National Interest: A retreat to reformhttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/national-interest-a-retreat-to-reform/

National Interest: A retreat to reform

Why a Congress in deep panic is preparing to shed its hypocrisy,recast the politics of its economics

Why a Congress in deep panic is preparing to shed its hypocrisy,recast the politics of its economics

Elsewhere in this newspaper this morning,Senior Assistant Editor D.K. Singh,one of India’s sharpest political journalists,underlines the import of the rally the Congress party has planned in the capital this Sunday in support of FDI in retail. Not only is it the first time the party is coming out to support a substantive economic reform of any kind,it is also putting a great deal of emotion into it. And the impetus has come from the top. Most powerful Congressmen from around the country,including the party chief ministers and PCC chiefs,are being asked to come. We may not yet be sure at the time of writing this column if the party’s leaders from Kerala will also participate,but the fact is,this is a genuine coming out party for its new economics.

So far,its economic discourse had floated within a zone that you may describe aptly,and with a straight face,as fifty shades of pink. Its reigning establishment purged and disowned Narasimha Rao and watched in some horror as Manmohan Singh,back as prime minister,did make a serious effort in UPA 1 to revisit the idea of 1991.

Whenever the prime minister and a few other UPA reformers risked doing something enterprising,the “party” looked the other way. It reminded me,often,of something the late Sitaram Kesri had said after he led a parliamentary delegation to China: “These Chinese communists are like drivers of Delhi’s buses… they signal left,and turn right.” Except,in this case,it seemed like the driver wished to turn right,but the party high command,playing traffic cop,was signalling left. Or at least that pretence,however farcical,was being maintained.

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Further,until now,its economics and politics were not just left but also generally xenophobic. In fact,it is difficult to remember if the party ever came out publicly in support of anything foreign,or a foreign engagement,barring the African National Congress or the Palestinians in the days of the Cold War. Or when a Soviet strongman came visiting.

IT is for all these reasons that this Sunday’s rally is significant. Irrespective of which side of the argument you are on,you have to take note of the fact that India’s largest political party has thrown off its carefully stitched cloak of hypocrisy. This is some change from a party whose leaders usually de-risked themselves from almost anything remotely free-market or reformist by writing cautionary letters to the prime minister. Even on the nuclear deal,the party had thought long and hard before supporting the prime minister and after he had left them no choice. However,this “aberration” was also “corrected” almost immediately in UPA 2. The prime minister’s first foreign policy initiative,in his second term,at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit was snubbed promptly,rudely and so dismissively that he was left too bloody-nosed to take another step,except backwards. Now,it seems,he has discovered the nuclear deal moment again. If the nuclear deal,therefore,was about changing the paradigm on India’s larger foreign and strategic policy,this is an equally significant and audacious shift on economic discourse.

What has brought about this intriguing change? First of all,it is a realisation that the party is left with no other tricks in the bag. It cannot fight the next election on the issue of corruption,or in other words,on its entire opposition’s (conventional,and neo-activist) terms. It may be useful,therefore,to shift the discourse to economics. And for that,it needs a perch more distant and distinct than old socialism. That,in any case,has now become everybody else’s policy as well,though nobody has embraced it as enthusiastically as the latest set of challengers from unconventional politics,ranging from Arvind Kejriwal to Anna Hazare and their OB van lieutenants. This,in fact,has created an entirely new opportunity in Indian politics. With the entire collection of what may be called the TV Studio Party of India (until they formally announce a name) now positioning itself way to the left of Prakash Karat,some space has been created for both the Congress,and the BJP to argue with each other in a more modern,aspirational,positive and reformist language. But,let’s not digress for the moment.

IT’S a point made often in this column that the main reason for UPA 2’s continuing disaster is that the Congress party deliberately and cynically misread the mandate of 2009 (‘The great letdown’,April 30,2011,http://goo.gl/pyY70). Ignoring telling facts such as its sweep of almost all urban centres in India,its really poor performance in the states where a vast majority of the poorest Indians live as against its relative success in more upwardly mobile regions,it wasn’t willing to give credit to the five preceding years of brilliant growth (‘The Meena Kumari politics’,June 30,2012,http://goo.gl/vYTeG). In finessing the achievement as that of the “government” or the “party”,it made it sound as if people had voted it back in power — with a larger majority — in spite of the growth and not because of it. That credit had to be given to NREGA,the farm loan waiver,the pay commission and stable prices of petroleum fuels. This contradiction created the political equivalent of a self-destructive auto-immune disease for the UPA’s second edition. The result was devastation of India’s manufacturing,mining,power,steel and infrastructure sectors and,quite frankly,also its environment,by making an entirely virtuous idea politically controversial and adversarial. It reduced a globally celebrated success to an object of derision and junk grade rating. Those responsible can,with justification,be charged with premeditated murder of the India story. Now,in deep panic,their party is making a belated,yet surprisingly well-organised,retreat.

While we are on the issue of the ruling party’s economic about-turn,it is instructive to flag another interesting point. How come most of those pushing for reform even in these last five quarters (if at all) of this government,are Lok Sabha members? Many of them,including P. Chidambaram,Kapil Sibal,M.M. Pallam Raju,Pawan Kumar Bansal,Salman Khurshid and even Manish Tewari,are also looking at a very,very challenging passage the next time around as political ground in their old pocket boroughs has shifted meanwhile. Most of them,also including Jyotiraditya Scindia,Sachin Pilot and C.P. Joshi,are veterans of many elections. Yet,if they are all willing to risk it on change,they must see some electoral merit in reform and modern economics. Contrast this with those opposing the same change: A.K. Antony,Vayalar Ravi,Ghulam Nabi Azad,Jayanthi Natarajan,Jairam Ramesh and so on. They are all in the Rajya Sabha. They do not have to worry about losing their place in Parliament,howsoever disastrous 2014 may be for their party. More evidence will be needed to establish this. But this Sunday’s rally is a strong indication that the Congress leadership has now decided to go with the former,rather than the latter.

sg@expressindia.com