Too early to cheer
Though Priyanka’s arrival has received applause – without a definitive policy vision, she will not lend Congress enough reason for celebration
Priyanka Gandhi's entry into big-time politics, from having been a part-time caretaker of the two family boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli, has set the cat among the pigeons.
Those in BJP, who thought that Rahul hasn't yet matured sufficiently to offer a serious challenge to Narendra Modi, will now have to think again about the twin assault of Rahul's aggression and Priyanka's charming offensive.
In the face of this varied attack, the tune of the prime minister's single-string instrument harping on dynastic politics and about "nothing" having happened in the 70 years prior to his own ascent may begin to sound somewhat monotonous. However, it will amount to overstating the case to assert that "achhe din" are here for Congress, as Shiv Sena's Sanjay Raut has said. For one, the effect of Priyanka's fabled resemblance to Indira Gandhi may be felt more in the countryside; although, the fact that people across the board are susceptible to good looks is evident from the attempt of a BJP minister in Bihar to play down her "beauty" by saying that it does not get votes.
For another, her economic views are unknown – as are Rahul's – if only because neither has cared to articulate them clearly. This is their – and the Congress's – Achilles heel for, if their silence indicates taking a U-turn on Manmohan Singh's economic reforms and signalling a return to Nehruvian socialism, it will mean losing a large segment of the middle-class voters who have placed their hope on growth, as promised by Modi even if it is yet to take place palpably.
If two of Rahul Gandhi's observations are taken into account, they will show that he is not a votary of reforms. One was his assurance to the Niyamgiri tribals in Odisha that he will be their "foot soldier" in Delhi to block any and every attempt by industrialists to take over their forests for the sake of mines. And, the other was his "suit-boot ki sarkar" jibe at Modi, to denote the latter's closeness to the corporate sector.
Both of the Congress president's statements depict the private sector as the ogre, indicating the possibility of a return to Nehru's and Indira Gandhi's communist-style public sector-driven economy, where the market only has a marginal place.
It is also no secret that Sonia Gandhi's left-leaning National Advisory Council (NAC) was disenchanted with Manmohan Singh's emphasis on growth, as one of the NAC members, Aruna Roy, regretted. The outcome was a policy of populism based on doles and subsidies, although it did not help Congress in 2014.
It will be unfortunate if Priyanka follows her mother's and brother's economic ideas, for a return to the licence-permit-control raj of the 1960s and '70s – that is not what India needs today. Yet, the fact that Congress instinctively harks back to those days when it was engaged in implementing the party's 1955 resolution of building a "socialistic pattern of society" is evident from the party's absence from the list of state governments which call for foreign investment.
It is with bated breath, therefore, that both the hoi polloi and the elite will await Priyanka's initial observations on her return to India. Is she a dedicated "socialist" like her mother or has she realised that the dogma has died with the demise of the Soviet Union and that the market is now seen as the driving force of a country's economy even in China and Vietnam?
Congress's focus at the moment is on highlighting the Modi government's many failures on the employment and agrarian fronts, apart from its assaults on various institutions – whether academic or bureaucratic/professional like the CBI and the Reserve Bank – not to mention the curbing of liberties relating to lifestyle choices.
Because of the scale of these failures on the government's part, Congress has been able to make considerable political headway, as its electoral successes also show. A recent opinion poll suggests that even the National Democratic Alliance will not get a majority in the Lok Sabha, let alone the BJP.
But, the ephemeral nature of acquiring political traction only on the basis of the opponent's lapses is obvious. Even as voters accept the underlining of the government's multiple inadequacies, what will matter ultimately is whether the challenger is able to present a credible narrative of his or her own on the economy and on the overall political landscape with an emphasis on freedom and decency in daily life.
Priyanka is the "X" factor in this context at present, for she hasn't yet entered the battlefield and taken up the cudgels against the adversary. How she will fare is the million-dollar question for, while large attendances are assured as the crowds are drawn by the still prevailing aura of the Nehru-Gandhis (who have a rishta – relationship – with the people, as the Shiv Sena has said), it is the outlining of her vision which is of prime importance. Her well-wishers will hope that she will not falter.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)