The challenges before the Congress and hence for other members of its emerging “secular” front are in political strategy and economic policy. It cannot appear to be a clone of the Bharatiya Janata Party-National Democratic Alliance in terms of policy. At the same time, it cannot alienate the middle classes which have bought every element of their policy package. This package has four principal elements: national security, foreign relations, domestic policies and the economy.
National security policy included enhancing military power through acquiring nuclear muscle, increasing the military budget to enhance air capability, achieving a blue water navy and increasing the rapid response capability of the army.
In foreign relations, it involved reframing the country’s foreign policies for the first time since independence by giving up non-alignment and making opportunistic, not moralistic, alliances. Israel is now a close friend; the United States of America is an ardent supporter of democratic India, with its brains, huge markets and rapid economic growth. The intimacy with the Russians has grown under Vladimir Putin. The Burmese generals are no longer untouchables. The border disputes with China over barren Himalayan lands of uncertain ownership are being resolved. Atal Bihari Vajpayee has assiduously wooed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, other nations of southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The South Asian Free Trade Area is now a distinct possibility. The stalling of the World Trade Organization agendas brought a variety of developing nations under India’s leadership. Peace with Pakistan is a top priority, even if it requires giving up the “non-negotiable” position that Kashmir is an integral part of India.
Domestic policies have tried to achieve a fine balance between stoking Hindu “pride” while developing better relations with other communities, and becoming acceptable not only to the Brahmins and the traders but to the Dalits and scheduled castes and tribes. This part of the strategy is wobbly, mainly because of front organizations with Neanderthal members who think nothing of looting, killing and raping members of other communities. But other communities’ fears may have been raised to such a pitch that they might accept a compromise that satisfies the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and others of their kind.
The BJP-NDA needs Vajpayee as prime minister to resolve this and to ensure that Indians look for indigenous rather than foreign-born leadership. Law and order has deteriorated in the cities and other urban areas and upper caste violence in north India is a serious concern. Domestic policies are the weakest link for the BJP-NDA.
The Congress and its allies cannot credibly contradict these policies. Indira Gandhi started the nuclear weapons and missiles programmes. Rajiv Gandhi wanted to do all the things Vajpayee has done — breaking away from the stranglehold of Arabs on India’s foreign relations, getting closer to the US and the Western powers without losing Russian friendship and achieving peace with Pakistan. And when it comes to ditching “secularism”, it was Indira Gandhi who made a vote bank of the Muslims, Sikhs and SC/STs, until Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and V.P. Singh with Mandal destroyed the latter two. Rajiv lost both communities through his about-turns on Shah Bano and his subsequent attempt to mollify the Hindus with concessions on Hindu worship in the Babri Masjid area.
The Congress, like the other parties, knows that it needs Hindu votes to get a respectable number of seats in Parliament. The challenge for the Congress is to convey that by being “secular” they are not being anti-Hindu. The BJP has trapped them.
The one plank that the Congress can push is the breakdown of urban law and order, the rise in violent crime and inter-caste violence. Given the dependence on criminal and casteist elements by the Congress and its allies, it is doubtful if this plank can be credibly pushed.
What is wide open is the fourth element in the BJP-NDA policy package, the economy. Everyone agrees that the “feel-good” factor is an urban phenomenon. But the Congress will be making a mistake if it attacks the “India shining” platform. In 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi attacked the opposition parties with a lurid campaign exaggerating the violence and venality that he claimed had developed under them, he put off voters enough to lose the Congress the election.
The middle class, especially in the urban areas, is happy with the economic situation. Low interest rates and easy borrowing enable almost anyone to own his own home with a refrigerator, television set, sound system, washing machine, drawing room furniture and even a car and a microwave. The ones lower down the ladder have begun to emulate them with cheaper products or aspire to do so. Neither beneficiaries nor aspirants want to lose this.
The Congress should take credit for this feel-good situation. It started the process. So did Congressmen who left to join the Janata Party and are now back in alliance with the Congress (P. Chidambaram, I.K. Gujral, Sharad Pawar and so on) who pursued the policies in subsequent non-Congress governments. The Congress must accept that P.V. Narasimha Rao did a good job and that the ex-Congressmen were pursuing a Congress agenda.
At the same time, the Congress can point out that the BJP-NDA has not stuck to Rao’s “middle path”. As a result, unemployment in the Nineties over the Eighties has risen (almost doubled), the population below the poverty line is 320 million, large numbers of small-scale units have closed, the aged and retired are finding their savings grossly inadequate, healthcare quality has not only declined for the poor but become very expensive and the quality, availability and cost of education (especially higher and professional education) have all deteriorated for the poor. This is an agenda that goes beyond caste and can attract many constitutencies.
Can the Congress pull off this combination of being soft on “shining” and hard on poverty' Unlikely, given that their allies include the communists, confused ex-socialists like V.P .Singh and believers in reforms like M. Karunanidhi.
The “secular” alliance needs to have a common programme and an ideology. It must accept that the clock has not stood still. Ten years of non-Congress rule have changed the mood of the people. They want power, roads, water, houses, employment, education for their children and health care. If the “secular alliance” can promise that it will bring these about and declares how it will do it, it may have a better chance in the elections. This is without examining the stability of an alliance whose leadership will be bitterly fought over after the elections. But without such a programme there may be no leadership to fight over.