After I finished reading the 55-page Congress manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, I suddenly remembered a scene in the famous political satire British sitcom, ‘Yes Prime Minister’.
It was set in the days before the budget and the Finance Secretary of England was telling the secretary of the Prime Minister to try and convince the Prime Minister to rethink the budget. The Finance Secretary argued that so many populist measures were, simply, bad – that the economy couldn’t afford such subsidies. The secretary to the PM replied, ‘But you know that politicians love to be popular’ and said that he wouldn’t be willing to accept any submissions. The exchange went on, with the Finance Secretary saying that he understood, that “everybody loves sugar coated things” but that they had a responsibility to tell the Prime Minister that sugar isn’t good for diabetic patients.
I saw the sitcom years ago, so there might be some inaccuracies in this. But the basic theme is correct. Sugar tastes great – but can be life-threatening. In our country, the same principles apply, especially at the time of elections. You have to go for ‘dole politics’ and every politician has to transform into ‘Data Karna’ for the poor. What is prudent for the welfare of the country? That question becomes far less relevant. The main lookout: the image of the party and that of its leader, as ‘pro-poor’.
With elections, comes the time of competitive populism and the latest Congress manifesto is no different, crossing all previous boundaries. Rahul Gandhi wants to project himself as Santa Claus for the upcoming elections, with an assortment of promises for just about everyone. The larger aim: Rahul Gandhi wants to construct a counter-narrative of social justice to the Indian poor and the common people of India, in contrast to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s narrative of a strong Hindu nation.
The Congress manifesto says there should be a separate budget former. Rahul Gandhi says that the NYAY scheme will be his priority and that it will file 22 lakh vacancies by March 2020. In doing so, he is also selling dreams without any practical way out. The signs of populism become abundantly clear when one looks at the Congress manifesto that promises 150 days of guaranteed work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Act, as opposed to the previous 100. It adds that it will eliminate poverty by 2030 through NYAY.
The head of the manifesto committee, P. Chidambaram announced that the manifesto will set the narrative for the upcoming polls. But is that really the case? My personal opinion is that even now, Rahul Gandhi and his assurances still don’t have the same kind of mass acceptance.
If we go back five years and think about 2014 – we see the role of Narendra Modi as the main opposition leader. The whole situation was akin to a superhero movie’s much-awaited arrival in a crucial juncture. For Modi, too, things have changed – 2014 was then and 2019 can’t be the same. But can Narendra Modi in 2014 be compared to Rahul Gandhi in 2019? Does the latter have the same kind of brand equity, does he give rise to a comparable sense of optimism in people. Do the people of India, today, trust Rahul Gandhi for the fulfillment of their aspirations?
The Congress held press conferences in 22 different places of the country at the same time. But what is the impact and influence of that? Things have changed for Narendra Modi. It is a law of nature that discontent of the people will grow with time. No one has clear political skies forever. Nehru, as the Prime Minister, used to write letters to all the chief ministers and argue that the main problem of our country is price rise, inflation, and corruption. In 2019, we are still combating the same problems and raising the same issues during elections.
Rahul Gandhi has a major problem, that of the huge baggage that he comes with that is a product of history and not his doing in any way. The Gandhi family has ruled this country for several decades. In the last five years, and even before that, the BJP has established a political narrative that Nehru and Congress family’s legacy is responsible for a weak poor nation. Instead, Modi has put forward the narrative of a ‘strong nation with a strong leader’, with himself at its helm.
During these elections, the Congress and several regional parties have to come to an understanding, a pre-poll understanding and if that isn’t the case, then there can’t be a post-poll coalition. Rahul is also more active today than he was earlier. In 2014, the general media perception was that Rahul Gandhi was a ‘Pappu’. This, he has largely been able to change and now comes across a more mature and active person.
But the Pulwama attack and the Balakot strike have changed the entire mileu, the whole nation was captured by the national sentiments and the BJP has successfully used that nationalist sentiment. Rahul Gandhi thought election agenda will be poverty, joblessness and the problem of farmers and Dalits. Instead, ‘anti-Pakistan’ sentiment is a major issue now. Especially in the Hindi-heartland.
With the manifesto, Rahul Gandhi is attempting to revive his old issue, an anti-Modi campaign based on social justice and socio-economic issues of Indian voters. Basically, the battle is now between the nationalist rhetoric of strong Hindutva and a stable state under the leadership of Narendra Modi versus justice for the poor, the farmers and the stressed middle classes.
But in their bid to challenge Modi’s strong nationalist pitch, I think that the economic fantasies of the Congress manifesto might prove counterproductive. Actually, the whole economic situation in the world is bad, the whole world is suffering from poor economic growth, price rise, inflation, unemployment, and poverty. As a result, the United States, and almost all of Europe is becoming increasingly nationalistic. In jest, but only just so, it can be argued that these countries are also following the conservative, swadeshi approach of the RSS.
Why are they all against the immigration of foreigners? Why are they no longer liberal about the H-1 visa? Why are they not welcoming international students like in the past? The pressure on the economy is a global phenomenon and the Indian economy can’t be isolated.
Consider the promises if Rahul Gandhi is to become PM: jobs for the jobless, no crisis for farmers and an increased MSP for them, but at the same time prices of household goods derived from these agricultural products will not increase. Is this all possible? Rahul Gandhi is not a magician and neither is Narendra Modi. It will boil down to who the people of India trust more. In 2014 it was Narendra Modi and today Rahul Gandhi still doesn’t have the same kind of acceptability.
Congress’s major problem is that there is no mahagathbandhan – no common minimum program, no joint action plan. At this critical juncture of Indian politics, you need strong direction. Modi has also accommodated economic populism in the last five years. What Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya had hoped to see in Narendra Modi – a strong, hard reformer – wasn’t to be.
But Modi and his team realized that in a vast country like India, you need a middle path. So Modi also followed the model of reform with a human face. Soon setting dreams, for the poor before elections, there is nothing new. “Ye public hai, ye sab janti hai” – the advantage that Modi has is his vision of a strong country, the idea that if one has to survive in today’s day, the country needs a strong leader.