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In the second part of a series on the brand identity of political parties, we look at the Congress and Rahul Gandhi. The first part, published on Tuesday, looked at the BJP and Narendra Modi.

After independence, and partition, the Congress party, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, relentlessly pursued and promoted the idea of a secular India.

Over time, though, as successive Congress governments and leaders began to cynically court and appease minority communities with an eye on the math of vote banks, the term came to mean the opposite of what it does.

No one exemplified this better than the late Rajiv Gandhi. In the early 1980s, after the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgement granting maintenance to a Muslim woman, Shah Bano, who had been divorced from her husband, and Muslims took to the streets in protest against a ruling they claimed went against their beliefs, Gandhi forced through a law in Parliament denying Muslim women the right to maintenance from their former husbands. To balance this appeasement of one community with the appeasement of another, he asked the then Uttar Pradesh government to open up the temporary Ram temple set up inside the Babri Masjid complex (and which had been closed by court order). The rest is history.

Meanwhile, many Muslims themselves believe the Congress uses them in both its “inclusion" and “exclusion" efforts. And all of them face the same challenges as Indians of just about any religion do: unemployment, corruption and poor infrastructure.

The lack of closure over the 1984 anti-Sikh riots—again, under Rajiv Gandhi’s watch—sent out two clear messages. The Congress wasn’t above regressing to communal rhetoric when suitable to political needs, and it would, if allowed to, abuse a constitutionally secular state’s law and order apparatus (the police in the case of Delhi) to facilitate its efforts.

Not surprisingly, the Congress has been mocked by opponents for its so-called pseudo-secularism. Millions of Indians find it difficult to reconcile themselves to the one-country-two-laws theory that the Congress clearly subscribed to back then, and probably still does. In action and inaction, the Congress has been consistent in the belief that communal divisions, and the related electoral math, are part of its political strategy.

On the economic front too, the Congress has indulged in ideological double-speak.

Indira Gandhi claimed to stand for economic nationalization and a re-distributive public policy, but her years in office were also characterized by favours extended to a small and powerful business elite. She undermined regulatory institutions (I wonder why that sounds familiar) and, during the emergency she declared between 1975 and 1977, played with the country’s fundamental democratic principles themselves. In 1977, when she asked for electoral support against this backdrop, the alienated middle classes who didn’t need government welfare but weren’t allowed to reap the benefits of merit and individual promise either, rejected her; the masses, with nothing but the promise of a “right to vote", deserted; and the business and political elite were too small to sustain her politically.

A weak opposition ensured her return in 1980, but the writing on the wall was clear when Rajiv Gandhi inherited her mantle in 1984. The young Rajiv Gandhi, who won a staggering mandate in the wake of his mother’s assassination, sought to change the licence Raj culture. Gandhi also tried to open up India’s economy, but allegations of corruption and crony capitalism continued to dog him—the most notable being the case of kickbacks paid in the purchase of the Bofors guns—till his premature death in 1991.

Since Rajiv Gandhi, the double speak has continued. The process of opening up India’s economy accelerated in the 1990s and an important milestone was achieved in 1991-92, which many people see as the onset of liberalization in the country. India’s growth rate zoomed (if inconsistently at that), but the liberalization was partial. This once again created a nexus of political and business elite that showed no regard for corporate governance. Their focus was on a patronage-based system of resource grabbing.

If the resultant scams have eroded the faith of the electorate in the highest elected positions in this country, and hurt growth, then the government’s fiscally unsound social agenda has pushed the economy over the precipice.

A social agenda is a must in a country like India, which has a large number of poor and underprivileged, but to fund this, the government needs to ensure tiger-economy like growth. That hasn’t happened.

The result is a brand positioning that is confused—and nowhere is this more evident than in the jargon-laced statements of the Congress’ putative prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi, who has worked hard to project himself as an outsider trying to change the “system" in India’s oldest party. Yet, his appeal to the electorate is built around the entitlements his government has focused on over the past decade (information, food, education), and not aspirations.

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