Millennium Post

Congress blunders as BJP flounders

The fear expressed in this Column, namely, that the Congress party may be losing its survival instinct, has come true within a fortnight. The 4 November rally in Delhi, held to celebrate the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s disastrous decision to open up multi-brand retail to foreign investment, gave out that message, loud and clear.

By backing the decision, the Congress has done what no other Indian party has done: openly claim ownership of a right-wing measure that pampers a tiny elite but hurts millions of people. The nearest anyone came to doing this was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its ‘India Shining’ campaign of 2004, which became a major factor in its electoral defeat.   

The Walmart-style hypermarkets to be promoted under the policy will not only destroy street-vendors and petty shopkeepers, who cannot match giant corporations in attracting upper-middle class consumers through predatory pricing. They will also make farmers and other suppliers dependent on these corporations, which have every reason to squeeze them with brute market power.

Going by experience in the West, hypermarkets will gradually eliminate competition and eventually turn against the consumer too. Foreign-controlled retail will become a burden on society and promote a repugnant culture of greed and the kind of wasteful consumerism that’s the opposite of environmental sustainability and social and economic equity.

Yet, by linking the FDI decision to the Congress’s ‘historic achievements’ such as the Green Revolution in the 1970s and market-fundamentalist neo-liberal policies since 1991, the Gandhis have wiped out the distance the Congress had seemingly taken from the UPA and Manmohan Singh until recently.

Under the division of labour that has prevailed since 2004, the Congress leadership under Sonia Gandhi projected a left-of-centre image which fitted closely with the progressive initiatives proposed by the National Advisory Council (NAC). Gandhi’s emphasis on equity and inclusive growth was at odds with Singh’s policies. Now, that autonomy from Singh – chipped away gradually through repeated dilution and rejection of the NAC’s proposals on rights to food, education and healthcare, and recently through a change in the NAC’s composition – has all but vanished. 

The Congress, which promised to be aam aadmi-centric, has been reduced to chanting the mantra of GDPism, the ridiculously naive belief that GDP growth is desirable in itself, regardless of its effects on employment and income.

Nobel-prize-winning economist Simon Kuznets, who developed the concept of GDP, disapproved of its use as a measure of overall national well-being because it fails to distinguish ‘between quantity and quality of growth, between costs and returns, and between the short and long-run. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.’

The Congress’s shift to the Right erases another lesson: historically, the party has done well in elections whenever it adopted a left-of-centre stance. It’s now cultivating foreign corporations and a narrow upper-middle class stratum in the mistaken belief that this layer, not the broad masses, will help it win elections. It’s alienating the masses at a time when its main opponent, the BJP, is extremely vulnerable.

Recent media exposes of BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s shady business dealings have made his position untenable, as borne out by Mahesh Jethmalani’s resignation and new turmoil in the BJP. The company that Gadkari controls, Purti Power and Sugar, is owned by 18 shell companies, a majority of which have addresses in Mumbai slums, and many of whose directors are Gadkari’s employees, including his chauffeur, besides having Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) connections. Gadkari runs a complex money-laundering operation by borrowing funds from his employees/companies and also lending money to them. The key to Gadkari’s rise in the Sangh
is money, routed through Purti. After Pramod Mahajan’s death, he has emerged as the biggest fund mobiliser for the BJP-RSS because former Karnataka chief minister B S Yeddyurappa – who had unimpeded access to state coffers and to the super-corrupt Bellary Brothers’ mining racket – is unhappy with the parivar and plans to float his own party.  

Purti has benefited handsomely from Gadkari cronies such as the Mhaiskars of Ideal Road Builders whom he favoured as Maharashtra’s PWD minister in 1995-1999. IRB, which had only built 10 km of roads in six years, was given contracts worth hundreds of crores and became Maharashtra’s biggest toll-road company. As if to return the favours, D P Mhaiskar loaned Rs 164 crores to Purti.

To their disgrace, the BJP-RSS have defended Gadkari – unconvincingly. The RSS chief, at whose behest Gadkari was appointed party president, made the amazing statement that ‘it’s not important how much money has been earned; it’s important… whether it has been put to good use or not’. Since then, pro-RSS accountant S Gurumurthy has indulged in sophistry to shift the blame to others. Such rationalisation of corruption couldn’t have been more blatant. The Gadkari expose highlights nasty personal rivalries within the BJP. Gadkari has reportedly complained to the RSS that the person who leaked damaging evidence against him is none other than party national general secretary Arun Jaitley. Whether this is true or not, this remains the dominant perception.

Jaitley probably has his eye on the party presidency, and is closely allied with RSS joint general secretary Suresh Soni through whom he lobbies for a larger role for himself. Although the party constitution was recently amended to allow a second consecutive term to the president, it looks improbable that Gadkari will get it when his first term ends in December. Gadkari’s discomfiture has produced a good deal of hidden glee among his many rivals and detractors inside the party, not least former party president Rajnath Singh, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, and Messrs Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha, besides Jaitley. Gadkari riled Modi by appointing his
bete noire
and RSS pracharak Sanjay Joshi as election coordinator in Uttar Pradesh. In retaliation, Modi refused to campaign in the recent UP elections and eventually had Joshi humiliated and dismissed from the party’s national executive committee.

Gadkari, a Vidarbha-based lightweight and novice to national politics, never enjoyed much credibility, leave alone respect, in the BJP. He was considered a clown, and duly acted out that role through a series of foot-in-mouth comments. His remarks comparing Vivekananda with Dawood Ibrahim bear testimony to this. However, many of these detractors have chosen to keep silent about Gadkari because they are loath to see either Modi or Jaitley become the party president.

Rival BJP leaders are positioning themselves in different tactical alignments to promote their individual interests. Some are even campaigning for the 85-year old L K Advani to be brought back as party president. Yet others are rooting for Modi. Many are watching the RSS’s moves. The RSS for its part has tightened its control over the BJP, and has appointed three senior leaders (in place of one) as coordinators of the Sangh’s relations with the BJP.

The greatest gainer from all the churning in the BJP-RSS is undoubtedly Narendra Milosevic Modi. The recent ill-conceived British decision, driven by crass commercial reasons, to resume normal relations with the Modi government after a hiatus of 10 years, and the apparent softening of the US stand against granting him a visa, have also helped Modi. As has the praise showered upon him by numerous Indian industrialists for favouring them with sweetheart deals and subsidies.

Modi is making an aggressive bid for the BJP’s top job. His bid will gather strength if he wins the Gujarat Assembly elections, due next month. The hitch is the RSS, which doesn’t fully trust Modi because of his megalomania and highly individualistic style of working.
Yet, the RSS will have to give Modi a greater national role, perhaps as the election campaign manager.

One thing is clear. Modi has blood on his hands. His candidacy will polarise the polity, and could help the Congress offset its continuing policy blunders. That would be quite an irony! [IPA]
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