As, in the wake of Karnataka, talk turns increasingly to the prospects for the next general election, the one strain of argument I find myself exasperated by is that of those pundits who claim the Congress doesn’t know what it stands for. They are just attacking Narendra Modi and the BJP, these savants declare; they have no narrative of their own. What is the Congress ideology? What beliefs and policies are they offering the nation?
First of all, I see no need to apologise for attacking Modi and the BJP: That’s what any responsible Opposition is supposed to do, and God knows that those in power have earned it. But I reject the implication that in attacking the ruling party, negativism is all we offer. Our attacks are based on our own convictions about what is good and proper for the nation; they are not merely reactive, but emerge from concern about the government’s straying from the desirable course. That, in turn, is shaped by the Congress’ decades of experience in understanding what the desirable course is, and in formulating the policies that help our country follow that course.
The Congress’ core beliefs reflect the values it has embodied since the freedom struggle — in particular inclusive growth, social justice, abolition of poverty and the protection of the marginalised, including minorities, women, Dalits and Adivasis. These have been distorted and portrayed as pandering to vote-banks rather than as the sincere, indeed visceral, convictions they are. Rahul Gandhi has begun speaking out for these sections of Indian society and he must do so with even more intensity.
The Congress is the political embodiment of India’s pluralism and a strong, committed voice for the preservation of secularism as its fundamental reflection. We need to reaffirm our belief in these values and keep reiterating them at every opportunity. The BJP’s abandonment of Indian pluralism in pursuit of the folly of a Hindu Rashtra has made minorities insecure and foreign friends anxious.
The Congress’ answer to the BJP’s brazen majoritarianism is derided by some commentators as “soft Hindutva”. Our Hinduism (for those of us in the Congress who are Hindu) is not Hindutva (which is a purely political ideology). When we speak of our Hinduism it is not in pale imitation of their bigotry and chauvinism, which we reject; it is to neutralise their communal appeal by pointing out that we too share Hinduism, albeit an inclusive version of the faith, rather than a bigoted one.
Our differences from the BJP are stark. We seek to empower Muslims, not marginalise them in ghettoes. We give election tickets to Muslim candidates; the BJP’s is the first government in independent India’s history to have no elected Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha. The BJP’s supporters engineer anti-Muslim violence to promote polarisation; we seek to douse the flames, not justify the rage. We work to improve the economic status of Muslims, instead of pretending that’s irrelevant.
With that red herring out of the way, we can shift the terms of the debate to development. Where is sab ka saath sab ka vikas? Where is achhe din? We can point to what we accomplished in 10 years of UPA rule — MNREGA, RTI, RTE, food security, millions of new bank accounts with real money in them. What can the BJP point to? The disasters of demonetisation and a botched GST?
The Congress is the party that liberalised the economy, but it also has a strong commitment to social justice. We want economic growth, but we must ensure that the fruits of growth reach the poor and the marginalised. As I said at the Congress plenary in March, the magic of the market will not appeal to those who cannot afford to enter the marketplace. We must lift the poor up so they can enjoy the full benefits of our economy. Garibi Hatao may now be dismissed as a clichéd slogan, but we are proud of our record in pulling millions out of poverty during our rule and remain committed to continuing the effort. India will not “shine” until it shines for all.
In urban India, the Congress must speak for the basic necessities that urban voters lack. We should speak to and lead the struggle for better public utilities like city transport, pothole-free roads, affordable housing, clean drinking water, decent education in government schools, adequate health care facilities, public parks, cleaner air and improved sanitation and effective waste management. We should use facts and figures to point out that the BJP’s performance in these basic challenges of urban governance has been woeful and that they do not deserve the votes of the urban public. I would personally go farther and call for a restructuring of urban government, promising to establish directly-elected mayors with real authority and budgetary controls to be able to make a difference to the lives of city residents.
The needs of rural India represent an obvious political opportunity for the Congress: The mounting farmer suicides, the inadequate funding of the MNREGA, the lack of increase in Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) paid to farmers for vital crops, and the increase in distress migration in the countryside, represent easy targets for the Opposition. The Congress has many tried and tested policies in response: Massive loan waivers, rural aid packages, increased funding for MNREGA and higher MSPs. Critics can call it “welfarism”; we must wear the badge with pride. Our poor need welfare.
The Congress party offers the nation a far more credible ideology than the BJP’s, and one that has been tried and tested. It should not merely be seen as an instrument for fighting elections every five years. There is a great deal that it can and must do between elections, helping citizens in their interactions with the government, the police, and the unfeeling petty bureaucracy they have to confront daily. We have to return to the ethos of politics as social work for those who cannot help themselves.
The Congress must rejuvenate itself, bringing in fresh faces and young blood into its leadership at all levels — village, block, district and state as well as national. Young Indians must believe we understand their aspirations and can be trusted to promote them in government. Our ideology assures them we do. We should broadcast it proudly and aloud across the nation.