Cong's pro-poor initiatives will hold it in good stead

In the changed political dynamics, the Congress needs to send a wider message to the secular polity ahead of the 2014 general election.

Setting its sights on the 2014 elections, the Congress has scripted a major organisational revamp. The party reorganisation is substantial and certainly more significant than the cabinet reshuffle. The Congress now has 42 secretaries, while the Congress Working Committee has been given a makeover even while it is being used as a parking ground for those who could not be appointed ministers or chief ministers. All these are significant changes but they do not add up to a strategy for winning the next election or transformation of the party. Party reorganisation still relies on the old guard and the old faithful to rally the party and government.

Growing anti-incumbency, inflation, and governance problems have alienated people from UPA II, compounded by the government’s failure to deliver on growth or welfare. Cracks appeared against the backdrop of the economic slump and since then unprecedented scams and crises have cropped up with alarming regularity - all under the watch of the prime minister and with him evidently doing not enough to rein in erring colleagues.

While Manmohan Singh’s personal integrity is above reproach, the heat of the probes into the coal and 2G scams have reached dangerously close to the PMO. Making things more difficult is the inability of UPA II to communicate and engage with the people and put its point across. The Congress cannot afford to maintain a strategic silence on important issues as its top leaders have done in the past four years.

Fails to capitalise

As the country heads for the next general election, the question is whether Congress is prepared to face the challenges arising out of a crisis of credibility and inaction that plague the government. One of the basic issues with this government is that it does not seem to have a vision. For the past four years it has muddled through without any clear direction. UPA was re-elected in the 2009 parliamentary election largely because of the success of its social welfare agenda and because it was able to strike a balance between growth and equity.

UPA I set off a paradigm shift with the introduction of a rights-based entitlement approach which the Congress can justly claim as its major achievement. The controversies surrounding UPA II seem to have overshadowed the good work it has done under UPA I and initiatives such as the Right to Education and whatever else it has done under UPA II. But Congress has failed to capitalise on the new development schemes it has introduced during this period.

Coalition politics has come to stay. As an alliance, the UPA is in a much better position than the NDA; it is a larger grouping comprising nearly a dozen parties.

However, in the past two years its support has dwindled, as two key allies - the DMK and the Trinamool Congress - have left the ruling alliance. But the BJP has been losing allies at a faster rate and all of them cite Gujarat violence of 2002 as the reason for severing ties with the BJP. The departure of the JD (U) is the latest which has reduced the NDA to an alliance of three sectarian parties. This has led to the isolation of the BJP and thwarted its plans to build alliances to come to power.

The UPA’s present as well as former partners like the Trinamool Congress are wary of moving too close to the BJP. Yet, the UPA has been condescending with its allies when it should have been taking them into confidence. It has failed to evolve ground rules for coordination based on an acceptable code of conduct and agenda guided by a vision and a common minimum programme.

Short term needs

The elevation of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s campaign chief and de facto prime ministerial candidate has suddenly changed the political dynamics. In the new situation the Congress needs to send a wider message to the secular polity ahead of the 2014 general election. There is no scope for ideological ambiguity in the face of communitarian polarisation triggered by Modi's elevation. But at the same time, when urban India is witnessing rapid social and political change and new forms of mobilisation, the Congress will have to relocate the message within the larger prism of social welfare and justice.

Unlike parties which are based on caste or other identities and, therefore, have assured support which they can call their own, Congress has to cast around for support. More than ever before the Congress has to centre its politics on welfare and social legislation. In the short term, it needs to reduce inflation and pass social welfare measures in favour of the poor.

Currently, the big problem facing the Congress is that it has nothing to sell to the people. Real issues around development like food, health, housing, employment and poverty have to be addressed on a priority basis.

It has to find ways of combating debilitating inequality in India and adopt more inclusive politics and economics and not just talk about it. Congress looks at the food security and land acquisition legislations as ‘game-changing’, especially the former, on which the next elections can be fought, but it has taken too long to introduce it.

The Food Security Bill is likely to be pushed during the monsoon session, and failing passage, it may be notified as an ordinance, even though many provisions of food security cannot be implemented through an ordinance. Whatever it does, the larger point the Congress is pursuing is the perception that they have taken pro-poor initiatives. This will help to recover some lost ground and hold the party in good stead in 2014 elections.

The writer is Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the author of the book Congress After Indira: Policy, Power, Political Change (1984-2009).

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