On Thursday, the Congress was bracing for a fresh wave of anti-incumbency after its government decided to decontrol diesel prices. By the weekend, however, the headlines had changed dramatically; instead of the opposition occupying the media’s mind space with diatribes against an “insensitive” government and so on, it was the Congress party and the formal ascendancy of political heir apparent Rahul Gandhi that dominated the news flow.
Whether through accident or design, it turned out to be another astute political move, the announcement coming right on the eve of the Congress party’s much publicized chintan shivir in Jaipur.
Earlier, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had, in a departure from the past, decided to announce politically sensitive and tough economic measures such as the railway fare increase outside the budget, cleverly mitigating political criticism and denying the opposition the grand stage of Parliament to attack the government.
The question is whether the party will lapse into somnolence, now that it has successfully managed the atmospherics, and go back to business-as-usual and wait for the Rahul Gandhi magic to work.
While the media may suffer from ADD (attention deficit disorder), the Indian public does not. It may overlook the visible flaws because it weighs the larger context when it votes—the Indian electorate is very discerning; with the demography shifting towards the youth, also increasingly impatient even while they are very conscious about their entitlements—and within this is their fundamental right to live with dignity.
This aspiration cannot be realized until the structural issues on hand—such as persistent double-digit food inflation and lack of jobs—which, though economic in character, hold enormous political import, are fixed.
Inflation squeezes the purchasing power of everyone—and you don’t need to have an economics pedigree to grasp the simple fact that as you go down the income ladder this squeeze gets worse. Similarly, the economy’s inexplicable inability to generate jobs despite record growth (or what this column keeps referring to as jobless growth—one million jobs in the five years ending 2008-09 when the economy averaged nearly 9% growth) is denting the rising aspirations across classes. The two together is the reason why inequality (though officials in government will cry themselves hoarse claiming this is not true) is visibly on the rise.
Worse, as the Annual Status of Education Report, 2012, released on Thursday showed, not only is the nation’s knowledge deficit worrying, even the quality of education that was imparted is a matter of concern. Previous data has demonstrated that a little over half of the 420 million workforce in the country is either illiterate or semi-literate—making it very difficult for them to acquire the skills to move up the occupation ladder.
This anti-incumbency matrix is complete if the issue of governance is thrown into the mix. Not only has the reputation of the Congress been singed after repeated allegations of corruption (some of which are in the various stages of trial), the public has generally begun to grasp that corruption is a key reason why their aspirations are not realized.
The good news is that the Congress party seems to be, since October, cognizant of the issues. Setting the agenda at the Jaipur meeting, Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, who is now retreating into the role of the party’s ideologue, said as much.
“We see various protest movements across the country, relating to land, forest, water and livelihood, tribal and gender issues. Our party must proactively take up these causes,” she said, before adding, “Around one crore youth seek productive jobs year after year. No other country faces such a challenge.”
The formal elevation of Rahul Gandhi seems to be part of a grand strategy wherein it is slowly and steadily arming itself for polls—either on schedule, next May, or even earlier.
On 18 January, Mint had compiled a graphic, Congress readying for polls (http://goo.gl/wvTAv), which clearly established that the party has, over the last few months, undertaken policy initiatives, including the direct cash transfers, that will help it combat anti-incumbency. A youthful face at the helm could only add to the attractiveness of the Congress’s appeal for a third consecutive term in power.
But it is one thing to manage atmospherics and another to deliver on promises. The Congress will find it difficult to explain away the government’s failures on inflation and jobs. One way out is to hard-sell some big ideas.
The direct cash transfers offer much promise; however, internal wrangling and jealousies all but torpedoed the idea of Aadhaar—the unique identity number project that will be the backbone of the direct cash transfers scheme, leaving the charge until a little too late.
In the final analysis, a lot will depend on what the political opposition does. So far, it has failed to capitalize on the stunning non-performance of the UPA; worse, it is yet to offer any big alternative idea targeting the youth and the problem of a lack of jobs. Even its criticism is devoid of energy and comes across as hackneyed.
Clearly, there is a vacuum in Indian politics to exploit. Who will claim it?
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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