Job creation, revamp of the education system and making India the global hub of health care are the three goals which Rahul Gandhi has set for a “new, shining” Congress.
It is too early to say whether his hope of being in a position to fulfil these promises, which were revealed at a convention of NRIs in Bahrain recently, will come true. But to the Congress party, Rahul’s objectives denote a shift from the policies that may have led to its downfall in 2014.
The leitmotiv of those policies, which were the handiwork of the Left-leaning National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by then Congress president Sonia Gandhi, was populism, which cared little for either fiscal discipline or for being in tune with the economic reforms introduced in 1991 and continued by Manmohan Singh from 2004. Nothing exemplified the absence of monetary restraint more than Sonia’s pet project of food security, which aimed at providing subsidised food to an estimated 67 per cent of the population at an annual cost of $21 billion (Dh77.23 billion) a year. There were other such profligate initiatives as well, including the rural employment programme, which were ostensibly targeted at the poor.
But they didn’t help the party. Instead, the voters turned from the lure of doles and freebies to the prospect of employment promised by Narendra Modi. The age of subsidies provided by a paternalistic government was over. If Rahul has understood this, it is all to the good. What his emphasis on job creation, among others, shows is a welcome change of focus from his mother’s socialistic approach (which she appears to have learnt from former Indian prime minister and her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi) to an encouragement of free enterprise, which will boost growth, which was a dirty word for the NAC’s Aruna Roy who lamented Manmohan’s preoccupation with economic development rather than with welfare measures. It was the objection of crypto-Communists like her that made the government of the time take its “foot off the accelerator of reforms”, as former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram subsequently regretted. The Congress is now paying the political cost of that mistake.
Rahul’s task, therefore, is to undo that lapse of judgement. But it will not be easy because his mother is not the only “socialist” in the party. The Congress has always been uneasy about economic reforms as it believed that they benefited only the capitalists. Rahul’s “suit-boot ki sarkar” (a government of and for the capitalists) jibe against the Modi government is a reflection of that mindset.
Yet, if he is interested in reducing unemployment, there is no option but to enlist the support of the suited and booted private sector to increase its share of investment. He will also have to encourage foreign investment. As of now, the Congress chief has not been too forthcoming with his economic views as he is too concerned with countering the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) propaganda against his dynastic lineage and his party’s supposedly pro-Muslim stance.
One reason why he may not have articulated his economic thinking with greater clarity is probably that the Congress will then have to come out virtually endorsing the BJP’s pro-market line with an emphasis on industrial and infrastructural development.
Indeed, there is nowadays little difference in the outlook of the various parties on this score with the earlier focus on a controlled economy with the public sector being perched on the “commanding heights”, to use Indira’s phrase, being replaced by a preference for an open market with the private sector playing a leading role.
From whatever little that Rahul has said so far on the economy, he seems to prefer small and medium industries rather than large ones, apparently because the former can generate more employment than the large, automated factories with their component of robots.
But as long as he steers the Congress away from its 1955 goal of ushering in a “socialistic pattern” of society, he will be a true inheritor of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of an advanced country where dams — standing for industries — will be seen as the “temples of a new India”.
For Nehru’s great grandson, the coming months will provide an opportunity to eradicate the party’s two major mistakes that had enabled the BJP to move from the margins of national politics to centre-stage. These were, first, the Shah Bano episode in the mid-1980s that tended to substantiate the BJP’s charge of Muslim appeasement; and, second, the stalling of economic reforms in the last two years of the Manmohan Singh government, which boosted Modi’s prospects in the 2014 general elections.
Even as Rahul’s temple visits aim at robbing the BJP of its monopolistic claims on Hinduism, he will also have to pick up the pieces that the Congress foolishly let fall from its hands at a time when poverty was being reduced at the fastest-ever rate, as between 2005 and 2006 and 2011 and 2012, by reaffirming the party’s commitment to economic reforms.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst.