By Praful Bidwai
Fully eight weeks after the results of the Assembly elections which brought defeat and humiliation to the Congress in four out of five states, the party is waking up to reality and acknowledging that it’s in deep crisis. Not only does it have serious difficulties in managing its own allies, most notably the Trinamool Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party. But its own organisation is demoralised and the United Progressive Alliance government is losing ground as drifts further Rightwards.
Few Congress leaders believe the UPA can win the next Lok Sabha election, due in 2014, if it continues on its present course. They are bracing for the semifinals: the Assembly elections in Gujarat, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh, all Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states, later this year, and in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh (also BJP-ruled), Rajasthan and Delhi next year.
In partial acknowledgment of the crisis, Central ministers Jairam Ramesh and Salman Khurshid have offered to step down and devote themselves to party work. There is talk of repeating the Kamaraj Plan, a major effort to revamp the Congress launched in 1963 by the then party president and Tamil Nadu leader K Kamaraj, and backed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Then, a reorganisation of the party, based on a purge of the Cabinet, infused new energy into the Congress and strengthened its Left wing. But even that wasn’t enough to prevent the party’s political slide in the 1967 general elections in the Hindi heartland, where it failed to relate to the rising aspirations of the peasantry belonging to the middle and low castes.
A number of non-Congress Samyukta Vidhayak Dal governments were formed in the Cow Belt states, a slew of regional parties emerged, and the Great Forward March of the Backwards (Other Backward Classes) began. The Congress is still unable to relate to the OBC phenomenon, as its shrunken presence in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar demonstrates.
Today, the party is even less advantageously placed to revamp itself than it was 50 years ago. It stands disconnected from grassroots-level social forces and processes. In most states, it’s largely in the grip of a plutocracy, which doesn’t even believe in the aam aadmi election slogan, leave alone the need to sink roots among the poor and underprivileged who constitute a majority of India’s population and form a good part of the Congress’s base.
Worse, the national-level division of labour between the governmental and organisational wings of the Congress is such that the former overwhelms the party. The Manmohan Singh government remains a prisoner of neoliberal policies which are servile to Big Business, and cause the expropriation of poor people’s livelihoods and the nation’s natural resources.
These policies, and a persistently high rate of inflation, which is eroding people’s purchasing power, have combined with innumerable corruption scandals to make the government deeply unpopular. In its second avatar, the UPA has forfeited much of its goodwill. It has failed to live up to its promise of “inclusive growth”. Indeed,India’s recent GDP growth has been profoundly iniquitous and widened rich-poor disparities as never before.
What the Congress needs is not just house-cleaning and a reshuffle of personnel—which of course is long overdue—but a change of overall approach, policy and programmatic perspectives which brings it in line with the natural centre of gravity of Indian politics.
Because of the unaddressed agendas of poverty, widespread want, inequality and lack of opportunity in this society, that centre of gravity lies in the Left segment of the political spectrum. Unlike parties that practise identity politics centred on religion, caste, region, etc, the Congress must pitch for the support of the poor on a Left-leaning appeal. It can gain little by appealing to the consumerist elite.
Yet today, for the first time when the Congress is in power nationally, there is no Left-leaning ginger group within it, comparable to the Young Turks of the 1960s or the Nehru Forum of the 1970s, which could impel it to reconnect to the masses. Nor is it subject to an external Left-wing influence, as it was in 2004-08, when it was dependent on the Left parties, which negotiated a Common Minimum Programme with it as a condition for their support.
Having a secular Left-leaning orientation and progressive pro-people agendas and programmes is not a matter of arbitrary personal preference, but a precondition for electoral success for parties like the Congress.
Unlike UPA-1, which introduced the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act, UPA-2 can claim credit for no major progressive measure which corrects structural inequalities and growth imbalances, barring to an extent the Right to Education Act, itself a somewhat weak law to give underprivileged children access to school education. The RTE’s implementation won’t be easy unless it’s tied up with grassroots mobilisations and civil society movements.
In fact, UPA-2 came through as mean-minded and callous towards the poor in the way it made a hash of the Food Security Bill—undermining the recommendations of the National Advisory Council headed by Ms Sonia Gandhi; drastically reducing entitlements first through the incompetent and parsimonious Rangarajan committee, and then through further manipulation of numbers to arbitrarily create three different categories of beneficiaries; and resorting to the regressive and highly abuse-prone practice of “targeting” specific groups in place of establishing universal entitlements.
The present government is bereft of new ideas which could reduce widespread poverty and deprivation, or help realise the fundamental right of the people to live with human dignity. The latest National Sample Survey figures show that 66 percent of the people in both urban and rural areas are income-poor to the extent that they don’t have enough to eat or are nutritionally deprived.
By all accounts, other forms of poverty, e.g. resource poverty or access to common property resources like pastures and land from which to gather firewood and construction material, have sharply worsened.
High GDP growth hasn’t made an iota of difference to this bottom two-thirds of the population. Even if GDP grows at 10 percent, their lot won’t improve. The problem isn’t growth; it’s distribution and how much of the new income generated goes to the underprivileged rather than the top 10-15 percent.
The government’s failure on the distribution front is all the more grave because its revenue income has more than tripled over the past five years. The Indian state is today better placed than at any time in the past to do something substantial for the underprivileged. Instead, it has cut the NREGA budget and raised subsidies and tax cuts for the rich and various categories of businesses to obscene heights.
It won’t be easy to repair UPA-2’s severely damaged image unless Congress president Sonia Gandhi takes some drastic measures. The first would be to end the present division of labour between her and Dr Singh under which his ministers follow the most viciously pro-rich and anti-poor policies, which further alienate the Congress from all classes barring Big Business.
Ms Gandhi probably set up this arrangement in the hope that her son would join the government and succeed Dr Singh within a short span of time. After the Congress’s poor showing in Uttar Pradesh, where the party campaign was run by Rahul Gandhi, that isn’t about to happen. In general, Mr Gandhi’s organisational strategy for rejuvenating the party through the Youth Congress with duly elected office-bearers hasn’t worked.
Ms Gandhi, who apparently favours a Left-of-centre approach, must play a more activist role vis-à-vis the government if the Congress is to be rejuvenated. This doesn’t mean that she should interfere in its day-to-day working. But it would be perfectly legitimate for her to set clear and unambiguous policy parameters within which the government must work. She has an institutional mechanism at hand to accomplish this—the National Advisory Council.
The trouble is, the present NAC, unlike its predecessor, is weak and compromised. Unlike in the past, there is no synergy between the NAC and external political or civil society forces.
The Council’s composition, with diehard neoliberals like Dr Narendra Jadhav on it, isn’t conducive to radically changing the orientation of government policies. Jean Dreze, an outstanding social scientist, and Amartya Sen’s collaborator, quit the NAC out of frustration over the Food Security Bill.
Ms Gandhi must boldly reorganise the NAC by removing conservatives and inducting progressives into it. Messrs Dreze, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Jairam Ramesh are potential candidates for inclusion besides civil society representatives. Equally important, the NAC should not be treated as a decorative body whose advice doesn’t bind the Congress and the government, or even as an institution which must negotiate its recommendations with the government.
The short point is, the Congress lacks the internal resources and ideas to pull itself up by the bootstraps. It can acquire the necessary wherewithal only by reconnecting itself with social movements around defence of livelihoods against predatory capital and extension of people’s rights and entitlements. The NAC could be a useful mediating agency in this. (IPA Service)