Some Congress people are using this 30 June 2012 National Interest to counter my doubts over NYAY. They should read it again.
Warning: It told them two years ahead that this self-pitying povertarianism will bring them below three figures in 2014. And I had still under-estimated. They ended up with 44.
The electoral politics of the last two years has made one thing clear: You no longer win elections in India by reminding people how awfully rotten their fate is. Particularly when you are an incumbent and your party has been governing them most of the time.
This young, aware India is aspirational, impatient and unforgiving. This is no longer a country of Meena Kumaris. Those of my vintage will know what this means. But to put it in context for the younger readers, Meena Kumari was the tragedy queen of the 1960s, and the entire theatre broke out in tears the moment she appeared on screen. Our mothers would tell us in those days to take two handkerchiefs if we were going to watch a Meena Kumari film.
At some point at the turn of the century, I would even say, in the wake of the Kargil turnaround, the new generation of Indians dumped that negative, defeatist, self-pitying, ‘kasam tumhari main ro padungi’ attitude.
This new mood was then fuelled by a decade of rising growth, increased global respect for the Indian passport, a renaissance of sorts that touched everything, from art and literature, to cinema and sports, and, most importantly, ushered in the EMI culture among the middle class.
It was at this precise point that the Congress, in power, decided to change the script, telling the people of India how badly they were faring and how they had been betrayed by their rulers all these decades. So badly, that two Indias had come into being, one shining and one declining. And so, something had to give.
The strategy guaranteed not merely defeat in subsequent state elections, but also destroyed from within a government that had achieved a feat not seen in nearly four decades, of an incumbent at the Centre winning back power after serving a full term.
It broke the virtuous momentum that both the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and India had been riding since 2004. Suddenly, growth was a four-letter word, entrepreneurs were all crooks and crony capitalists, and all Indians, besides the rotten billionaires and millionaires, were starving, malnourished or, at best, menial, migrant labourers in the metros.
In short, we were being told by the very people an India riding optimism had re-elected that we were back to our “reality”, a country of Meena Kumaris.
That this self-destructive backward march has ensured the Congress party’s rout in most state elections lately is not the issue. This is a democracy, voters have choices, and someone or the other will be elected to rule us. The damage it did was to India, its economy, its pride, to the national mood and self-esteem, or ‘The India Story’.
Every reformist move was blocked by opposition from within the party. Its top leaders stopped having any contact with the modernising, entrepreneurial, job-creating India. They thought they did not need it. Because, in their new, post-2009, wisdom, India’s real job-creators were the district collectors distributing the miserable MGNREGA (NREGA until 2009, when it was renamed after Mahatma Gandhi) largesse.
Because, isn’t that what the vast majority of Indians so desperately needed? And, if I may turn the knife, deserved?
An important and powerful Congress MP, a formidable three-term Lok Sabha election winner, not one of those smug, never-retiring Rajya Sabha squatters, made a confession in an in-flight conversation last week. He said the party made a suicidal blunder by brainwashing itself that the 2009 victory had come because of MGNREGA, when it had, in fact, come from growth.
Never mind that the data never justified this. In states where nearly 65 per cent of India’s BPL families live, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha, the Congress party’s strike rate was just about 20 per cent. The party, or its UPA allies, on the other hand, swept every major city (except Bengaluru, which was split) and had a nearly 60 per cent strike rate in the richer states.
It did enormously better, for example, even in Modi’s Gujarat than in Bihar, Odisha or, for that matter, Uttar Pradesh, which (with 21 seats) was seen as a success story. The aspirational Indians sent a thank-you card to the UPA. It responded, in turn, by kicking them in the shins. By increasing taxes, EMIs, blocking manufacturing, mining, shutting down power plants, stopping ongoing projects and investments, and generating massive job losses.
That same grateful and resurgent India is now downbeat and furious. And what about the very poor? Of course, they are grateful, even for MGNREGA, but to the non-Congress chief ministers who do a much better job of governance and implementation of central schemes.
So, what does the future look like to the Congress people? They all say two things: One, that power will not return to them in 2014. And second, that the BJP is also in no better shape, so they will have a couple of years of BJP-led khichdi, and “then the remorseful people will have no choice but to bring us back”.
This is how the Congress defines its optimism now. At the same time, you sit with a map of India with any of them and go over it state by state. In the past three months, I haven’t met any Congressman who reaches three figures.
Caveat: I haven’t been doing much map-reading lately with professional Rajya Sabhaists, the brilliance of whose back-room politicking is fully matched by their hopeless ignorance and self-righteous loathing of electoral politics.
Wishful thinking is not a virus unique to the Congress. The BJP, or rather its RSS-ite Right-wing, which has a touching belief that Narendra Modi will lead them to power soon enough, is equally susceptible to it. But what happens with the Congress right now is more important because they are in power at the Centre for nearly two more years still.
The only good thing for the Congress is that it is in deep panic. They have seen the writing on the wall for 2014. It says, SEE YOU LATER. The party, so consumed by the smugness of a second successive victory that it declared 2014 already won, never even debated the wisdom of its disastrous strategic shift from optimism and growth to povertarian bhookha-nanga-ism.
It cheered from the sidelines, as its durbaris undermined their own government, leaked, whispered and planted vicious stories about the growing distance between the party and the government, about how one was furious and the other sulking, and how a change at the top (a new prime minister) would come any time now.
From economic reform to foreign policy (remember Sharm el-Sheikh?), from power plants to tax laws, from mining to manufacturing policy, the government was undermined from within. This is a classic political equivalent of some deadly auto-immune disease.
A recent conversation with a distinguished member of the Holy National Advisory Council (NAC) deserves mention here. I asked the very well-meaning person, in fact one of the nicest, sincerest people you will meet anywhere, why the NAC was always undermining the government, raising impossible demands and then making it look insensitive and anti-poor.
“What can we do, when people are still dying of starvation and so much foodgrain is being wasted… We need that food bill,” I was told.
“But from where will the government fund it?” I asked.
“That the government has to find out,” the NAC member said.
“But then, why doesn’t the NAC also pass a resolution supporting FDI [foreign direct investment] in retail as it would prevent wastage of food, besides improving farmers’ lives?” I asked.
“Oh, oh, that, you know, will not happen. You know that will not happen,” the NAC member replied. The conversation ended.
My interlocutor was not a career politician. The good thing, therefore, is that at least the real politicians in the Congress have now been frightened into seeing the light. That is why people who did the most to destroy UPA-2’s momentum, from infrastructure to mining to power to irrigation to manufacturing to scientific agriculture, are now writing pleas for FDI and hard reform.
It is a good sign. It may just give UPA-2 the space to carry out a proper spring-cleaning of the cabinet and restore some sanity and poise in its last two years in power.
This column was originally published on 30 June 2012.