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Congress, a mere 'me-too party' now

March 06, 2004

The most impressive election manifesto of them all was probably the one issued by the Congress in 1991.

Rajiv Gandhi was the party president, and he had spent his year out of office in getting together a group of people who cobbled together a programme for taking the country forward economically.

When the elections were called ahead of schedule, this spadework helped the party draft a manifesto that promised radical action in a time-bound manner: these steps in 100 days, those in the first year, and so on.

So, even though Rajiv did not survive the campaign and the party formed a government under PV Narasimha Rao, the roadmap was ready and had the party's imprimatur.

Rao had the good sense to appoint Manmohan Singh as his finance minister, and Singh knew what he had to do. When critics tried to stop him, he could cite the authority of the party manifesto.

Still, in a magazine interview when the reform programme had just got under way, Narasimha Rao confessed that he too had doubts about whether the programme would succeed, but felt it had to be tried.

Many of his Cabinet ministers had no doubt at all, they were not happy with the reforms -- and forced Manmohan Singh to roll back some measures that he proposed in his first (1991) Budget.

Narasimha Rao had his own doubts confirmed about the political 'saleability' of reforms when the Congress fared badly in state elections in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in 1993, for he attributed these to the unpopularity of the reforms.

The fact that the reforms did not figure in the campaign, made no difference. Manmohan Singh got little purchase after that, and it was no surprise in 1996 when the Congress under Narasimha Rao did little to claim credit for what the programme had achieved.

Warned that the party was not going to talk to the electorate about the reforms, Dr Singh had retorted: What else do we have to talk about?

Mr Rao soon lost his prime ministership and then the party presidency. Sitaram Kesri had no interest in reforms, for he used to argue that the reformers had never travelled through rural India.

Sonia Gandhi had doubts too, as to whether the reforms would help the poor, and got the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation to organise a series of seminars, with detailed background papers, addressing the question of the poor in the age of reforms.

Whatever those papers said, Ms Gandhi was not convinced and continued to argue that the reforms had no meaning for poor people like the cobbler in Amethi, and if the reformers pushed ahead with their agenda, then the country would witness a violent revolution.

She probably saw the reforms as the plaything of the rich (choice of airlines, mobile phones, freedom to travel overseas, etc), and seemed intent on winning the poor back for the Congress -- since the middle classes were alienated anyway, or lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

And so Manmohan Singh watched in frustration as the Mani Shankar Aiyars played a key role in drafting economic policy resolutions at party conclaves.

Even today, when the party is trying to retrieve the reform agenda and prevent it from becoming a brand property of the BJP, there is a half-hearted flavour to the whole approach.

Ms Gandhi's political instincts seem to draw her more towards an Indira-Gandhi style 'garibi hatao' pitch to the rural masses, even as the BJP has coined the rather more development-oriented 'BSP' slogan of 'Bijli, Sadak, Pani' (electricity, roads, water).

The ironies are obvious: the BJP was the swadeshi party, but has realised that India does not have to be defensive in its dealings with the world.

The BJP was the party of protectionist businessmen and threatened traders, but even they have changed their minds about the merits of globalisation.

And the Congress, which authored the reform programme and which could have used it for projecting the party's vision of a more prosperous India, has lost out on a key opportunity -- just as it has soiled its claim to the secular plank by falling periodically for the 'soft Hindutva' card.

It is no wonder, then, that the party that had two solid 'brand' properties, now finds itself playing the imitator card without much conviction, and that no one knows today what the Congress stands for and believes in.

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