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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 33, August 9, 2014

Failed Economics and Logjam of Secularism

Friday 8 August 2014

by Arun Srivastava

Whether the Congress failed secularism or secularism failed the Congress, the issue is yet to be resolved. But like the blame-game that erupted in the Congress just after its rout in the Lok Sabha elections, attempts are being made to trace the genesis of the electoral drubbing in the wrong and amateur handling of the highly sensitive subject of secularism. It is being argued that the Congress might not have suffered this amount of drubbing if the leadership had handled the issue of secularism in a more mature and professional manner. Some argue that Muslims have rejected the concept of the Congress’ secularism and this was the reason for the defeat of the Congress. It is even argued that Muslims themselves are the victims of a certain kind of secular politics.

Like Modi’s self-eulogising speech on the occasion of his election as the leader of the BJP Parliamentary Party at the Central Hall of Parliament, wherein he said that the election results represented a new hope for the common man, and in no way manifested the anti- incumbency sentiment, the derivation of secularism is also a half-truth. Modi described the mandate as a positive assertion by the people for development, governance and it did not manifest the people’s frustration. It is worth mentioning that 69 per cent of the electorate did not endorse Modi’s candidature and his so-called vision. Obviously the verdict cannot be described as a positive assertion or a mandate against the handling of secularism by the Congress.

No doubt new hopes have arisen in the people, but Modi was speaking only a half-truth. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Modi in fact failed to comprehend the message behind the mandate. His evaluation was indeed quite simplistic. He in fact had borrowed the phrase from the media. The rout of the Congress needed deeper and inclusive diagnosis of the malaise that plagued the Congress. On May 16, 2014, the Congress witnessed its worst defeat since the first general elections in 1951-52. Their current tally of 44 is far lower than their previous worst of 114 (in 1999). Apparently it appeared to be a combined result of rampant corruption, high-handed approach of the top leaders, the lacklustre leadership of Rahul Gandhi, and on top of it, the Narendra Modi factor.

What was worse, the Congress leadership too did not take the message in the right perspective. It was in denial mode and continues to be so even today. Rattled with the worst ever humiliating defeat, a blame-game surfaced in the party. Even Sonia Gandhi had to appeal to shun the blame-game and debate the issues inside the party. The Congress used all tactics to insulate Rahul Gandhi. The party’s leadership ensured that his pre-eminence does not come under question. For ensuring that Rahul does not face the heat of the Congress’ debacle a high-level committee would be formed to look into all aspects of the defeat. This was really ridiculous. The Congress leadership simply committed another blunder. Its earlier blunder was responsible for its electoral rout and now the latest blunder would ultimately make it strive hard to gain back its political relevance.

The Congress has been harping on the philosophy of inclusive approach and concept. It ought to do some introspection whether it really followed the principle of inclusive politics. The Congress leadership has been in fact scared to look at its face in the mirror. It is beyond comprehension when the leadership would take a positive decision looking at the ground-level realities. It lost the elections due to its own follies and indecisiveness. The Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, must allow Rahul Gandhi to face the challenges. For how long would he depend on spoon-feeding? It is sad that even after being erased from the political map of the country, the Congress leadership has failed to learn the proper lessons. Rahul must start as an intern and learn the lessons of politics under the leadership of the veterans instead of imposing his own

One thing is also noticeable. Though he is young and dynamic and it was expected that he would make the youngsters rally round him, that did not happen. But the fact remains that the younger voters literally rejected him. They rejected his approach, style of seeking votes. He even failed to impress upon the rural poor, the target group which Rahul had earmarked for himself. The Congress, instead of blaming some leaders, must focus on the ineffectiveness of Rahul. Simply being the son of Rajiv Gandhi was not enough to influence the psyche and heart of the people. It would sound harsh but the fact remains that his consistent harping on the sacrifices by his family members has gone against the Congress. The people of the country have already responded in their own way to the sacrifices of the Nehru family. The Congress not shielding Singh from the BJP attack also made the party vulnerable. The people turned skeptical. Why was the Congress not protecting an honest person like Singh? This was hotly debated in the urban sector. Singh was despised primarily for the reason that he did not speak on the face of the Gandhis and resign from the office in protest against the scams that were taking place.

It is beyond comprehension that Sonia and Rahul owe their victories to Priyanka’s campaign in their constituencies. In fact her presence had energised the rank-and-file. The fact is that in the post-globalised political scenario the tactics of resigning and owning the moral responsi-bility have lost its relevance. People no longer take these actions seriously. They look at these simply as political gimmicks.

The Congress should also figure out and identify the real target group of Modi. Initially he had started by focusing on corruption during the regime of the UPA. He targeted the urban middle class audience. Later he broadbased it to include the rural middle class. He tactfully used caste relations and equations to reach out to them. One thing was clear: he did not specifically target the rural poor. The class and caste composition of his target group could be discerned from the percentage of votes Modi polled.

What should Sonia Gandhi as the President of the party have done? Before delving into this we ought to look into what she has done so far. Except for acknowledging the defeat Sonia and Rahul have done nothing to own up their responsibi-lities. The response of Sonia Gandhi should have been directly proportionate to the magnitude of the defeat. Attempts were made to find some scapegoats. But this was unfair. However, the Congress did admit disconnect with the people and said the party needed to introspect and rework its strategy. The party tried to hide behind the façade of Muzaffarnagar riots stating that such violence led to communal polarisation in Uttar Pradesh with a split in the Dalit and backward votes helping the BJP. But this was a simplistic justification. The Congress must accept the truth that it had to face this humiliation due to its lack of political and strategic foresight. They ought to realise that since Modi aspired to become the Prime Minister, obviously he would use all the available opportunities to strengthen his position. The Congress must answer as to why it failed. Its performance in Uttar Pradesh showed that the ‘charisma’ of the first family of the party was fast fading. Why did it happen?

The BJP declared “the start of a new era” in the world’s biggest democracy as the Congress conceded defeat in the elections. The fact remains that the Congress without the Gandhi-Nehru family cannot survive. In the past attempts were made by leaders like Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh and Narayan Dutt Tiwari but all of them miserably failed. Their groupings could not even make the rank-and-file move. When the Congress was in disarray in the late 1990s, their last ploy was to use the charisma of the Gandhi family to recover. And the trick worked to the extent that they came back to power within six years, and managed to hold on to it for the next 10 years. However, this time the campaign run by Modi was focused on destroying the ‘halo’ surrounding the Gandhis.

Sonia Gandhi has been in the Lok Sabha for nearly ten years. But her contribution to the proceedings of the House has been quite negligible. Simply her pedigree of the Nehru-Gandhi family helped her shine. The less one speaks of Rahul the better. He made some occasional outbursts but those failed to provide any directive to the government and help streng-then the ideological moorings of the party. Sonia too remained confined to backroom politics and never tried to evolve a new concept approach to the Congress ideology. There is a general pre-sumption that the Congress as such has no ideology. But this presumption is wrong. No doubt by virtue of being in power and a party owned by the first family of India, it played a crucial role in Indian politics. At the same time, the fact cannot be denied that the Congress represents and reflects the Centrist psyche and character of the country. The Congress has been the political organ of the liberal bourgeoisie and democrats following the Left-of-Centre political line. Its primary target group and support base has been the poor and marginalised sections of the society.

Sonia Gandhi had to spell out the strategy: how can the Congress reform? Any vibrant political outfit reshapes and changes its approach and ideological contour suited to the changing times. But no such initiative was taken by the Congress leadership. Though globalisation and reforms were introduced in India in the late eighties, and specifically in 1991, the Congress leadership preferred to follow the socialist mode of politics and programmes as it felt that the rural people still deserve preferential treatment. Though it helped the Congress gain power in 2004 and again in 2009, this time the party was not lucky enough. There were certain very important reasons and factors. Neither Sonia Gandhi nor the collective Congress leaders ever thought of giving a new shape and colour to the ideology in the background of the changing global scenario and precisely during the phase of reforms and liberalisation in India. In its desperation to have both the worlds, the Congress continued to project Manmohan Singh as the reforms face of the party and brought in Rahul Gandhi as the socialist crusader to keep afloat its concern for the rural people. In the process the Congress failed to do justice to reforms and also could not project itself as the protector of the marginalised people. In its eagerness to espouse the cause of the poor, Rahul even roughed up Singh. His famous remark on the Bill to protect corrupt politicians was primarily that; but while it failed to win over the trust of the urban middle class, it did not find takers in the rural people as well.

There is no denying the fact that the Congress had to dearly pay for distancing itself from the programmes and policies of Singh and launching a parallel political initiative of socialistic programmes. This proved suicidal. The Rahul campaign was more mechanical and failed to catch the imagination and aspirations of the people. He failed to carry the message to the masses. Under him the Congress stood alienated from its core support-base. The manner in which he insulted Singh did not go down well with the people. It proved to be the proverbial last nail in the coffin. Rahul was projected as the wisest person in the Congress. This was the blunder committed by the leadership. His style of functioning was alien to the rural people and they failed to connect with him. He was focusing on the rural poor. But his style and stance failed to inspire. Though the Congress did not project him as the prime ministerial candidate, people in their own imagination put him side by side with Modi. Did the Congress ever realise why he failed to carry the rural poor, the Dalit, the marginalised along with him? One thing is absolutely clear: Rahul and his group of advisers were many steps behind Modi. They did not match his strategy and tactics. They did not know how to counter Modi. This ambivalence primarily owed to the political and ideological confusion that gripped the party.

There is little doubt that the Congress had to pay for its ambivalent approach on reforms. It is an irony that in its confusion the party could identify itself neither with the rural poor nor the urban middle class. The party turned suspect in the eyes of both these sections. It lost the trust and confidence of both the sections. The manner in which the Food Security Act was derided provided an insight into the attitude of the urban middle class towards the Congress. For them, the Congress has lost its relevance as it was not eager to push reforms. The rural poor also turned skeptical of the Congress approach. After the Jaipur chintan shivir an impression gained that the party was shifting its loyalty to the urban middle class. The rural people looked at its actions and programmes with suspicion. Now in the changed situation the Congress would have to spell out its priorities and also identify its core base. The Congress leadership could not abdicate its responsibility for the failure to carry forward the process of reforms. Singh was left to look after it as if this was his baby.

With the bourgeoning middle class and youth constituting 25 per cent of the population, there is an imperative need for projecting a young leadership. But this is not enough. The party must encourage State satraps and repose its trust in them. In the past they have been the party’s main source of strength. They started losing their position in the party during the reign of Indira Gandhi. Their place was taken over by a coterie at the national level who had no roots in their respective States. It is nevertheless imperative that the panel must focus on the humiliation inflicted on Manmohan Singh while he was the Prime Minister, and also look into the compulsion for pursuing two divergent political lines.

Little doubt the rhetoric of the economic reforms dictated the election results. Modi, well- supported by the corporate sector, played on the psyche of the middle class. The most signifi-cant development that was visible during the campaign was that the BJP did not insist on making the growth inclusive. The Congress has to decide which path to follow. No doubt it cannot abdicate the reforms; it must make its priorities clear and distinct. On completion of 30 days in office Narendra Modi rued that he did not have the luxury of a ‘honeymoon’ period as a “series of allegations” were levelled against his government in less than 100 hours. But he ought to have remembered that after the formation of the Congress-led UPA Government in 2004, the defeated BJP under the stewardship of L.K. Advani was on the warpath from day one and did not allow Parliament to transact any business in the maiden session of the new Parliament. 

The author, a senior journalist based in Kolkata, can be contacted at sriv@gmail.com