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Why Rahul's strategy will fail

Last updated on: January 29, 2013 20:57 IST

The Congress could have regained some lost ground had it returned to welfare and a pro-poor platform. Instead, it has moved in the opposite direction.

Rahul Gandhi's upper middle class-based political mobilisation strategy is likely to fail badly, feels Praful Bidwai.

Rahul Gandhi's elevation as Congress vice-president after the party's two-day Chintan Shivir in Jaipur was an organisational non-event. He was already functioning as the party's number two, and there wasn't an iota of doubt that he would succeed his mother in conformity with the dynastic principle. The true significance of his new appointment is political and twofold.

First, the Congress decided to project Rahul Gandhi as its top leader or mascot in the next Lok Sabha election. And second, the thinking of Rahul and his confidants (often called 'second-edition baba log' because of their elite backgrounds) found an unmistakable expression in various leaders's speeches and the so-called Jaipur declaration.

Ironically, the clearest expression was to be found not in Rahul's speech, but his mother's. Rahul Gandhi reflected on the limitations of India's political system in accommodating and articulating the interests of various sections of the people, on prevalence of mediocrity in governance, and on state leaders's failure to delegate powers to subordinate bodies.

He also tugged at the emotions of Congress workers by talking in a very personal manner about his trauma at the killing of his grandmother by the guards who had taught him to play badminton.

However, it was left to Sonia Gandhi to ask the Congress to reach out to India's 'aspirational' middle-classes. She said the party must recognise the new changing India, increasingly peopled by a younger, more aspirational, more impatient, more demanding and better educated generation.

This is a natural and welcome outcome of rapid economic and social change brought about by United Progressive Alliance programmes to empower 'the disadvantaged.'

India's youth, she added, 'is getting more assertive, it wants its voice to be heard.' Aided by 'television, social media, mobile phones and the Internet, today's India is better informed and better equipped to communicate; people are expecting more from their political parties. We cannot allow growing educated middle classes to be alienated from the political process.'

The substance of this position was drafted well before the Jaipur conclave by a working group set up by Rahul Gandhi's team. Its purpose was to distance him from Sonia Gandhi's Left-of-Centre orientation and articulate his own socio-economic views.

Rahul's assertiveness was also reflected in the fact that half the invitees to the shivir were from the Youth Congress.

Rahul's line was duly reflected in the 56-point declaration, which acknowledges that 'there is a rising educated and aspirational middle class. We will continue to create new opportunities for them and a climate conducive to their advancement.'

It defines the Congress's primary constituency not as poor and marginalised Dalits, Adivasis, religious minorities and other backward classes, whose cause it once championed, but more vaguely as the 'middle ground' and pledges it 'to speak for both the young middle-class India and the young deprived India.'

In several places, the declaration text conjoins the middle-class with the aam aadmi and exhorts the Congress to adopt an election platform of 'nationalism, social justice, economic growth for all -- especially the aam aadmi and the middle class -- and secularism.'

Clearly, the Congress has shifted ground. It has redefined and illegitimately expanded aam aadmi to include youth and the upwardly mobile middle-class. The term 'middle-class' is a misnomer in India.

Unlike in the West, where the middle-class earns close to society's median income and forms two-thirds of the population, in India the term connotes a much richer, narrower group. Even if all the income-tax-paying and vehicle-owning strata are included, this upper crust at best forms only 10 to 15 percent of India's population -- indisputably the elite.

Legitimacy apart, the Congress has executed this shift for three reasons. First, it is worried that if it ignores the assertive, articulate urban elite, it may do badly in the next election in the cities -- the very places where the UPA did well in 2009.

Second, the Congress is buying into the 'aspirational' discourse promoted by some sections of the media.

Third, under Rahul Gandhi, it is moving further away even rhetorically from the economic redistribution agenda.

All three reasons are questionable. The UPA did perform better in urban and semi-urban areas than in villages. It won 81 out of the 144 urban seats (a 56 percent strike-rate), compared to 147 of the 342 rural seats (43 percent). Its strike-rate was much higher (60 percent) in the big cities. For instance, it made a clean sweep of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad.

But the Congress's story is different. Its urban strike-rate was 10 percentage points lower than the UPA's. It did reasonably well in urban Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kerala and Punjab, but poorly in urban Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Orissa.

The bulk of the Congress's urban votes probably came from the poor and lower middle-classes, including slumdwellers, and not from the upper middle-class, which generally prefers the Bharatiya Janata Party or other non-Congress parties.

It would be foolish for the Congress to chase that class just because it became vocal in the recent anti-corruption and anti-rape mobilisations.

The Congress should, of course, have taken a clear stand on the Lokpal. It should also have been less defensive about its government's shoddy and repressive handling of the anti-rape protests. But that still does not mean that the Congress should have proactively wooed the upper middle-class.

Second, much recent theorising about this class is simply wrong. It incorrectly argues that high ambition and aspirations uniformly bind India across urban-rural and class divides. While the old aam aadmi wants 'patronage', the new middle-class-mediated variant wants to prosper through 'entrepreneurship'.

The first spells the 'politics of grievance'; the second 'the politics of aspiration'; the first is confrontational, the second inclusive.

This categorisation distorts reality, minimises income, wealth and urban-rural disparities in this society, and exaggerates the trickle-down effect of India's skewed and inequality-enhancing growth. It under-rates the people's demand for basic public services, including healthcare, education, food security and employment.

This demand does not reflect a longing for patronage, but the universal and democratic entitlement of citizens to a decent life.

People want healthcare services from the government. If these are not available, they are forced to pauperise themselves by going to private hospitals or quacks. They pay 70 percent-plus of their health expenses out-of-pocket. But they understand the connection between such spending and poverty. A single illness can instantly push a small viable farmer's family below the poverty line.

Finally, the Congress shift towards the upper middle-class reflects Rahul Gandhi's conservative outlook. He is a believer in 'growth first' or GDPism: The view that poverty reduction only demands rapid growth, not redistribution.

Growth will increase the State's revenues and allow it to fund welfare, preferably through market-based instruments and direct cash transfers.

No radical measures like universal health provision or food security, leave alone land reforms, measures to empower landless and marginal farmers, or higher taxes on the rich, are needed.

The UPA's tax revenues have indeed grown four-fold since 2004, but it has chosen to use them to subsidise the rich, not empower the poor. Under neo-liberal policies, the government cedes control over investment to corporations, which have no incentive to bring about employment-intensive growth or improve public welfare.

So the basic growth process always remains skewed, perpetuates mass poverty, and further increases inequalities, which are already obscene in India.

This further distorts the economy and undermines social cohesion. That was India's experience during the past two high-growth decades. The UPA half-heartedly tried to correct this through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, food security laws and other measures proposed by the National Advisory Council.

But Sonia Gandhi allowed the NAC's recommendations to be overturned or diluted, and progressively changed its composition in a conservative direction.

At Jaipur, Sonia Gandhi's shift culminated in an embrace of the growth-first perspective plus an obsessive emphasis on the upper middle-class as a Congress constituency. This is likely to be a tragedy for the party, whose base among the broad masses, except for Adivasis and Muslims, has shrunk greatly and is no wider than its 28 percent vote-share in the general population.

The Congress has ceased being an agenda-laying party. Although it still enjoys a higher vote-share and a broader base than the Bharatiya Janata Party, it no longer sets the terms of India's politics.

It rules on its own only in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Assam, Haryana, Himachal, Delhi, Uttarakhand and Manipur, and in coalitions in Maharashtra, Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir. It is insignificant in major states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

The Congress could have regained some lost ground had it returned to welfare and a pro-poor platform. Instead, it has moved in the opposite direction.

Rahul Gandhi's strategy for reviving the party organisation via the Youth Congress route and by holding inner-party elections has failed. As did his election campaigns in UP and Bihar. His upper middle class-based political mobilisation strategy is also likely to meet the same fate.

Praful Bidwai