Polls aside, a lot on Congress plate for chintan shivir

Besides strategising for 2014 polls, chintan shivir at Jaipur is chance for Congress to thrash out govt’s political, economic decisions — and find middle path in Manmohan’s reforms and Sonia aad admi realism

bhavdeepkang

Bhavdeep Kang | January 16, 2013


Fiscal differences: In public mind, the prime minister stands for the super-rich, while Congress president Sonia Gandhi realises that the ‘aam aadmi’ is not merely a slogan.
File photo

Growing hostility on the western border is threatening to overshadow the Congress chintan shivir, to be held in Jaipur this weekend. The conclave's significance lies not just in determining the Congress strategy for the 2014 general elections but also in influencing the political and economic direction taken by the government at this critical juncture.

Read Bhavdeep’s earlier report on chintan shivir: Protests mishandled, Cong to discuss women issues at chintan shivir

On the face of it, the fundamental difference between the previous shivirs, held at Pachmarhi in 1998 and Shimla in 2003, and the one in Jaipur is that the Congress was then in opposition and is now in power. Instead of a lean and hungry party focused on seizing power, it is now fat and lazy — and on the defensive.

At Pachmarhi, the Congress decided to go it alone. At Shimla, it decided to go in for alliances. But these are short-term political decisions, and ones, if taken, would be with the upcoming 11 assembly (if you include Jharkhand) and general elections in mind. But the shivir's importance will be in reflecting the turmoil within the Congress about what the party stands for, and who it represents.

The contradiction between Manmohan Singh's reformist path and Sonia Gandhi's socialist instincts, clearly manifested in UPA-II, must be resolved.

The reformist PM

In public mind, the prime minister stands for the super-rich. He and his coterie belong to the school of economists who believe that prosperity for big business means prosperity for all. The “trickle-down effect” will ensure that wealth permeates from the top to the bottom of the economic heap, according to this economic thesis.

Singh is thus undisturbed by the growing inequalities in distribution of wealth. In his book, the rich getting richer is not just inevitable but desirable. The barons of industry must be given untramelled access to land and resources and protected from labour unrest and tax increases. Public assets must be privatised and a policy environment that favours capital investment in infrastructure and manufacturing must be created, even if it is at the cost of ecology and human rights.

In this respect, there is no difference between Manmohan Singh and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.

The realist Sonia

Sonia Gandhi, however, realises that the ‘aam aadmi’ is not merely a slogan, but defines the very identity of the Congress. From its inception until the economic liberalisation of the early 1990s, the Congress stood as the party of the poor. A dilution of its pro-poor image contributed to its exit from power. To a large extent, Sonia Gandhi restored the impulse toward public welfare, resulting in formulation and implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS), the Right to Information, Forest Rights Act and the Right to Education — all aimed at empowering the aam aadmi.
None of these would have materialised without the National Advisory Council, set up directly under her aegis.

Given this track record, Gandhi's ready acquiescence to FDI in multi-brand retail, in effect opening up the country to the likes of Wal-Mart and Carrefour, came as a big surprise to Congressmen and Congress observers (including this writer). Clearly, Manmohan Singh enjoys far more clout vis-a-vis Sonia in UPA-II than he did in UPA-I.

The reasons, too, are not far to seek. In UPA-I, the Left Front held Singh in check. This suited Gandhi, as she could fire from its shoulders. But the Left is no longer present to act as a counter-balancing force in UPA II. Besides, a weak opposition led by a divided BJP presents no challenge to Manmohan and company.

The tug of war

The uneasy truce between 10-Janpath and 7-Race Course Road is brokered by Finance minister P Chidambaram. As the author of the Rs 60,000-crore farm loan waiver in UPA-I, he enjoys Sonia Gandhi's confidence. And as a votary of economic reform, he is on the same page as Manmohan Singh.

The party’s old guard feels the Congress president has been persuaded to go along with Chidambaram on the premise that money for welfare schemes has to be generated, whether from foreign direct investment (FDI) or disinvestment from public sector.

There's no doubt that spending on subsidies has increased in the last five years to 2.44 per cent of the GDP (as have government borrowings and the fiscal deficit). But the bulk of these subsidies benefit industry and rich farmers. Spending on development, which would directly benefit the common man, has shrunk substantially. Yet, the growing “burden” of subsidy is being used to prevent the Congress president's pet project, the right to food, in the form of the National Food Security Bill.

Another example of the tug of war between the two camps in the Congress is mining. The pro-growth brigade continues to back the mining lobby despite the Coalgate scam, while traditionalists oppose it on grounds of tribal rights and environmental norms.

In comes Rahul

At Jaipur, the party hopes to hear Rahul Gandhi, the inheritor of Jawaharlal Nehru's legacy, articulate what he stands for. He has spoken in favour of FDI and cash transfer of subsidies, but he has opposed mining in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha. Was it because the Congress is in opposition in Odisha, or because he believes that displacing tribals from forest land due to mining triggers social unrest and fuels naxalism?

What about the two major constituencies that the party is targeting: the youth and women? How will Rahul reach out to them? Does he believe in Manmohan's formula that the rich will create employment? Has he considered that cash instead of foodgrain may impact adversely on women, as the money could be diverted to liquor?

In terms of political decisions, does he subscribe to a secular, Congress-led coalition supported by the Left? Or does he think a stable government is possible only under a single-party rule? Will he support the demand for an autonomous Telangana?

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