Things fall apart

Print edition : February 22, 2013

May 23, 2004: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi with Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet at the Co-ordination Committee meeting of the United Progressive Alliance held at Sonia Gandhi's residence in New Delhi. Outside pressure from the Left made the UPA-I honour some of its electoral promises. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

May 27, 2004: Releasing the Common Minimum Programme, which provided an agreed road map for UPA-I. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Anti-corruption rallies have drawn attention to the influence of business groups on the government. Photo: S.Subramanium

Telangana protests, like this one in Hyderabad, may end the Congress hold on Andhra Pradesh. Photo: NAGARA GOPAL

YSR Congress president Jaganmohan Reddy, who is seen as a major threat by the Congress. Photo: P.V. SIVAKUMAR

The UPA-II’s perceived lack of direction and a clear policy framework has meant that the centre does not hold. The absence of cohesion in the Congress on key policy issues aggravates the problem.

THE Congress surprised everyone when it defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and returned to power in the 2004 parliamentary elections at the head of a coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). It won two consecutive elections by winning again in 2009, something it had not done since 1984. The elections had resulted in both the BJP and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), becoming politically weaker. But paradoxically, the Congress party appears weaker too. It has not made any significant gains in States which it lost to the opposition in the past decade, notably Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, and faces the imminent threat of losing its bastion, Andhra Pradesh, which currently sends 33 party members to the Lok Sabha, because of the Telangana fiasco and Jaganmohan Reddy’s decision to quit the party in 2010. The breakaway YSR Congress of Jaganmohan Reddy swept the byelections in June 2012. The over-dependence on the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic leadership to take all major decisions remains an enduring structural fault line in the party. This excessive reliance on the charismatic appeal of the family is inadequate in a country defined by the mobilisation of a plethora of identities and interests via regional parties and the diffusion of political power from New Delhi to the States.

UPA-II and the Congress party have not fared well in the past two years. Both the government and the party are more beleaguered than ever before. The inability of UPA-II to take forward the agenda of social and economic inclusiveness has left the people confused. It has not taken concrete political and administrative measures to overcome the disconnect between the projected socio-economic objectives of the Congress and the priorities of the government that it leads at the Centre and in several States. This seems to be at odds with the popular mandate. There is a pervasive feeling that UPA-II lacks direction and a clear policy framework; as a result, the centre does not hold. The party’s own lack of cohesion aggravates the problem as it appears torn between differing positions and strategies on key policy issues.

From 2004 to 2008, India experienced heady annual growth averaging 8 per cent. The overall achievements of UPA-I were considerable—the Right to Information Act, the employment guarantee scheme, and larger allocations for the social sector. In comparison, UPA-II is unimaginative and purposeless. There is a rapid decline of economic growth, resurgence of inflation hurting the ordinary people, stagnation in industry, infrastructure bottlenecks, and a middle-class-inspired civil society revolt against the corrupt and grasping political class. In hindsight, it is clear that the success of UPA-1 was contingent on circumstances that have been absent since then.

Factors that held the UPA-I up

UPA-I had its share of troubles, but the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) provided an agreed road map, and the coordination committee zealously guarded against any deviation from it. Even though the Congress had fewer than 150 seats, Sonia Gandhi had a hegemonic position in UPA-I, and her emphasis on the social agenda was the trademark of the government. UPA-II gives the impression of floundering from one crisis to another, rendering it unsustainable. UPA-I’s electoral success rested on a balance between Manmohan Singh’s pro-market agenda and Sonia Gandhi’s focus on social welfare policies. These welfare schemes served the strategic purpose of neutralising communal politics and helped to direct attention to redistributive policies, which paid handsome electoral dividends. The political pay-off derived from the party’s ability to advocate and maintain the dualism of growth/distribution and rich/poor. Doubtless, the availability of higher public revenue (four times more since 2004) helped the UPA government to invest in social sector programmes to address some of the pressing needs of the people without having to compromise on the profits of the corporate sector.

Equally important were another set of contingent reasons, most notably the Congress-Left alliance, the foundation-stone of UPA-I, and the internal leverage it gave Sonia Gandhi in relation to the conservative lobbies in the UPA government. Outside pressure from the Left parties forced the government to honour at least some of its own electoral promises and implement some popular schemes like the one on rural employment guarantee, which benefited the UPA electorally. But under UPA-II, there is no Left pressure from outside and there are hardly any Left voices inside the ruling party to push it towards politics and policies that are socially relevant and electorally viable. As a result, the government has not been able to push forward the legislative agenda on key issues such as land acquisition, food security, women’s reservation and communal violence, which formed the basic features of the 2009 election manifesto.

Lack of clarity

An important reason is the lack of clarity within the Congress. There are conflicting trends within the party on most issues, especially neoliberal economic reform. Two dominant positions are discernible. One is a nebulous social democratic platform that shares misgivings with regard to economic reforms, favours an accommodative approach towards the marginalised and the poor, and believes such a position helps to differentiate and distance the party from the BJP. There are others who favour the neoliberal position with its emphasis on high GDP growth, fiscal consolidation and second-generation economic reforms required to push growth.

India’s growth has slowed down as the economic strategy of the past few years is showing signs of having lost steam. Economic crisis and the downgrading by Western credit rating agencies have played a part in changing the dynamic between the government and the party and between growth and welfare, with much greater emphasis on the former. Giving up on its strategy of stealthy support for reform, for the first time in eight years the Congress Working Committee (CWC) declared clear support for the growth-first perspective and the government’s reform agenda in the belief that it would generate dynamism in the economy and provide funds for the UPA’s pro-poor programmes. The rally organised by the Congress at the Ramlila Maidan on November 4 last year to publicly support economic reforms signals an ideological turning point for its politics. It is a clear signal that the party is prepared to own up to economic reforms, in contrast to the earlier impression that its position was at odds with the government’s reforms agenda.

Sonia Gandhi’s endorsement of the Prime Minister’s economic road map at the Ramlila Maidan suggests that neoliberals have been able to convince the top leadership that reform measures such as foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail and liberalisation of insurance and pension funds are the only way out of the economic slowdown to deliver a new round of prosperity. Apart from the crisis narrative, which “creates a space for reform in difficult times”, the change of guard in the Finance Ministry from Pranab Mukherjee to P. Chidambaram also contributed to a flurry of announcements pointing to the resumption of reforms. In addition, corporate lobbies have been loudly campaigning against a “policy paralysis”. They demand economic reform, which means removing restraints on organised business and giving preference in everything from cheap credit to captive power to big business and greater privatisation of public enterprises and liberalised investment and trade. This strategy requires not just permitting private investment but enlarging areas from where they can reap profits. Such a business-driven development model is a recipe for exacerbating inequality. Indeed, income inequalities have widened. Despite the growing inequalities, the UPA government has pulled its weight behind the rich and powerful, which further intensifies disparities. The most visible markers of inequality have come from the interaction between the state and capital in sectors like mining, infrastructure and land, where it is not free enterprise but the pattern of corrupt state-business relations that has worsened inequality.

Money-driven political process

What makes these conflicts significant is that they are taking place against the backdrop of an intensely money-driven political process, which is evident from the very large number of entrepreneur-politicians, wealthy MPs and Cabinet Ministers operating with the backing of a state-business alliance at the apex. When parties and candidates spend huge amounts of money to win elections, they will favour business groups, which is where the money is. The substantive issue is undue favours given to businessmen who are exploiting their proximity to power wielders for personal gain. Until the anti-corruption campaign hit the streets and the Supreme Court intervened to investigate the allocation of 2G spectrum, there was hardly any debate on the special influence that business groups command on the state. In the Commonwealth Games (CWG), 2G and coal scam cases, the government created problems for itself by mishandling them and by shielding corrupt Ministers. But the party has not been able to stop the stain of corruption from spreading just when high-level corruption has become an important issue in Indian politics.

Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as the Congress party’s vice-president and the decision to project him as its leader in the next Lok Sabha elections comes at this difficult moment when the party’s political base is shrinking visibly and public opinion has turned sharply against it. Inflation, corruption and governance problems have alienated people, and these problems are compounded by the government’s failure to deliver on growth or welfare. Not only is the Congress’ organisational base splintering, but key groups in its social coalition have lost faith in the party’s ability to represent their interests. It has even failed to regain the support of Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

The party’s base has withered away in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and Andhra Pradesh, and is much weaker in several other States. It rules only in a handful of States on its own—Assam, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh—and is part of the ruling coalition in Maharashtra, Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir. In States where it has been out of power for a long time it has not been able to project itself as an effective opposition. Apart from the ideological and political vacillation it has been grappling with since 2002, the Congress’ sixth consecutive defeat in Gujarat in 2012 underlines major organisational weaknesses facing the party in Gujarat and other States. In Gujarat, its campaign was not supported by an energetic organisation on the ground or an effective leader.

By contrast, the party’s performance in Himachal Pradesh was much better. Its campaign there benefited from the projection of Virbhadra Singh as the future Chief Minister, whereas no one was leading the party’s campaign in Gujarat. The perennial uncertainty over State leadership is clearly an extension of the dominant political culture of a party that has not come to terms with a defining imperative of Indian politics: regionalisation and the crucial import of State-level leadership. Hence, it has not nurtured a strong and credible second-tier leadership capable of mounting effective Statewide campaigns in crucial States where it has lost out to regional parties.

Beyond Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as the vice-president, there is the larger question of the party’s thinking on critical issues and an actionable agenda taking centre stage. The real key to the electoral success of the Congress lies in the platform it adopts rather than its stewardship by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, as is evident from its string of election failures in the States despite the presence of a leader from the dynasty on the campaign scene. A reading of the Jaipur Declaration, which according to one newspaper report “the party even forgot to adopt” in the midst of an emotional downpour that greeted Rahul Gandhi’s stirring speech, however, shows it is more of the same. This declaration, like previous All India Congress Committee (AICC) resolutions, repeats the same rhetoric—the staple of the party in the post-liberalisation, post-Ayodhya period. The 56-point declaration typically focusses on issues of development, poverty and uplift of the weaker sections. So, for example, the declaration states that the party will contest elections on the basis of nationalism, social justice, economic growth for all, and secularism. The last few AICC resolutions also stated this, verbatim.

Cosying up to the upwardly mobile

But there is something unprecedented in the Jaipur Declaration and the speeches of Congress leaders. And it is this. The party is going all out to woo the upwardly mobile middle class at a time when urban India is witnessing rapid social and political change and new forms of mobilisation. The recent street protests against corruption and rape seem to have bolstered the shift to issues that concern the urban middle classes, which are increasingly alienated from the political process. Although the declaration spoke about two Indias—“the young middle class India” and “the young deprived India”—there is no mistaking the shift. Most importantly, it acknowledged the need to take on board “aspiring India”, that is, the middle classes who are not finding their concerns reflected by the political process. Both the sections on “Political Challenges” and “Emerging Socio-Economic Challenges” accept that “there is a rising educated and aspirational middle class, especially in urban areas” and add that “a climate conducive to their advancement must be created”. By contrast, “concern for the agriculture sector” and “the prosperity of the Indian farmer” come much later even though the support of this sector was vital to the party’s successive wins.

For a party that has seen itself as a champion of the poor and has always used rhetoric about the poor to mobilise the marginalised, the conflation of aam aadmi and the middle class in the Jaipur Declaration marks a departure from the path it charted in previous parliamentary elections. It signals a move away from redistribution to a much greater focus on a middle-class-driven model of governance and development. This is not to say that the Congress is all set to jettison the poor, but perhaps the party is more worried about the potential loss of middle-class support. It had won 92 of the 168 urban seats in 2009. To repeat this feat it is keen to reach out to the disenchanted middle classes who are contesting the institutional politics of the state and want it to be held accountable not through elections but in terms of public services the state provides to them. It hopes to reclaim middle-class support by showering attention on this section in the mistaken belief that it can decisively influence voting behaviour in 2014.

Zoya Hasan is a Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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