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India’s two largest political parties, the BJP and Congress, had conclaves of their highest decision-making bodies last week. Shorn of frills, the deliberations revealed two common threads. First, both parties formalised their hierarchical change. Second, both showed clear signs of subtle struggles for a more responsive economic and governance strategy to cope with the Aam Aadmi Party effect.
The coronation of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi has been never in doubt. In both cases, however, the real control will still remain with the original power centres—the Sonia establishment in the case of Congress and the RSS-Rajnath Singh line-up for Modi. Within this constraint, the two have already begun policy posturing within their parties. This is more apparent in the case of Rahul. The transfer of authority will give him the necessary policy flexibility to cope with the exigencies of a general election. His ‘outsider’ image will make him freer to effect compromises. This is not so with the incumbent prime minister or his mother who had shared some baggage as the core committee chairperson.
Unnoticed by most, nuances of the policy shifts are already in operation. Congress leaders hardly conceal the ongoing strategic repositioning under Rahul. He and Sonia did praise the outgoing prime minister at the aicc session. But Manmohan Singh was left to himself to defend the performance of his 10-year regime in his last address to the aicc as prime minister. Mother and son had virtually skipped the economic policy resolution.
It won’t be surprising if the new posturing leads to a fine-tuning or partial policy reversal. Apparently, the salvaging operation had begun much before the formal power transfer. The first was Rahul’s public disapproval of the criminal legislators’ ordinance. Initially, there had been uproar when he had put his foot down on the food security and land rights bills. These were dubbed as anti-growth. Then came the Lokpal bill and now half a dozen anti-corruption bills aimed at refurbishing the party’s image. It’s another matter whether such last-minute efforts will shield it against the ignominy of corruption and price rise.
For BJP, its national council was a really impressive spectacle. Delegates from states with good BJP presence were in high spirits. Much more than in Bombay when Atal Behari Vajpayee was anointed. But as they dispersed from the Ramlila maidan, many of them realised their leaders had not given them anything new to counter their electoral opponents with. True, they were presented with as many as three ‘visions’: one in Rajnath Singh’s presidential address, a second in Arun Jaitely’s economic resolution and finally, Modi’s elaborately drafted set. Waiting in the wings is yet another vision—India Vision 2025—which Nitin Gadkari’s been tasked with.
Delegates had high expectations from their PM candidate’s ‘rainbow’ vision, ‘details’ of which had started appearing in the media much before the actual presentations. Workers had hoped Modi would arm them with some attractive schemes, not wishful thoughts, to win over the voters. Selling such abstract ideas is an uphill task when aspirational voters insist on workable schemes.
By far, what disappointed them most was Modi’s berating of welfare programmes. ‘Garib-garib-garib’, he mimicked Rahul Gandhi with elan, to demolish the party’s ‘dole-dole-dole’ approach. The performance may have impressed TV audiences or foreign rating agencies, but it left the ordinary BJP worker with little. On the ground, no political worker can seek votes anymore without a doles-filled manifesto. Every BJP government, even allies like sad, had offered a set of pre-poll lures to engaged groups like farmers, students and weaker sections. The main plank of Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh and Shivraj Chouhan in MP has been their schemes for the poor. AAP’s entry has made things tougher.
Ranting against corruption and shahzada is losing sting. BJP workers do not know what to tell people about the party’s position on earthly issues like 12 gas cylinders, NREGA, food for poor, land acquisition and permission for FDI in retail. Does all this fall into Modi’s ‘garib-garib’, ‘dole-dole’ category? These are hard questions at ground level. Will the BJP roll back its known opposition to FDI in retail to step up investment and growth? Will its government abolish caste quota? Then there are wider issues like nuclear liability.
Modi has already trapped himself in the policy paradox that had gripped UPA during much of its tenure. When conflicting economic interests reach breaking point, even macho PMs start looking weak. There has always been a conflict of interest between the imperatives of growth and political compulsions. The UPA had tried to manage the contradictions, howsoever clumsily, with the party-inspired welfare schemes. Modi has a more meddling 10, Janpath at Nagpur.
(P. Raman is former political editor of The Economic Times and Business Standard.)