IF you want a political metaphor this Holi,think two colours,saffron and red. And hope we soon get to see better shades of both.
This election is arguably best understood as one where the Congress is occupying,rent-free,some political ideas space vacated by the BJP and CPM. The BJP and CPM have helped the Congress more than the Congress has helped itself.
A Congress boosted in this fashion is suboptimal for Indian politics the partys most unlovely traits get a boost. Competition from a bakers dozen of regional,narrowly focused parties is no answer. The Congress will respond more to ideas competition with parties that have some sort of worldviews.
Is this really important? Look at the Congress. Look beyond Sonia Gandhis successful strategy of making Manmohan Singh prime minister,beyond Dr Singhs brave and successful gamble on the nuclear deal,beyond the admirably careful grooming of Rahul Gandhi,beyond the relative cohesiveness of the UPA vis-à-vis that of the NDA and beyond the favourite status accorded to the Congress in objective,well-informed pre-poll conjectures.
The Congress is a family plus an able but electorally shy prime minister surrounded by people who know in their heart of hearts that by themselves they do not constitute a viable national political party. This is not problematic because of that old chestnut about heredity and the Congress parivar.
The parivar has in recent times led the party to one electoral quasi-victory. If the Congress manages a more convincing performance this time,the family cannot be criticised just because they are a family. Success must and does matter in politics.
The problem is more nuanced. First,the Congresss structure doesnt allow intra-party competition at the top. If the situation was such that Nehru-Gandhis were as pivotal as they are now,but talented senior and junior leaders had a sporting chance at challenging them,there would have been less of a problem. But thats not the case. This is just plain bad for a political party. And given the Congresss weight in politics,its bad for Indian politics. Second,and related to the first,the Congress structure doesnt
incentivise state-level party politicians to become stars. But the nature of electoral politics is such that national parties should promote state-level stars. Regional parties get more competition then. National parties have a better chance of aggregating their votes. This argument wont be invalidated if the Congress does better in the coming elections. In the medium term,national parties must build a state-level star system. The Congresss structural inability to do so hurts the general cause of national parties and,therefore,politics.
Third,the Congress is happiest when policy is fuzziest. The nuclear deal is not an exception to this. That policy was made into a prestige issue for the Congresss top two leaders by the BJP and the CPM (of this,more later). The two Congress leaders took the right call.
The Congresss love for fuzziness is clearly seen in its approach to economic policy or pre-26/11 internal security policy. Smart Congressmen argue for this by citing the partys big tent approach. More accurately,the partys structure doesnt really promote risk-taking on policy. Policy clarity demands some risk appetite.
How can a better BJP and CPM make the Congress less complacent about these flaws? And how have the BJP and the CPM helped the Congress this time? These are related questions and,therefore,have related answers.
The BJP and the CPM never mind their many recent intra-party problems (fewer problems and better-handled problems in the case of the CPM) are bottom-up parties. By force of example,they make a case against the Congress structure. If these two parties are run well they will always pose a question for the Congress hierarchy on its approach to internal talent competition,including promotion of state-level talent. Conversely,if the BJP and the CPM appear unintelligent and/ or uninspiring,the Congress wins the argument by default. This is what is happening.
The BJP and the CPM are structurally less geared to continuous policy fuzziness. This can be a competition-worthy concern for the Congress. But it cant be if the BJP and the CPM abandon basic political horse sense.
The BJPs still-stunning inflexibility and the CPMs unnecessary rigidity on the nuclear deal gave the Congress the one fine policy victory it can claim in five years. Had the nuclear deal attracted the usual and required political criticism,the Congress would have had a tougher time explaining its overall policy record today. The deal would have been another foreign/ strategic policy advance,not a fine test of Congress courage.
The BJP and CPM allowed this to happen at their own cost. The BJP gained nothing and lost much credibility. The CPM only gained abstract satisfaction and turned itself into a forever-problematic ally for any ruling arrangement.
The Congress got more help. The CPM should have leveraged its support to the UPA by pushing the Congress on more efficient use of social spending,including and especially for money spent on NREG. The Congress has turned a fiscally comfortable situation to a fiscally pre-1991-like situation in the name of fuzzy-talk social spending. If only the CPM scrutinised the spending details with the intensity it studied the 123 Agreement. But the Congress got a by on this from the Left.
The Congress got a by from the Right as well on growth and aggregate demand debates. It was only after the global financial crisis-induced mini crisis in India when money markets here froze up that the BJP argued against high interest rate policies by pointing out that inflation wasnt fought intelligently. But that was too late.
The time to have caught the Congress was from early 2007 when new homeowners and small businesses two classes the BJP can speak to relatively comfortably started getting hurt by costly credit. Had the BJP raised a serious din about middle India getting squeezed the Congress would have been in a tough position,since it had decided to be fuzzy on the issue of middle-class and small business credit crunch.
Inflation has dropped as global commodity prices have softened. Non-metropolitan India is relatively less affected by the slowdown. And the Congress doesnt have to fear the BJP credibly talking up a huge policy mistake that predated the global crisis.
How should the BJP and the CPM change themselves? That deserves a separate analysis. But saffron and red must change. We need to see the Congresss grey areas.