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Millennium Post

Dynasty Cong's nemesis

Now that it is fairly certain that the Congress will not only fail to reach its present tally of 200-plus seats in the Lok Sabha, but also fall behind the BJP’s total in the next general election, it may be worthwhile considering why it is losing ground. An earlier occasion when a similar slippage occurred was in 1989 when the Congress’s total of seats fell from a massive 415 in a House of 543 to a lowly 197.

The fall this time is unlikely to be as steep. In all probability, the party’s number of Lok Sabha seats will drop to 120-130. It is the reason for the decline, however, which is worth examining. The explanation for the 1989 debacle is well known. It was Rajiv Gandhi who squandered the huge lead by pursuing immature, topsy-turvy policies. They ranged from negating under pressure from Muslim fundamentalists the Supreme Court’s laudable verdict on alimony for Muslim women in the Shah Bano case to the opening of the gates of Babri masjid to please the Hindu fundamentalists – a fateful step which helped the BJP to enter the mainstream of politics, something which was unthinkable till then.

This time, it is his widow, Sonia, who will be held responsible if the Congress falls behind the BJP. Unlike her late husband’s blunders, her missteps do not have anything to do with the social-communal scene. Instead, it relates to the economy. There is little doubt that if she had not tried to influence economic policies by exerting pressure on the government via the extra-constitutional, left-of-centre National Advisory Council (NAC) led by her, the Congress would not have been in such dire straits.

If the elbow room available to the government after the Left’s withdrawal of support in 2008 had been fully utilised to push for economic reforms – instead of merely promising to do so, as the prime minister does in fits and starts – the government would have been on a far stronger wicket because of the employment opportunities provided by a buoyant economy. There is little doubt that the failure to move forward led to the economic slump, creating a mood of doom and gloom which has eroded the Congress’s position and damaged the prime minister’s reputation.

As is known, it is the logjam caused by the conflicting views of the pro-market Manmohan Singh and the welfare-oriented Sonia Gandhi, which stalled the government. But, what is odd is that neither had the will or the inclination to push ahead with their personal predilections. Even if Manmohan Singh believes that ‘socialism’ is ‘outdated’, as he said recently, he apparently never conveyed it with sufficient vigour at party and cabinet meetings except saying (outside these forums) that there are votaries of the licence-permit raj in the government in an apparent reference to the environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan. Nor did the Congress president press for a U-turn from ‘neo-liberal’ policies and a recourse to populism.

The result was the pursuit of a bit of both. While the government went in for FDI in the retail sector, Sonia Gandhi worked on her pet project, the food security bill, despite initial opposition from agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and others. However, the reason why the economy stalled in mid-air, as it were, was not only that the two people at the top had different ideas about the means of progress. It was the looming presence of an ideological baggage, which has hobbled India for decades.

It is based on an innate distrust of the merchant class, which is seen as rapacious and insensitive to the plight of ordinary people. Unfortunately, the Indian business community has not done anything to eradicate this unflattering image of the bania. Even as the politicians have acquired the same image, the private sector is yet to redeem itself although its efficiency has become a point in it favour in the post-1991phase, not least because of the contrast it provides to the lumbering public sector.
But, it will take a brave politician to proclaim that capitalism is the answer to the country’s woes and that it is the private sector, which deserves to occupy the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, which were earmarked for the public sector by Indira Gandhi.

It is clearly the political apprenticeship, which Sonia Gandhi underwent after her marriage in Indira Gandhi’s household which has shaped her economic worldview.  Hence, Sonia Gandhi’s support for her mother-in-law’s bank nationalisation and preference for a command-and-control economy where the government will play a Soviet-style paternalistic role by throwing money and food at the poor as in the rural employment scheme and the food security bill.

Sonia Gandhi also took the initiative in urging the government to revive the enumeration of castes in the census reports, which was stopped in 1931. The objective of this retrograde step is to identify the indigent among the poorer classes for the purpose of handing out doles. The unsuitability of the economic vision of a munificent feudal family in the modern age is a major reason for the party’s decline.
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