India needs some healthy populism

NOW that India has to have the next general election within 14 months, if not earlier, the Congress is making moves to face the contest, if not quite fight it. It’s doing so without its heart in the exercise. Or else, it wouldn’t have adopted defensive, dodgy or tactless postures, neglected alliance-building, and presented an unappealing appearance.



By Praful Bidwai (India Vision)

Published: Sat 1 Mar 2008, 8:57 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:24 PM

Last week, the Congress did something a confident party shouldn’t do: train its state-level spokespersons in corporate-style “media management”. It invited self-styled desi gurus like Ujjwal Chowdhury to a two-day session on “anger/stress management”, “the right way” of shaking hands, dressing up for television and deciphering body language.

The spokespersons got “capsules” on the India-US nuclear deal, Ram Setu and the Sachar Committee from TV-oriented Congressmen like Kapil Sibal and Salman Khursheed. A couple of journalists were thrown in too, to caution against “off-the-record” conversations and excessive drinking.

Amidst this image-polishing exercise, most participants forgot that an image derives from its object.

If you don’t have an inclusive economic policy, you can’t sell Special Economic Zones by citing their (negligible) employment potential. If your decision-makers believe the only strategic-political “game in town” is the American one, it’s futile to sell the India-US nuclear deal by claiming it’s good for India’s energy security (which it manifestly isn’t).

It won’t do to chant the Aam Aadmi slogan while giving tax-breaks to the rich and demanding lower EMIs (equalised monthly instalments) on housing loans for the upper classes, and saying nothing about the majority who don’t even have a pukka house with a toilet.

The Congress can’t lay claim to a pluralist notion of Indianness based on a multi-lingual, multicultural identity, and defend the right to live and travel anywhere in India while mollycoddling the ultra-chauvinist Shiv Sena and Raj Thackeray.

The Congress hasn’t risen beyond “SEZ-EMI” salesmanship. This won’t win the votes of the majority. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance has pursued GDP-obsessed policies which have increased inequalities and jeopardised millions of livelihoods — from the tribals in Orissa’s and Chhattisgarh’s mineral-rich tracts to farmers working lands being acquired for posh housing, to vegetable-hawkers and raddiwalas everywhere.

As organised retail grows, stores catering to the middle class are (under)selling vegetables at half their wholesale prices. Some retail chains are even offering Rs25 for a kilo of old newspapers — directly hitting some of India’s hardest-working people, who perform a valuable ecological function by recycling waste.

The greatest irony is, the UPA is only half-committed to its own progressive schemes. These include the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act — being extended from 200 districts in 2006 to all 600 districts now — the Right to Information Act, and the Forest Rights Act, which grants tribals modest plots of highly degraded forest land.

The NREGA can annually create 100 days of employment at minimum wages for each rural poor household. Admittedly, it needs improvement. In 2006-07, only 56 per cent of below-poverty-line households got the promised employment — a fair increase over previous year’s 41 per cent. Yet, wherever the administration followed the rules, it got good results — even in Rajasthan and Assam. Elitists have crusaded against the NREGA, ridiculing it for spreading corruption without denting poverty. Some cite a provisional, limited report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. A careful look at it shows that corruption runs in the lakhs, not crores, and can be greatly reduced through safeguards built into the Act’s guidelines.

Independent citizens’ groups and academics like Jean Dreze, have conducted several NREGA audits. They conclude that corruption can be substantially reduced, and employment targets met, through popular involvement, and proper attention to the schemes’ location, application procedures, distribution of job cards, record-keeping, etc.

A scheme like the NREGA needs the widest publicity on rural television/radio, with an emphasis on the right of the poor to work. It also needs dedicated bureaucrats willing to work with civil society, as well as a strong push from above. The UPA continues to drift Rightwards on foreign and security policy too. India’s “strategic partnership” with the US, and Israel, is growing just when these two are making the world more insecure. Meanwhile, India is losing stature in West Asia, Southeast and South Asia, and now in Africa.

Having agreed with the Left not to negotiate the US-India nuclear deal further, the UPA is caving in to pressure from the US to abide by a tight deadline (early May) to complete it for US Congress ratification.

Merits apart, this risks a mid-term election for which the UPA isn’t prepared. After the election, it may again need to tie up with the Left — unless it wants to become dependent on Mayawati.

The truth is, the Congress/UPA lacks a political strategy. It looks over the shoulder all the time and is afraid of taking bold populist measures in the best sense of that term — putting the interests of the majority at the centre while mobilising mass energies.

Nor is the UPA remotely showing a sense of urgency in organisational matters. It has lost allies Telangana Rashtra Samiti and the MDMK. Its constituents in Bihar (Rashtriya Janata Dal-Lok Janashakti Party) and Tamil Nadu (the DMK-led alliance) peaked electorally in 2004. It has to find new allies — as Sonia Gandhi did four years ago with tireless efforts. The UPA should know that its adversaries, especially the BJP, have chinks in their armour — despite appearances. It can take them on only by reaching out to the masses. At least, it shouldn’t lose by default.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at praful@bol.net.in


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