The Congress is preparing for early general elections. These are by no means a certainty. Much will hinge on how relations between India and the United States of America shape up by the summer on the controversy-ridden question of the nuclear agreement. It is the party, which is at the heart of the ruling coalition, that has to decide if going to the people early will give it a head-start. If the gamble works, it will return with more elbow room vis-à-vis the allies. If it loses, it will still be the largest opposition grouping.
The loan-waiver and the rural jobs programme were the prime focus of Sonia Gandhi’s rallies. Over the coming weeks, she and her son, Rahul Gandhi, will cover many states as the Congress gets its election machinery into order. It is easy to forget that this will be Sonia Gandhi’s fourth general-election campaign. In 1998, she was the star campaigner; the following year, she staved off a formidable challenge from Sharad Pawar. By 2004, she had stayed the course in steadfast opposition to the Vajpayee government and was well placed to tap into discontent. But the coming polls, whenever they are held, will be a different kind of test altogether. The last time Indians voted on the record of a Congress-led government was in the summer of 1996. Reforms were in to stay, but the party found itself out of favour with the voters.
Sonia Gandhi’s colleagues bank on Rahul’s appeal for bringing in the young voters. Her own centrality lies in holding things together and playing up the slew of programmes and promises for those left behind by economic growth. She has sounded the tocsin, but the battle plan at the regional level is still to take shape. In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is trying to neutralize Mulayam Singh Yadav, easier said than done. Rahul’s travels in Bundelkhand were an effort to reach out to the Dalits and the rural poor. His foray into Kanpur takes up leather-workers’ and traders’ issues.
But the Samajwadi Party as well as the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party have cadre and workers. They can carry their message to the voters at large through the year. The Congress machine, or what is left of it, only springs to life when a family member comes in to rally the workers. A similar picture emerges in several other states. Most so in Madhya Pradesh and in Rajasthan, where internecine battles have hamstrung the Congress. The absence of a clear signal to seasoned hands like Digvijay Singh and Ashok Gehlot may cost the party dear. As in the past, weak regional leaders and a strong high command go well together.
Food-price inflation is a far more critical issue than the ruling alliance admits. The pink press and television channels may ignore the rising prices of two key cereals, rice and wheat, and also of major pulses like urad, arhar and moong. But the spiralling costs since last October will become a major issue. Even the Reserve Bank of India now pegs the wholesale price index at over 5 per cent for three weeks in a row.
Sonia Gandhi’s problem is that the party by which she is empowered also draws its sustenance from her. It is used to having the government, through its executive policies, enlarging, enhancing and maintaining its social base. Over the years, neither seems to be able to achieve such a goal. Rajiv Gandhi anticipated economic reforms, even if in a halting and piecemeal manner. But he lost the central ground to a short-lived, but powerful, alliance of opposition forces. This is a centre ground the Congress has never quite recovered ever since.
P.V. Narasimha Rao, possibly the last under-rated but deeply influential prime minister other than Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, changed the syntax and grammar of the political economy. If the tiger of our economy sprung from its cage, due credit should go to him. Yet, he too failed to arrest and, as with Rajiv Gandhi, in many ways hastened the decline of the party. Faced with an assertive religion-based movement, the veteran floundered just as the new entrant to politics once had.
More seriously, it was around 1991 that a new and ominous trend emerged. As the Economic Survey preceding the recent budget admitted, per-capita cereal consumption began to decline. It has fallen by about 13 per cent in the last 17 years. The decline in the intake of pulses is even steeper — about one third.
It is dangerous to try to work out long-term political trends from economic indices; this may well underlie much of what pollsters label as anti-incumbency. More often than not, it has harmed the Congress, still the country’s largest party. Voters unable to afford better food or nutrition can still resort to the ballot box to vent their ire.
If minorities could only be won over by knitting together an anti-BJP alliance, the poor were wooed with the common-man slogan. It is a sign of the times that Sonia Gandhi could only come within the grasp of power by wooing parties that were, and are, committed to investing the Congress with the status of an also-ran in their respective pocket boroughs. It is even more crucial that other than the glue of being opposed to Hindutva, it is left-wing economics that is the card being played. But this card can only work if it carries conviction with the people at large.
Here, there is a disjuncture between the expectations of the Congress and the ground realities. Parallels with the 1971 Lok Sabha elections are far fetched because the country was sharply polarized then, with the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, adept at setting the political agenda. Deeper ties with the Soviet Union and a chill with Washington DC found their logical corollary in a leftward shift at home.
Today, the Congress is on a more pragmatic course, steering the way for closer ties with the US even as it claws its way back into rural India with its loan waivers and jobs. A confident India as America’s partner and a compassionate government at home are supposed to complement each other. A closer look shows other trends at work. After all, the party has lost eight state-assembly elections in the last 12 months. In running the government, it has put the key family back in command of things. But it is unclear if this has helped to retrieve the ground lost over the last quarter century. Unless they can add to the support base of the shrinking ranks of Congress voters, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi may find voters less forgiving of the shortcomings of a government than of failed promises of change from the Opposition.