By Praful Bidwai
Fully eight weeks after the Congress lost legislature elections in four out of five Indian states, the party is acknowledging that it’s in deep crisis. It has serious difficulties in managing its allies. It’s demoralised. And the United Progressive Alliance government is losing ground as it drifts further Rightwards.
Few Congress leaders believe the UPA can win the next Lok Sabha election, due in 2014, if it continues along its present course. They are bracing for 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. Then, a reorganisation of the party, based on a purge of the cabinet, infused new energy into the Congress and strengthened its Left wing.
Today, the party is worse placed to revamp itself than 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 underprivileged.
Worse, the national-level division of labour between the government and the party is such that the former overwhelms the Congress. The Manmohan Singh government remains a prisoner of pro-Big Business neoliberal policies which expropriate poor people’s livelihoods besides natural resources.
These policies, and high inflation, which is eroding people’s purchasing power, have combined with innumerable corruption scandals to make the UPA deeply unpopular. In its second avatar, the UPA has forfeited much of its goodwill by failing to live up to its “inclusive growth” promise. India’s recent GDP growth has been profoundly iniquitous and greatly widened rich-poor disparities.
What the Congress needs is not just house-cleaning and a personnel reshuffle, but a change of overall approach, policy and programmes which brings it in line with the natural centre of gravity of the Indian politics. Because of the unaddressed agendas of poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity in this society, that centre of gravity lies on the Left. The Congress must appeal to the poor from a Left-leaning platform. It can gain little by appealing to the consumerist elite.
Yet, today, for the first time when in power nationally, the Congress has no Left-leaning ginger group within, 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 progressive influence, as it was in 2004-08, when it was dependent on the Left parties, which negotiated a Common Minimum Programme with it.
Having a Left-leaning orientation and progressive pro-people agendas is not a matter of 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 no major progressive measure which corrects structural inequalities and growth imbalances, barring to an extent the Right to Education Act, which gives underprivileged children access to school education. RTE’s implementation won’t be easy without 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. It undermined the recommendations of the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi; drastically reduced food grain entitlements and manipulated numbers to arbitrarily create three different categories of beneficiaries. Instead of establishing universal entitlements, it resorted to highly abuse-prone “targeting” of specific groups.
The present government is bereft of new ideas which could reduce widespread poverty and deprivation, or help realise the people’s fundamental right 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. By all accounts, other forms of poverty, e.g. lack of access to common property resources like pastures and land from which to gather firewood, have sharply worsened.
High GDP growth hasn’t made an iota of difference to this bottom two-thirds. Even if the 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 vis-à-vis the top 10-15 percent.
The Indian government’s failure on distribution is all the more grave because its revenue income has more than tripled over the past five years. The Indian state is today a better placed than at any other time to do something substantial for the underprivileged. Instead, it has cut the NREGA budget and raised subsidies 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 Manmohan Singh under which he follows the most viciously anti-poor policies, which further alienate the poor.
Gandhi, who apparently favours a Left-of-centre approach, probably set up this arrangement in the hope that her son would join the government and succeed Singh within a short span of time. After the Congress’s poor showing in Uttar Pradesh under Rahul Gandhi, that isn’t about to happen. In general, his strategy of rejuvenating the party through the Youth Congress with elected office-bearers hasn’t worked.
Sonia Gandhi 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 legitimate for her to set clear 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, unlike its predecessor, the present NAC is weak and compromised. Unlike in the past, there is no synergy between the NAC and external civil society or political forces. The council’s composition, which includes some diehard neoliberals, 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.
Sonia Gandhi must reorganise the NAC by removing conservatives and inducting progressives into it. 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.