Millennium Post

Battling for sheer survival

The Congress had been preparing itself somewhat leisurely for what may turn out to be a battle for its survival, in the April-May elections to the 16th Lok Sabha, as if lending credence to its widely perceived rejection by the electorate for its sins of omission and commission.

The Congress-led UPA gives a look of weariness after ten long years in the saddle while its complacency in the middle years had done damage to both the economy and reputation of the rulers not only here but abroad as well.

Certainly, the anti-incumbency factor has become sharper with UPA’s governance failures on top of a slew of corruption scandals, years of high inflation which people had to put up with, decline in savings and investments, industrial stagnation and fewer jobs, and slowing growth to below five per cent over the last two years.

India has fared poorly among emerging economies in macro-economic management attributable to domestic structural rigidities. Even though UPA tries to comfort the nation that the worst phase may be nearly over, restoring growth and injecting vibrancy to the economy by galvanizing savings and reviving investments in businesses to create jobs with skills, would become priority tasks for the post-election dispensation at the Centre.

The state of economy, high prices and low levels of job additions would all go against the Congress and Narendra Modi has been capitalising on blunders of the present regime in his raging and tearing campaign across the nation to wrest leadership to head a BJP-led alliance government.
In a belated riposte, the Congress entrusted its counter-attack to Rahul Gandhi, who is gallantly leading the party campaign but would not find it easy to reverse the tide of fervor that Modi has already managed to build for himself by his restless meanderings in the country. The stakes are higher for the Congress this time even for it to retain its pre-eminence in the polity in the midst of a range of adversities.

Multi-cornered contests in large constituencies in the April-May elections to the 16th Lok Sabha involving regional and state-level parties, with the new AAP joining the fray and adding to confusion, can cause huge shifts in voting patterns, with the incumbent Congress drawing flak, heightening uncertainties and resulting  in a hung house. The self-inflicted damage for the Congress-led UPA-II through its follies and failures is incalculable, extending as they are also into external relations and national security. Yet, the Congress, given its historic role in the freedom struggle, must safeguard its relevance to help steer the country out of any political instability that may arise if electoral outcomes are indecisive.

How far the Congress will be able to overcome its present discomfiture would primarily depend on the degree of success it could achieve in refurbishing its image as a party which would deliver, and not merely chant, inclusive growth. This would require a whole range of policy refinements – away from its addictive neo-liberalism – and essential reforms designed to rebalance the economy by stimulating domestic investment and output which in turn would generate demand and consumption. Above all, price stability is the need of the hour.

Excessive reliance on foreign investment will not bring about a turnaround for the economy nor unabated faith in ‘trickle-down’ help achieve equitable distribution. Addressing the surge in inequality and serious gaps in human resource and other social development sectors must be at the top of priorities for the next government.  Fiscal consolidation cannot become a bar for public investments supplementing the private sector efforts in vital areas such as R and D, energy conservation and innovations in technology. Along with policy shifts, the Congress has necessarily to court allies to place itself in a stronger position if called upon to form the government, in case of a BJP-led alliance falling short in securing absolute majority in the 543-member Lok Sabha. Much would also depend on post-poll status of the non-BJP and non-Congress regional parties, now getting together for a possible Third Front in a pre-election ritual.

The only developments on the Congress side are continuation of its alliance with NCP, mainly Maharashtra, to confront a BJP combine there, and a tie up with RJD of Lalu Prasad Yadav and other associate parties in Bihar. This has distanced JD(U) of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, which had parted company with BJP, from the Congress.

Rahul Gandhi will be required to put his best foot forward, assisted by some of the party veterans, in UP, where the Congress would find going the toughest unless it is able to persuade Mayawati’s BSP, one of the major players, to work together as against the ruling SP of Mulayam Singh Yadav and a rejuvenated BJP energised by Modi.

Having blundered in the manner of decision-making on Telengana, for which Sonia Gandhi is to be squarely blamed, the Congress has to reconcile itself with losses in AP, its 10-year stronghold, with fewer gains in the Telengana region. In 2009, the Congress had bagged some 35 out of 42 seats in unified AP.

Tamil Nadu offers no brighter hopes either, with the formidable AIADMK led by Jayalalithaa arrayed against, and the only option for the Congress would be to go back to DMK, notwithstanding the latter’s aversion so far, but more importantly tie up with the relatively strong DMDK of Captain Vijaykant. Aiming at all the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu, Ms. Jayalalithaa, with Left party allies, is expected to win not less than 25 to 30 seats. West Bengal under the grip of Mamata Banerjee is another area of conundrum.

The traditional linkage of the party’s fortunes with the hold of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty does no longer work in most states. The new realities are the massive increases in new generation voters juxtaposed with the worsening of living conditions for the mass of the people. The Congress leadership claims of ushering in rural prosperity through progressive increases in minimum support prices for farmers and rural employment guarantee programme have had only marginal impact.

Whatever pre-election schemes and sops that UPA-II may offer, the challenge is to respond to the rising expectations of the broad mass of the people – rural, urban, the middle class, at both lower and higher income levels – for affordable living conditions and reforms to generate sustainable growth and creation of jobs and spread equity. Greater transparency and accountable governance have to become the new norm.

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