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The three parties get battle-ready

Last updated on: January 22, 2014 15:08 IST

The Congress,BJP and AAP have carved out clear constituencies for themselves. Some of them may overlap with one another, but they seem to have positioned themselves well, says A K Bhattacharya.

In the space of the last week, three political developments have taken place in the heart of the country's capital city. There is little doubt that all the developments are momentous because, taken together, they are a pointer to the kind of politics that the next government to be formed in New Delhi has to contend with.

First, it was Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s fiery address outlining what he thought would be the policy focus of the Congress in the forthcoming general election. After that came the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s emphasis on the big projects that he wishes to see come up in the country under his party's reign after the elections. And then there was the two-day-long agitation mounted by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party.

The three political leaders have set the agenda in quite their own distinctive ways and it would be useful to reflect on what their different approaches imply for the country's development agenda and how their different brands of politics will pose new challenges.

Let us start with Rahul Gandhi. Here was a man who claimed loudly that the United Progressive Alliance government had achieved a lot in the last 10 years. For the first time since he assumed charge of the Congress party as its vice-president, Gandhi showed some ownership of the several rights-based schemes that the UPA government introduced in the last 10 years. He talked about the various laws that were framed to give the people the right to information, jobs and education.

He recalled how farmers who lost their land to industry were compensated and the tribal people were given right to their forest lands. He talked about the unique identity scheme or the Aadhaar card that would help transfer government subsidies to the poor directly to their bank accounts without any leakage or misallocation. Gandhi also trumpeted the UPA's anti-corruption legislation to set up the Lok Pal, although he ignored the fact that the law would not have been framed without the kind of agitation the government faced in the last few years.

All of a sudden, it appeared Rahul Gandhi was able to convince his party men about the many programmes the UPA government had launched -- and how those could actually help the Congress go back to the people to renew their mandate for the party. What's more, he outlined a new agenda for action if the Congress were voted to power. He promised specific schemes to provide the people three basic amenities -- health, housing and education. Note that Gandhi did not talk about the usual poll promises of electricity, water and roads. The focus was more on facilities that benefit the poor people more than the economically privileged classes.

In sharp contrast, Narendra Modi of the BJP focused on big infrastructure projects in a bid to transform India and its infrastructure. He talked about plans to build 100 new cities, set up the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and the All-India Institutes of Medical Sciences in every state of India, implement a national river-linking project and construct super-fast trains connecting cities across the country.

He mooted the idea of building a new India with help of what he called the Five Ts -- talent, tradition, trade, tourism and technology. Of course, there was reference to agriculture and farmers. But even here the emphasis was on how the farmer could access the markets without hurdles and how hoarding could be eliminated or how a price stabilisation fund could help farmers and consumers.

It soon became clear that Modi was addressing the concerns of a different constituency -- not what Gandhi tried to achieve with the series of proposed measures that he announced. The BJP's prime ministerial candidate was keen to influence India's urban or semi-urban middle class and, presumably, farmers who have access to the markets. But Gandhi did not seem to bother about that constituency. He was talking about issues that concern the poor Indian.

The political agenda that Arvind Kejriwal pursued through his agitation outside Rail Bhavan in New Delhi was completely different. He chose a convenient target in the Delhi police, whose credibility as an honest and efficient law enforcement agency among the people of the capital city has always been very low. Kejriwal used the wrong methods, made the wrong demands and yet he succeeded in striking a chord with most ordinary people in the capital.

That was because he chose his target carefully and exploited the same sentiment of the people -- disenchantment with the political class -- that helped his party win 28 of the 70 seats in the Delhi assembly in the recent elections. And after the Union government partially met his demands by asking some police officers to go on leave, Kejriwal declared victory and called off his agitation.

What the three political developments of the last one week show is that India's politics has taken a new direction. There are the traditional political parties like the Congress and the BJP, which will nurture their vote banks in different segments of society. The Congress will try to impress the poor and the underprivileged by promising them more entitlement-based schemes and benefits. The BJP will hope to mobilise the urban middle class with the aspirations of a shining India. And Arvind Kejriwal's AAP would want to tap the huge dissatisfaction of urban India's underprivileged people with politicians and the current systems of governance.

All three have carved out clear constituencies for themselves. Some of them may overlap with one another, but they seem to have positioned themselves well. What happens to the so-called Third Front or the Left parties in this political calculation is difficult to anticipate. The forthcoming general election may well be a severe test for them, with their survival at stake.

A K Bhattacharya
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