February 15, 2020
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Falling With The Rupee

Brand Sonia is bedraggled as the Congress goes into freefall

Falling With The Rupee
Illustration by Sorit
Falling With The Rupee

The Congress party has been a victim of two viciously crafted political fads. The first is the BJP’s ‘remote-controlled’ PM. Initially, the Left had been the spoilers of the India Story. Then it was Mamata Banerjee. Now, the reform camp is increasingly emboldened to make the ‘Sonia Establishment’ the latest scapegoat for its own failures. And that is the other fad.

The new insinuations have come as a double blow to the Congress, which is already defending UPA-II’s many other misdemeanours, like the corruption scandals and unch­ec­ked price surges. There is also great consternation over the way alibis for the economic failures are being put at the party’s door by those considered close to the government. Signals from the ground are frightening for the ruling party. Last time, it had the Sonia Gandhi’s employment programme and debt relief to show off as achievements. Now, party workers in the constituencies are left with no showpiece except the rat­her unpopular direct benefits transfer (DBT) to place before the voters. Sonia Gandhi’s aam aadmi programmes—such as the public services del­ivery bill, RTE and food security sch­eme—are stuck at different stages.    

For Congress leaders, insinuations by some of the prime minister’s former aides that they were ‘obstructing’ reform have only added insult to the injury. A party functionary, who has been at the centre of decision-making, was at pains to explain how the Congress establishment had in fact at every stage endeavoured to function as a facilitator of the prime minister’s initiatives. The party had acted so even at the cost of its electoral interests, knowing well that some of these measures would hurt popular sentiments.

For the Congress, last September was a crucial moment when it formally gave the prime minister a free hand with his reform initiatives. To formalise it, the party even held a brainstorming session at Surajkund near Delhi. Public rallies were held in support of his moves, especially FDI in retail. The party also didn’t object when raising the FDI cap was discussed as a remedy to the present crisis.  Indeed, reform measures got stuck due to the failure of the UPA managers to get parliamentary support.

The Surajkund decision, it is now pointed out, has been a major deal-breaker. As a result of it, the Congress as a political party has totally lost its electoral edge. The party now finds itself devoid of its carefully cultivated aam aadmi-dri­ven Brand Sonia which had earlier come in handy at poll rallies. Now it is destined to perpetually depend on the government’s performance. Party sources say that, from the very beginning, in 2004, the Congress president has, in a bid to avert the ‘remote control’ charge, tried meticulou­sly to strengthen Manmohan Singh’s position. When ministers came with complaints, Sonia Gandhi had bluntly told them to settle the issue with the prime minister. This had happened even in the case of senior leaders like Arjun Singh. 

This was a time when UPA-I had three conflicting agendas—the Congress election manifesto, UPA’s officially ado­p­ted common minimum programme and the prime minister’s reforms agenda. The Congress president’s role was balancing the contradictory pulls from the Left and the reforms camp. Looking back, the Congress establishment could have stood its ground on the nuclear deal in 2008 and retail FDI, the junctures when the clash of two agendas had come into sharp contrast.  

The farthest the Congress president had gone, it is pointed out, was when she for­med the National Advisory Council (NAC).  This was to serve the interests of those left out in the GDP-led reforms race. But each of the NAC’s initiatives was dubbed as populist and a burden on the exchequer. There is utter dismay in the party over the total helple­ssness of the leaders of government in tackling the crisis they themselves have created. There is no dearth of economic brains in the government. Yet it is confined to fighting  symptoms like the rupee’s fall without tackling the deeper malai­ses. Can we make up for the $90 billion CAD by fresh FDI or sending two senior ministers to the US seeking investment? 

Incidentally, all this has strengthened the elements wit­hin the Congress who have been critical of what they describe as the government’s single-minded pursuit of a fixed agenda.  But they can do little, with the general elections hardly eight months away. An obvious outcome of the Congressmen’s disillusionment will be reflected in the next Lok Sabha.  The party will then be free for a serious introspection, whether in power or out of it. This is going to be a nightmare for the committed reformers.

(P. Raman is former political editor of The Economic Times and Business Standard)

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