By Swapan Dasgupta
The first thing that strikes me about the Lokpal Bill debates in Parliament this month and the discourses on the subject earlier this year is that the Congress has successfully managed to claw back some of its lost political ground. This may not be too apparent to social media enthusiasts or those who have unequivocally put their faith in Anna Hazare’s movement. However, if you contrast the inchoate and contrived smugness of the likes of communications minister Kapil Sibal during the Ramlila Ground fast with the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh actually delivered a rare election speech in the Lok Sabha during the Lokpal debate, it will be possible to appreciate the atmospheric change.
What has contributed to this change isn’t some bright light shining in the horizon. Far from it. Between Independence Day and the year-end, the Indian economy has taken a colossal nosedive, as the experts predicted it would. The GDP growth has slipped below seven per cent, the deficit has crossed all budgetary calculations, the rupee went into free fall in the international currency markets, the statistics of manufacturing were dismal and Indian corporates were making a beeline to invest in anywhere but India. True, there has been a global truncation of the economy but India has fared worse than most emerging economies. The only little ray of hope is that food inflation is coming down and there is even a possibility that interest rates may come down.
The question, therefore, arises: Is politics in India completely unrelated to economics? Why, with such pathetic economic management, do opinion polls show upward signs for the Congress in Uttar Pradesh? Why did the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress together do so well in the municipal polls in Maharashtra? And why does it exude confidence in Uttarakhand and Punjab?
Congress loyalists would undoubtedly attribute the feeling of recovery —and sentiment is a big factor in election time — to the return of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the re-activation of Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi after a longish sabbatical. The perception is unverifiable and relevant only to those who are party activists. For the rest, the impression of Congress recovery has to do with other factors.
The most important of these is the fact that the Congress has done something right by deciding to play the game on the strength of its own agenda. In other words, the party consciously eschewed the battle lines that were sought to be drawn by Team Anna or for that matter the media. The Congress always knew that it would come out second-best or worse if it played the Lokpal game on Team Anna’s agenda. Consequently, it took a deep breath and chose to focus attention on other themes. The Lokpal Bill was crafted in a way that ensured extraneous issues such as religious reservation would get equal attention; the thwarted proposal to secure FDI investment in multi-brand retail bolstered its reformist credentials among a section that had basically written the UPA government off; and the Food Security Bill was packaged as the next biggest garibi hatao initiative after the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The implications of each of these initiatives for the country are serious and sometimes grave. The Food Security Bill in particular is calculated to make an almighty mess of public finances and could have serious consequences for the fiscal deficit. The religion quota in the Lokpal may well reignite sectarian tensions in the country.
It is also possible that both these proposals may meet the same fate as the move to introduce foreign investment in retail. My guess is that the Congress strategists have factored in possible setbacks and aim to turn adversity to advantage in the same way as Indira Gandhi turned the defeat of the Privy Purses Abolition Bill in the Rajya Sabha to her advantage in the 1971 poll. The point to note is that the Congress has secured important talking points with which to enthuse its traditional constituency of the poor and minorities. Three months ago the Congress appeared rudderless. Today, it has issues that can position the party effectively in the battle for votes.
Secondly, the Congress has practised what it has traditionally excelled in: subterfuge. The kerfuffle over Kiran Bedi’s travel expenses, Mr Hazare’s alleged RSS links and the so-called activist orientation of the media may seem trivial. However, they have succeeded in injecting question marks before Mr Hazare’s movement. The media in particular has quietened down considerably since the government floated a trial balloon over regulation and control of the social media.
Finally, the BJP dissipated much of its energies and organisational resources in bolstering L.K. Advani’s well-meaning but purposeless Jan Chetna Yatra. The unending focus on the party’s succession battles may well be contrived and premature. But it has served to highlight the fact that the party has not been able to mount any effective agitational programme that galvanises its core constituency. Indeed, by overplaying its opposition to reforms in the retail sector the BJP made itself suspect in the eyes of the urban middle classes who are its natural supporters. The Congress has always gone into battle with an eye on its core support base; the BJP on the other hand has been far too reactive and inclined to fight battles away from its home turf. As of now the party looks like under-performing in Uttar Pradesh because it has no clear focus or a credible leadership. The Congress appears better placed than it actually is.