HAND IT TO HER: Sonia has put social agenda on centre stage

Of course, we are talking only about political and governance discourse, not delivery

ajay

Ajay Singh | May 8, 2010


The Congress chief is reverting to the old party ideology of socialism
The Congress chief is reverting to the old party ideology of socialism

In May 2009 the liberal economist in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must have been on cloud nine. He had just vanquished L K Advani who constantly rubbed salt on his wounded ego by calling him a puppet PM. His party had managed to win enough seats not to be left to the whims and fancies of the Lalus and the Mulayams. And most importantly, he had dropped the millstone round his neck, the Left parties, which had immobilised the eager reformist in him.Business and industry celebrated, expecting that unfettered Manmohanomics would unleash a string of reforms to put the Indian economy growth machine on the fast track to 10 percent and the pending economic reforms would get under way. And why not? Manmohan had just acquired a decisive streak with the way he took on Advani and stood firm on the Indo-US nuclear deal.But just a few weeks into the euphoria, Manmohan received a letter from Sonia Gandhi reminding him about the Congress party’s election promise to the poor, the Food Security Bill. She suggested that the government get to work immediately on the same and even attached a draft bill.
Not a word on economic reforms.

That in effect, highlighted Sonia’s eagerness to bring the social agenda to the centre stage. It also brought into focus, the ‘disconnect’ between the Manmohan government’s predominantly economic reforms route to governance and Sonia’s social agenda approach to it. The notable thing about the letter was that it was not the first. With or without the Left parties, Sonia was always acting like the ‘socialist’ opposition to her government even right through the first term of the UPA. It was Sonia’s National Advisory Council that initiated the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and a slew of other social agenda laws such as the Forest Rights Act, not to forget her hand in the massive loan-waiver programme for debt-ridden farmers.

Right through the six years of the UPA, Sonia has hardly ever concerned herself with weighty economic issues, but has been obsessed with social ones. According to an Indian Express report (April 12), Sonia wrote 31 letters to the prime minister and almost all of them concerned themselves with her social agenda. Every letter was about NREGS, resettlement and rehabilitation policy, liberation of manual scavengers, Ganga Action Plan and so on. Only on two occasions she touched upon economy/liberalisation issues (Bharti-WalMart tie-up and Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN), both times to caution the government on the impact they would have on the livelihood of small and medium businesses and farmers.

While the Manmohan government cannot stop talking about double-digit growth and how dexterously they dodged the recession, Sonia, as recently as March 5, 2010, proclaimed at a public rally in Shillong that “the Right to Information Act is the single biggest achievement of the UPA government to date”. This she said a few weeks after writing to the prime minister not to tinker with the Act as it was working wonders for transparency in governance. (Manmohan wrote back to her saying the law needed to be amended, giving fodder to civil society’s fears that babudom was about to strike back to render the law toothless.)

Days later, on March 8, it was Sonia’s social agenda, the Women’s Reservation Bill, that diverted the heat off a government hopelessly caught in the vortex of the Opposition offensive on the price rise. Sonia put her foot down, staked the future of her government, but decided to see the 15-year-old bill through the Rajya Sabha. Even as she was busy collecting encomiums from every corner for her commitment to a social cause, the government came up with the Civil Nuclear Liabilites Bill that would have let off American companies lightly in case of a nuclear accident. It killed the political bonhomie among the bigger parties instantly. Never was the divergence of interest between the party and government more stark, possibly prompting Manmohan to address the nation on April 1 to announce the roll out of the Right to Education Act. That in turn may have prompted Sonia to return to head the NAC two weeks later. And the first thing she did was to ask the government to rethink the Food Security Bill to include more of the poor and increase allocation per family.

In effect, if we step back from the immediate and analyse the past, we will see that in six short years Sonia has firmly put the social agenda on the centre stage of Indian politics after nearly four decades. For the first time since 1971, when Indira Gandhi’s ingenuity came to her rescue in coining the “garibi hatao” slogan, Sonia has brought poverty, illiteracy and hunger back into the national consciousness after two heady decades of “rising economic superpower” talk. In her role as mentor of the UPA government, she has successfully changed the political discourse by initiating a slew of measures which are purported to benefit the marginalised, minorities and women. Even her adversaries admit that after Indira Gandhi’s 1971 elections, this is the first time that the political discourse has come to be dominated by the issues pertaining to the common man, or aam aadmi, for Sonia’s party and government.

That is no mean achievement. If the late seventies and early eighties were dominated by the Emergency and sikh terrorism, Rajiv Gandhi’s era introduced poverty eradication measures but was better known for his penchant for technology and modernisation, particularly computerisation. The late eighties were overshadowed by the ghost of Bofors to be followed by two issues in the nineties, Ayodhya (which openly divided society) and Mandal (which divided society while aiming to bring in equity.). Of course, the other theme running concurrently all through the nineties and the new millennium has been economic boom and the ‘India Shining’ euphoria.

In May 2009 the liberal economist in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must have been on cloud nine. He had just vanquished L K Advani who constantly rubbed salt on his wounded ego by calling him a puppet PM. His party had managed to win enough seats not to be left to the whims and fancies of the Lalus and the Mulayams. And most importantly, he had dropped the millstone round his neck, the Left parties, which had immobilised the eager reformist in him.Business and industry celebrated, expecting that unfettered Manmohanomics would unleash a string of reforms to put the Indian economy growth machine on the fast track to 10 percent and the pending economic reforms would get under way. And why not? Manmohan had just acquired a decisive streak with the way he took on Advani and stood firm on the Indo-US nuclear deal.But just a few weeks into the euphoria, Manmohan received a letter from Sonia Gandhi reminding him about the Congress party’s election promise to the poor, the Food Security Bill. She suggested that the government get to work immediately on the same and even attached a draft bill.
Not a word on economic reforms.

That in effect, highlighted Sonia’s eagerness to bring the social agenda to the centre stage. It also brought into focus, the ‘disconnect’ between the Manmohan government’s predominantly economic reforms route to governance and Sonia’s social agenda approach to it. The notable thing about the letter was that it was not the first. With or without the Left parties, Sonia was always acting like the ‘socialist’ opposition to her government even right through the first term of the UPA. It was Sonia’s National Advisory Council that initiated the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and a slew of other social agenda laws such as the Forest Rights Act, not to forget her hand in the massive loan-waiver programme for debt-ridden farmers.

Right through the six years of the UPA, Sonia has hardly ever concerned herself with weighty economic issues, but has been obsessed with social ones. According to an Indian Express report (April 12), Sonia wrote 31 letters to the prime minister and almost all of them concerned themselves with her social agenda. Every letter was about NREGS, resettlement and rehabilitation policy, liberation of manual scavengers, Ganga Action Plan and so on. Only on two occasions she touched upon economy/liberalisation issues (Bharti-WalMart tie-up and Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN), both times to caution the government on the impact they would have on the livelihood of small and medium businesses and farmers.

While the Manmohan government cannot stop talking about double-digit growth and how dexterously they dodged the recession, Sonia, as recently as March 5, 2010, proclaimed at a public rally in Shillong that “the Right to Information Act is the single biggest achievement of the UPA government to date”. This she said a few weeks after writing to the prime minister not to tinker with the Act as it was working wonders for transparency in governance. (Manmohan wrote back to her saying the law needed to be amended, giving fodder to civil society’s fears that babudom was about to strike back to render the law toothless.)

Days later, on March 8, it was Sonia’s social agenda, the Women’s Reservation Bill, that diverted the heat off a government hopelessly caught in the vortex of the Opposition offensive on the price rise. Sonia put her foot down, staked the future of her government, but decided to see the 15-year-old bill through the Rajya Sabha. Even as she was busy collecting encomiums from every corner for her commitment to a social cause, the government came up with the Civil Nuclear Liabilites Bill that would have let off American companies lightly in case of a nuclear accident. It killed the political bonhomie among the bigger parties instantly. Never was the divergence of interest between the party and government more stark, possibly prompting Manmohan to address the nation on April 1 to announce the roll out of the Right to Education Act. That in turn may have prompted Sonia to return to head the NAC two weeks later. And the first thing she did was to ask the government to rethink the Food Security Bill to include more of the poor and increase allocation per family.

In effect, if we step back from the immediate and analyse the past, we will see that in six short years Sonia has firmly put the social agenda on the centre stage of Indian politics after nearly four decades. For the first time since 1971, when Indira Gandhi’s ingenuity came to her rescue in coining the “garibi hatao” slogan, Sonia has brought poverty, illiteracy and hunger back into the national consciousness after two heady decades of “rising economic superpower” talk. In her role as mentor of the UPA government, she has successfully changed the political discourse by initiating a slew of measures which are purported to benefit the marginalised, minorities and women. Even her adversaries admit that after Indira Gandhi’s 1971 elections, this is the first time that the political discourse has come to be dominated by the issues pertaining to the common man, or aam aadmi, for Sonia’s party and government.

That is no mean achievement. If the late seventies and early eighties were dominated by the Emergency and sikh terrorism, Rajiv Gandhi’s era introduced poverty eradication measures but was better known for his penchant for technology and modernisation, particularly computerisation. The late eighties were overshadowed by the ghost of Bofors to be followed by two issues in the nineties, Ayodhya (which openly divided society) and Mandal (which divided society while aiming to bring in equity.). Of course, the other theme running concurrently all through the nineties and the new millennium has been economic boom and the ‘India Shining’ euphoria.

The rediscovery of the ‘common man’ as the Congress’ poll plank in 2004 elections was ridiculed till the results were announced. Since then, Sonia’s visible hand has been consistently shaping the social agenda of the government. Be it Right to Information (RTI), NREGA, social security for the unorganised sector or the forest rights law, her intervention has been critical. Her detractors rarely question her intent because they see her perseverance in putting legislation behind commitment.

So, is Sonia turning to socialism -- a political streak which was historically a part of the Congress? Some analysts equate her concern for the poor and the marginalised to the political philosophy of a christian social democrat rooted in her christian upbringing. But noted historian and political commentator Mahesh Rangarajan maintains that it is her profound understanding of the Congress culture, Indian history and social realities. “This is consistent with the Congress culture and history,” he says. On the other hand, veteran socialist Surendra Mohan refuses to give credit to Sonia. “They are pursuing capitalism on the pretext of social agenda,” he says, insisting that though Indira had some credentials to claim the socialist agenda, Sonia none.

Read Surendra Mohan's interview on Sonia and UPA.

Sonia1

Tracing Sonia’s socialist antecedents is at best an academic exercise and at worst a wild guessing game, considering how little she speaks in public. But there is no doubt that history appears to be repeating itself in more ways than one. Indira took over the reins when anti-Congressism was at its peak and sparks from Naxalbari threatened to engulf large parts of the country. She turned to socialism, presumably to neutralise her detractors. In his book ‘India after Gandhi’, Ramachandra Guha avers that Indira was persuaded to adopt socialism by one of her key advisors, P N Haksar. She divested Morarji Desai of the finance portfolio and went ahead with nationalisation of the banks - a move that evoked a strong reaction from the party’s old guard. She also abolished privy purses. This move, too, was resisted by the right wingers in the party. As the controversy reached its peak, the courts and the legislature proved to be stumbling blocks for Indira’s bid to implement her agenda. In 1971, she dissolved the house and called for elections a year before schedule. Her famous slogan was, “Woh kehte hain Indira hatao, hum kehte hain garibi hatao” (they say remove Indira, I say remove poverty). The timing was immaculate. The ship-to-mouth syndrome was still fresh in people’s memory when stocks of coarse wheat from the United States used to be released every month. The slogan caught the people’s imagination and Indira returned with a thumping majority. Socialist icon Ram Manohar Lohia’s “goongi gudia” had not only found her tongue but also formulated a robust political strategy which decimated her rivals. Of course, Indira’s glib talk of socialism and eradication of poverty remained in the realm of rhetoric as she soon assumed dictatorial hues to put out all challenges and undermined every institution to remain in power.

Also see:

Shiv Visvanathan's Deciphering Sonia

Sonia, on the other hand, took over a party that was all but decimated in 1996. The P V Narasimha Rao government’s dubious handling of the Babri Masjid issue caused the flight of the minorities from the Congress that would mean almost a decade out of power. Political novice Sonia’s ability to pull the party out of the quicksand was under extreme doubt and her political philosophy was completely unknown. Of course, Sonia showed the aam aadmi, socialist streak even before she entered politics in 1995 when her traction with the Narasimha Rao regime was at best limited. She pioneered and pushed the Disabilities Act reserving three percent government jobs for the disabled because that was, in her words, “Rajiv-ji’s dream”.

It was not until the 2004 elections that her socialist agenda took firm roots, or was exposed fully to the test of electoral politics and national governance. With Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA fully engrossed in its boastful, self-congratulatory ‘India Shining’ campaign of the 2004, the aam aadmi, you can say, was almost thrust upon Sonia as a fait accompli. The attendant electoral success, marginal in terms of seats, but hugely unexpected, turned her into a cult figure in her party overnight. That stature was only reinforced by her decision to opt out of prime ministership and her domination of the party and government was total.

At the height of Manmohanomics, she ensured her social agenda did not get blown away. Despite objections from the finance ministry, she ensured the social security bill for the unorganised sector was passed to give the impression that the government cares for the common man. Similarly, the RTI Act was her initiative. As was the NREGS, launched to fulfil the constitutional obligation to provide a minimum of 100 days’ employment to each family of rural poor. The loan-waiver to farmers was considered yet another master-stroke which connected people to a benign governance.

Sonia2

For people who want to believe that the aam aadmi was just a politically expedient slogan rather than a policy close to her heart, the pertinent question is, why couldn’t the NDA government take up a similar agenda? Former BJP ideologue K N Govindacharya, who drafted the BJP’s manifesto and NDA’s common minimum programme for governance, admits that there was singular lack of commitment in the BJP’s top leadership. “They were more involved in running the government than addressing real social issues,” he says, admitting that Sonia brought these real issues back to the centre stage. “If the idiom of governance is centred around people’s welfare, it is not a small change,” he says. “The NDA was never sincere about it and they sidelined all those who talked about people’s agenda,” he saiys.

“For the first time in independent India, a bill exclusively protecting the rights of tribals was brought in,” says Mahesh Rangarajan. Social activist Aruna Roy, who has watched Sonia at work closely as a member of the NAC, says: “Sonia genuinely believes that the RTI is good for the country. She is convinced about it. Similarly, on NREGA, she genuinely believes that it is needed. She extended full support and her engagement didn’t end with enactment of laws. Even now she supports us when we go to meet her with our delegations to express our concerns over implementation of these laws. It is not a superficial interest or publicity mongering. She genuinely supports these measures.”

That Sonia co-opted and consulted people with unimpeachable integrity also goes to her credit. “There is no doubt that she should be appreciated for including people like Jean Dreze, Aruna Roy or N C Saxena in her think-tank,” says skeptic Surendra Mohan. And there is no denying the fact that the second stint of the UPA is seeing even more radical agenda, including women’s reservation, right to food and right to education.
There could be many shortcomings in the bills related to right to food or right to education, but the move has certainly triggered a debate on how to contain poverty and feed the hungry. So much so that chief ministers across the country are speaking the same political language. In Gujarat, Narendra Modi says he wants to eliminate poverty. “Nobody in Gujarat should require a BPL card,” Modi declared in one of his meetings. The echoes of the battle against poverty, illiteracy and hunger can be heard across the country from every state. “This is, no doubt, a major shift in the political discourse,” says Mahesh Rangarajan.

There are reasons to believe that Sonia deeply imbibed the Congress history when she edited two volumes of Jawaharlal Nehru’s letters to Indira Gandhi. What appears to have really acted as her brain trust is the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation which silently took up certain welfare projects and carried out deep social studies. “The RGF is really acting as a think tank for Sonia to formulate her strategy whereas there is no such group for the BJP,” points out Govindacharya. That the congress has been strategically reaching out to socially marginalised groups is evident from the frequent forays of general secretary Rahul Gandhi into tribal or backward regions of the country.

Significantly, Sonia’s vigorous socialist agenda shares another similarity with Indira Gandhi’s tilt towards socialism. The menace of the radical left loomed large in the late 1960s when students from elite colleges of Delhi, Kolkata and other parts of the country were drawn to an ideology of violent mass uprising in Naxalbari. There was a vertical division in the communist movement on the slogan that implied that “China chairman (Mao) is our chairman.” In this context, Indira Gandhi unleashed bank nationalisation and abolition of privy purses which catapulted her to a position of undisputed leader. In the present context too, the shadow of Maoism looms larger than ever over bastions of power in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Patna, Raipur, Ranchi, Hyderabad, Bhubaneswar, Bhopal and Lucknow. That Maoists are the sole spokespersons for the poor, dalits, tribals and socially marginalised is a formulation that has found grudging acceptance even in drawing rooms of the urban middle class. In such circumstances, the change in political discourse from Mandir-Mandal-economy to fighting illiteracy, poverty and hunger appears to be a welcome relief.

Of course, all this is still in the realm of Sonia’s policy thrust. There seems to be a gap between her social agenda and her government’s economic agenda just as wide as the gulf between wishing well and doing well. High on Sonia’s agenda is the Food Security Act, but her government has just presented a budget that actually cut the food subsidy! Sonia’s draft bill suggested expansion of scope and coverage under the Food Security Act, the government’s draft actually reduced both (prompting Sonia to write to the prime minister to send the bill back to the drawing board). Sonia is proud of the Right to Information Act and the way it is working, Manmohan is keen to amend it under some pretext or the other. And the government has just rolled out the Right to Education Act without thought and budgetary backing. Sonia’s political lexicon has words such as aam aadmi, right to food, right to education, NREGA, forest rights laws and women’s empowerment while Manmohan’s government is preoccupied with 10 percent growth, FDI, divestment, deregulation, easing labour laws, nuclear liability bill, foreign affairs, etc.

But this is the silver-lining: In an increasingly globalising world that first serves the interests of the rich and powerful, civil society groups working to reduce the gap between the have-mores and have-nots couldn’t have had a more receptive national leader.

After all, as some of them say, right now Sonia Gandhi is the country’s most prominent NGO activist!

This piece first appeared in the April 16-30 issue of Governance Now magazine (Vol.01 Issue 6).

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