The story has now changed.

The decade-long slide of the Congress, and its quieter slide even when it held power at the Centre, was the inevitable consequence of a party noted for leading a neo-liberal agenda, given that its only accomplishment in recent times was the 1991 economic reforms.

Those reforms, too, were forced by circumstances. They attempted an unleashing of ‘animal spirits’ on the one hand, and led to the curbing of workers’ rights and the fuelling of widespread corruption on the other hand. In the absence of strong governance and weak or non-existent policing, or collusion, corruption moved from public sector hegemony to private sector brazenness.

Broadly speaking, these developments unsurprisingly fuelled the rise of the pro-BJP moneyed classes who, in alignment with assorted gentry in terms of class, caste and status, cited cases of high corruption under the Congress to bring the BJP to power. The deplorable role played by Anna Hazare, who led the India Against Corruption movement but has stayed silent ever since, even in the face of monumental corruption scandals emerging from the BJP stable, has already been exposed.

Within this framework, GDP growth at any cost became the talking point of the Indian elite looking to cash in on the coming business boom. The BJP in power took to cherry-picking its favourite business houses for special honours while others were asked to settle disputes via the Enforcement Directorate. The rest of India was left to wallow in the failed ideas of trickle-down economics and food coupons that feed 80 crore Indians today, more than half of India, under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana.

Further strengthening the Congress today is a leadership that looks ready and robust, willing to take on the challenges before the nation. Rahul Gandhi has bloomed in his leadership role and is looking good, sending out the right messages and signals as he fuses stories and experiences from the Nyay Yatra to create exciting political narratives that are bold, grounded and refreshing.

It is remarkable that Rahul Gandhi has been able to do that with a campaign that has stayed away from any bitterness in the face of innumerable odds, and a hateful BJP campaign that has focused a large amount of its resources to denigrate him and his family.

Rahul Gandhi’s emergence also proves that there is a limit to reliance on ‘pundits’, some of whom gave questionable advice, one even questioning the timing and wisdom of the hugely successful Nyay Yatra.

What this resurgence of the Congress has also done is to derail, in part, the BJP campaign. Led from the very top by the prime minister himself, it has tended to focus on what the Congress is doing or its perceived ills rather than what the BJP has done and what it promises for the next five years. This marks an internal collapse for the BJP, and if the party is not careful to pull back, it will walk into the trap of talking more about its opponents than itself.

Lastly, it is important to note that the Congress has rejected Manmohan Singh and all that he brought to the table, whether it says so explicitly or not. This is a necessary condition for the new Congress to build credibility.

In the final analysis, Manmohan Singh was a bureaucrat who may have succeeded in the subset of economics but failed miserably in the superset of politics. The former is a tool; the latter is a philosophy. The efficient use of any tool is dangerous in the absence of an understanding of why it is being used and where it will lead.

This should be a warning to today’s Congress to stay away from retired bureaucrats. It will have to keep a keen eye on corruption. And it will need more young blood and people of commitment to build a team so that the party can remain vibrant, whether it is in power or not.

Jagdish Rattanani is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal. Courtesy: The Billion Press

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