You see a Congressman today and you see a long face. At a public function, on a flight, in a seminar, or just one-to-one, you will see the same hopeless fright. Things are not working out, he’d say, our government is not going anywhere. Some bolder ones would say the Left is not letting us do anything and we can’t say boo to the goose. Some, actually many others, are scared the party high command just might do that: “Boss, we did nothing to be in power.
Now we have it, so let’s keep it for as long as we can. But what if the lady (Sonia) decided to tell the Left enough was enough? She might believe in renunciation, but, Boss, what about the rest of us?” It is almost the kind of fright you saw on the faces of India’s batsmen when going out to play the West Indies in pre-helmet days. But it is also what you’d expect from most successful rent-seekers among our political classes.
Here is a sample of things I have actually heard from Congressmen in the past two weeks: Why can’t we put off all disinvestment through the term of this government? Why can’t we announce the setting up of fair price shops to sell vegetables and pulses all over the country and subsidised by the Centre? After all, if we can subsidise petrol, diesel, kerosene and LPG to the tune of thousands of crores, why not the aam admi’s dal-bhaat? We can fix that when we are returned to power next. Then we will reform. I haven’t yet met my fly on the wall at the CWC meeting on Thursday. But I can bet some similar talk went on there.
Fear of never winning power again is predictable for a party that still does not believe it deserved the victory in 2004. And you cannot win the same lottery twice. With three more years to go, their concern is to collect what rent they can, now, from this opportunity rather than use this term as a springboard for a better future.
In any case, most of the important Congress leaders today are too old to even have a stake 2009 onwards. Of the top dozen in the party, more than half will be well into their eighties by then. Four of the rest will be in their seventies. So what is their stake either?
The typical Congressman sees his party, and, more specifically, the Gandhi family, as an open ticket to perpetual power. Their faith and loyalty are directly proportional to what that ticket can buy. And when somebody, even a Gandhi-Nehru, tries to change the rules, they panic, and break out in subversion sabotage and revolt.
Sonia would remember the history of Rajiv Gandhi’s five years. There was widespread unease within the party the moment it looked like he was willing to make a departure from old-style Congress politics. His speech at the Mumbai AICC session in 1985, where he charged his partymen with being powerbrokers and worse, only confirmed their fears.
They wanted a Gandhi-Nehru merely to fetch them the votes and power. But if one showed the audacity to redefine how they exercised (or rather exploited) this power, he was going to be made to pay for it. The second half of Rajiv’s term saw a spectacular decline in his, and his party’s, fortunes as the same internal noise, suspicions and doubts robbed his government of its freshness and focus.
We are now seeing a repeat of the same theme. A Gandhi is not directly in charge of the government, so the old establishment only becomes bolder and more vicious. They can’t stand a Prime Minister who is not only competent and clean but is also widely respected. Their insecurities are compounded by the fact that the inner core of his Cabinet, obviously chosen in full agreement with Sonia, is one with him on most significant issues. In some ways, this “apolitical” prime minister, his core group, and Sonia personify some of the ideas that Rajiv Gandhi spoke about so passionately at his peak. Also, much like Rajiv in the first half of his tenure, they are building a critical mass of good news that will give their party a chance in the next election.
One thing you’d often hear from these panicky Congressmen is, you cannot win the election on another slogan of India Shining. But can any party go to the voters seeking re-election on the slogan of India Declining?
They are so confused because they are still fighting the election of May, 2004. In 2004, the BJP made the mistake of going to the polls with eight months of eight per cent growth. By 2009, if this government keeps its focus, it might go back to the voter with a six-year average of eight per cent plus growth, raising national incomes by 60 per cent. Add to this another 5, 000 km of four-laned highways (even at the slowed down pace now), four new world-class airports, several new ports and metros. And if you think all this is purely for the executive-class voter, consider how sustained high growth will help poverty reduction’according to the Eleventh Plan approach paper, going by data of last five years, an estimated 32 million will be lifted above the poverty line by 2009. Add to this the 1 lakh km of rural roads and, not to forget, a Rs 40, 000-crore per year rural employment guarantee scheme, and you might have a feel-good mood that the BJP only wishfully presumed in 2004.
In any case, how else can an incumbent go to the polls except riding a mood of success and optimism? That is the lesson Congress has to learn. Unless they have been totally brainwashed into thinking this is their last look at power, and either that there is no hope for the future, or they don’t care, because most of them will be too old by then anyway.
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