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Rahul's coronation spells rightward shift
Publication Date : 31-01-2013
Rahul Gandhi's elevation as Congress vice-president was an organisational non-event. He was already functioning as its Number Two, and destined to succeed his mother. The appointment's significance is political.
The Congress, after its chintan shivir (contemplation camp) in Jaipur, decided to project Rahul Gandhi as its mascot in the next general election. Second, the thinking of Gandhi confidants (called "second-edition baba log" because of their elite backgrounds) found an unmistakable expression in speeches at Jaipur. Ironically, Sonia Gandhi's speech contained the clearest expression.
Rahul reflected on the limitations of India's political system and mediocrity in governance. He also tugged at emotions by talking about his personal trauma at the killing of his grandmother by the guards who had taught him to play badminton.
However, it's Sonia who asked the Congress to reach out to the upper middle classes, which represent "the new changing India…increasingly peopled by a younger, more aspirational, more impatient, more demanding and better educated generation."
India's youth, she added, "wants its voice to be heard…Aided by … social media, mobile phones and the Internet, today's India is better informed… We cannot allow growing educated middle classes to be alienated from the political process".
This position was originally drafted by Rahul's team to distance him from Sonia Gandhi's "Left-of-Centre orientation". Rahul also ensured that half the Jaipur invitees were from the Youth Congress.
This line was faithfully reflected in the 56-point Declaration, which promises "new opportunities" for the "rising educated and aspirational middle class". It defines the Congress's primary constituency not as poor, marginalised Dalits, Adivasis, religious minorities, etc, but more vaguely: it speaks for both "young middle-class India" and "young deprived India".
The Declaration exhorts the Congress to adopt a platform of "nationalism, social justice, economic growth for all—especially the aam aadmi (common people) and the middle class—and secularism".
"Middle class" is a misnomer in India. In the West, the middle class earns close to society's median income and forms two-thirds of the population. But in India the term connotes a much richer, narrower group. Even including all income-tax-payers and vehicle-owners, this upper crust forms only 10-15 per cent of the population—indisputably, the elite.
Why has the Congress executed this shift? First, it's worried that if it ignores the elite, it may do badly in the cities -- where the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance did well in 2009. Second, the Congress is buying into the "aspirational" discourse promoted by the media. Third, it's moving further away from redistribution.
These reasons are questionable. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won 81 out of 144 urban seats (a 56 per cent strike-rate), compared to 147 of 342 rural seats (43 per cent). It made a clean sweep of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad.
But the Congress's story is different. Its urban strike-rate was 10 percentage-points lower than the UPA's and unevenly spread. Most of its urban votes probably came from the poor and lower middle class, not the upper middle class.
It would be foolish for the Congress to chase that class just because it became vocal in recent anti-corruption and anti-rape mobilisations. The Congress should have taken a clear stand on corruption. It shouldn't have been defensive about its government's handling of the anti-rape protests. But that doesn't mean that it should have wooed the upper middle class.
Second, much recent theorising about this class is wrong. It incorrectly argues that high aspirations uniformly bind India: While the "old" aam aadmi wants "patronage", the new middle class-mediated variant wants prosperity through "entrepreneurship;" the first spells the confrontational "politics of grievance", the second the inclusive "politics of aspiration".
This minimises India's income, wealth and urban-rural disparities, and exaggerates the trickle-down effect of skewed, inequality-enhancing growth. It underrates people's demand for basic public services, including healthcare, education, food security and employment. This demand is part of the democratic entitlement of all citizens to a decent life.
Finally, the Congress upper middle class shift reflects Rahul Gandhi's conservative belief in "growth-first" or GDPism: poverty reduction demands rapid growth, not redistribution. Growth will increase the state's revenues, with which it can fund welfare, preferably through direct cash transfers. This would obviate universal healthcare or food security, leave alone land reforms, or higher taxes on the rich.
The UPA's tax revenues have grown fourfold since 2004, but it has spent them to subsidise the rich, not empower the poor. Under neoliberal policies, which India has followed since 1991, corporations control investment. They pursue profit, not public welfare. So the basic growth process remains skewed, perpetuating mass poverty, and further increasing inequalities, which are already obscene in India.
That was India's experience during the past two high-growth decades. The UPA half-heartedly tried to correct this through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, food security laws, and other measures proposed by the National Advisory Council (NAC). But Sonia Gandhi allowed the NAC's recommendations to be overturned or diluted, and changed its composition.
At Jaipur, she embraced the "growth-first" perspective plus an obsessive emphasis on the upper middle class. This is likely to be a tragedy for the party, whose base among the broad, poor masses (barring Adivasis and Muslims) has shrunk greatly and is no wider than its 28 per cent vote-share in the general population.
Although it still enjoys a higher vote-share and a broader base than the BJP, the Congress has ceased being an agenda-laying party. It rules on its own only in Andhra, Rajasthan, Assam, Haryana, Himachal, Delhi, Uttarakhand and Manipur, and in coalitions in Maharashtra, Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir. It's insignificant in major states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.
The Congress could have regained some lost ground had it returned to a pro-poor agenda. Instead, it has moved in the opposite direction.
Rahul Gandhi's strategy for reviving party organisation via the Youth Congress route has failed. As did his election campaigns in UP and Bihar. His upper middle class-based mobilisation strategy could well meet the same fate.
The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.