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Congress’ counter to BJP shouldn’t just be cultural assertion, but economic alternative too

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Six years after it lost power in Delhi, the Congress is again at the crossroads.

The continuing energy of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine has made the older party largely a reactive force. It is unable to seize the initiative in the political arena despite the shock administered to the economy by the Covid-19 crisis. Farmers who may have  welcomed a decent Minimum Support Prices for 14 kharif crops  (mainly paddy, wheat, channa and mustard)  soon found it undercut by three weeks of rise in diesel prices by 12 rupees a litre. The Narendra Modi government did step in with free rations, but this alone cannot possibly alleviate misery without addressing the shortfall in jobs. Add to this, the Chinese riposte to India has raised fresh concerns after decades of quiet on the northern border.

In such times, a premier Opposition party ought to have been on its feet. It is commonplace to argue that the Modi government has at its disposal an armory to corner key opposition figures—the investigating agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation, income tax sleuths, and even Governors of its choice in the Raj Bhavans of Opposition ruled states. With a brute majority and a near total control over the Rajya Sabha, the institutional checks and balances that could hold the Modi government accountable vis-à-vis the states have vanished. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government can outspend its opponents.

This is not the first time the Congress is out of power. However, the party has never been this weak, especially going by its performance in 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections where it could just manage to win 44 and 52 seats. It has also seen serious decline in southern India that had emerged as the bastion in the Lok Sabha election of 1977 and 1989, albeit to a lesser extent

What Congress can learn from its past

In the past, the Congress has indeed seen difficult times. What can it learn from its past that can address the current crisis? Few can now recall the gloom of March 1977 when Indira Gandhi had lost her election from the family pocket borough of Rae Bareli. But considering the fighter she was, by May that year, Indira Gandhi was back visiting the Dalit families in Belchhi, Bihar where their kin had been killed by caste Hindu landed elements.  Contrast this with the absence of such direct initiative by the party’s top leadership in Madhya Pradesh’s Guna where a Dalit couple reportedly consumed pesticide while resisting an anti-encroachment drive by the state government. Rahul Gandhi did raise the issue but so far Guna has not been on his itinerary.

Indira Gandhi also had this rare ability to listen: most evident in the wake of the Congress split of 1969. The idea of bank nationalisation had long been in Congress’ manifesto but was advocated most strongly mainly by ex-socialists like Chandra Shekhar. By implementing their demand, she took the wind out of the sails of her opponents within and beyond her own party. The very idea of ‘Garibi Hatao’ was radical: no leader in India’s history, not even during the freedom movement had made such a pledge.

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Congress’ remaking, especially after the split of 1969, also enabled it to remain flexible and change with the times. Thus, the 1971 Bangladesh war saw the party take away the nationalist card from its opponents such as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.


The present challenges

Today, the focus of the Opposition on the cultural critique of Hindu nationalism is unavoidable. There are epochal changes underway or accomplished by the ruling dispensation that need a counter with strong defense of plural and federalist values. Yet, to do so, any opponent needs to articulate not a substitute but an alternative.

To reclaim its space, the Congress has no option but to listen to the aspirational voices of precisely those sections of society that feel excluded. More than a mere cultural assertion, the party needs an economic programme that can rally and unify elements of a rainbow coalition.

The rise and assertion of the Mandal and Dalit led parties in north India after 1989 did much to undercut the Congress. Although briefly, the party was also able to tactically align with such political parties and contain the rise Hindu nationalism. But, after Modi’s arrival at the center stage in 2013, that phase too is past, and all those regional forces face the threat of erosion.

The ability of the Congress’s leadership to listen was evident in the state assembly polls in Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in 2018. Promise of loan waivers and better support prices for farm products, and a strong opposition against high GST rates on farm machinery and fertilisers did yield electoral dividends for the Congress. But the party erred in ignoring the corrective policy measures taken by the Modi government soon after the election results. It needed to craft a wider narrative on the economy and not just harp on the farm issues and poverty.

Unlike the pre-2011 period, India is no more in the driver’s seat in terms of investment or job creation. How would an Opposition party take up the baton in an age of reform? To do so, it has to address the largest occupational groups: the cultivators, the self-employed, small businesses and wage workers. The call for greater public investment is well taken but the Opposition also needs to suggest ways in which to prime the pump.

A strong Opposition is an index of the health of the polity. In the past, many leaders, especially those of the Nehru-Gandhi family, were able to deliver. It was the ability to move with and stay ahead of the times that was the key to their success.

We may well be at the end of that long era or even past it, and there is a vacuum in India’s polity. What happens next? Only time will tell.


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