If the year 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the Bharatiya Janata Party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not a party of governance. It has grossly mismanaged every aspect of the coronavirus crisis: the humanitarian aspect — migrant worker crisis; the economic aspect — India is facing its worst recession since independence, and of course, the public health aspect.
Yet, there is no sign that voters are flocking back to the Congress party. What is the alternative, people ask? If the Congress had sharper leadership, it would have taken this opportunity to project itself as India’s natural party of governance, creating a wave of nostalgia for the ‘Congress years’. But it has singularly failed to do so because, beyond attacking Modi for his governance failures, it has not made clear its alternative model of governance.
And, no, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s vague homilies of ‘empowering the poor’ do not constitute an alternative model.
The Congress model of governance
The Congress already has a powerful alternative model — the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) era. But it shirks and hides from its own robust record of governance. It has ceded the centre-ground of governance to Modi, and relegated itself as a Leftist ‘party of pressure’.
There is a reason the BJP spends more time attacking the Congress’ record on governance than trumpeting its own modest achievements, even six years into its rule. The BJP has correctly calculated that as long as they sustain this myth, in popular consciousness, of the UPA period being a disastrous phase of corruption, policy paralysis and economic stagnation, it can prevent the Congress from emerging as a credible alternative.
And, astonishingly, what aids the perpetuation of this myth is the passivity of the Congress in defending its record. The shadow of the Gandhi family has almost completely obscured UPA’s governance achievements.
An image problem
Since Rahul Gandhi was not a part of the UPA government, the Congress leadership only owns and proclaims that part of the UPA record (NREGA, RTI, etc.) which can be claimed to be part of family benevolence.
The main leaders of the UPA have either become old or politically inactive (Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, A.K. Antony), or do not have widespread influence to reshape popular perceptions (Anand Sharma, Jairam Ramesh, etc.), or are mired in corruption charges (P. Chidambaram). Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi’s fashioning of the Congress as an ‘anti-establishment’ party looking to shake up the system and empower the grassroots doesn’t find any takers because Congress’ legacy of six decades of rule and Rahul’s own image are emblems of quintessential ‘insider’ privilege.
When was the last time you saw Rahul Gandhi hail the double-digit economic growth the country saw during the UPA years? Or talk about how under the UPA government, India’s exports went from $5 billion a month to $25 billion a month, at which level it has stayed for the last six years? (See graph)
Or that poverty declined by a dramatic 2.18 per cent every year under the ten years of the UPA, compared to the 0.74 per cent in the five years preceding it? Or that the average growth rate of car sales was double of what it has been under six years of the Modi government. Or that, similarly, motorcycle sales were more than double, and tractor sales were four times more during the UPA years?
How about the manifold expansion of the middle classes under the UPA, owing to rapidly rising incomes and asset prices? And the fact that the CSO data released in 2018, before it was bizarrely fudged, revealed that the economy under both UPA terms (10-year average: 8.1 per cent) outperformed the Modi government (average: 7.3 per cent)?
You can’t blame the public for not knowing these facts if the Congress never publicises them.
Congress’ lack of perception control
Consider this fact: in case after case that delegitimised the Congress from 2010-14 (2G scam, Coalgate etc), the judiciary has not convicted a single Congress leader of the UPA 2 government. Moreover, the judiciary has found no evidence of a massive scam, let alone the wild figures of lakhs of crores that were the figments of the imagination of a partisan CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General), who later cozied up to Modi and was duly awarded a lucrative sinecure. Yet, in public perception, the UPA years have come to be symbolic of a period of massive corruption unprecedented in India’s history, simply because the Congress has not made any efforts to reshape that perception. Unlike Modi, who went to town bandying around his ‘clean chit from the SC’ on the 2002 Gujarat riots, no Congress leader has ever publicised the fact that these judgments exonerated the party.
The main reason the Congress party needs to project itself as a centrist party of governance, rather than a Leftist party of pressure, is because that is the only way it can win back the middle-classes. The Congress has never come to power without the support of the middle-classes. Even in the 2004 elections, where the Congress victory was purely ascribed to the votes of the poor, the middle-classes supported it more than the BJP (see table).
The Congress coalition had swept metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad, while some of the poorest areas in Odisha and Chhattisgarh had voted for the BJP. This wasn’t mere coincidence. In its 2004 manifesto, the Congress claimed the creation of the middle-class was its biggest achievement. And as Jairam Ramesh has noted, the Congress subtly changed its slogan from ‘Congress ka haath gareebon ke saath’ to ‘Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath’.
But what was Congress’ 2019 campaign pitch for the middle-classes? It’s hard to come up with an answer. Even the Congress manifesto was relatively silent on the middle-classes, as Arun Jaitley had noted at the time. At the same time, its NYAY scheme, on which Rahul Gandhi centred the party’s campaign, further alienated the middle-classes, while spectacularly failing to help its cause with the poor.
If Rahul Gandhi thinks a coalition of the urban and rural poor could spontaneously arise without needing the middle-classes, he is living in a fantasy world. The middle-classes are critical opinion influencers who shape the ‘hawa’ (atmosphere) in favour of a party, which leads to other groups joining the coalition. This is what happened in 2012, when the middle-classes created the ‘hawa’ in favour of Modi and against the Congress. By 2014, this had become a tsunami, with all classes rallying behind Modi.
Even historically, the Congress’ coalition of the poor — Dalits, Muslims, and dominant castes in rural areas — was glued together by the ideological grounding provided by the midde-classes. These were the classes that were at the centre of Nehru’s state-led development model, and legitimised the Nehruvian consensus.
If anything, the role of the midde-classes in Indian politics has increased further over the last ten years. Not only has the size of the class expanded dramatically, along with a spike in their rates of voter turnout, their ideological role has also perhaps gained even more significance.
In the book Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India (2018), authors Rahul Verma and Pradeep Chhibber place the middle-class at the centre of Modi’s ideological coalition. Using election surveys, the book demonstrates the emergence of a large cohort of ‘economically right-leaning’ voters, driven by the expansion in the middle-class, who had overwhelmingly supported Modi. “According to some estimates, the size of the Indian middle-class grew five-fold in the last ten years and is currently around 250 million people. This demographic shift is significant because middle-class voters are more likely to be aware of the discourse around state regulations and thwarted business development,” they wrote.
Even when the middle-classes stopped supporting the Congress in 2014, there was no marked dissatisfaction with the overall nature of the economy. In a 2014 Lokniti NES survey, which asked the middle-class about their views on the state of the national economy compared to five years back, 44 per cent of the respondents said it was better or much better off, 25 per cent said it was worse or much worse off, while 23 per cent said they felt it was the same.
The Congress, unlike its response to issues of national security and corruption, has not completely lost ownership of economic issues to the BJP, on which they can base their political pitch.
An old Congress slogan comes to mind — ‘poore desh se naata hai desh chalana aata hai’ (The party has a connection with every section of society, and knows how to govern the country). The Congress needs to keep reminding voters of that image. It has certainly lost a lot of ground on cultural issues, where the BJP’s politics of majoritarianism is the new ideological consensus, as Chhibber and Verma point out. But what it can do is appeal to the material self-interests of people, and shape their perception on how to view the Congress as the original and authentic party of ‘good governance’ and ‘acche din’ (good days).
Since Rahul Gandhi’s new hobby is to make videos these days, he can start by making one about the many remarkable achievements of the UPA.
The author is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal.