To make its voice more credible and impactful, the Congress must articulate its alternative agenda for reforms, economic growth and a more inclusive political discourse that shuns socially polarising initiatives, says A K Bhattacharya.
For the first time in its tenure, the Narendra Modi government is facing turbulence.
Last month, senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party Yashwant Sinha launched a broadside against what he thought was the Modi government's inept handling of the economy, made worse by demonetisation and many glitches in the implementation of the goods and services tax.
A few days later, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat issued a mild warning in his Dussehra address, urging the government to 'safeguard' the interests of small traders and small businesses.
Arun Shourie, a member of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, also criticised the Modi government for taking steps that he thought were running the economy aground. And then came a website report on the business operations of Jay Shah, son of BJP President Amit Shah.
Like the pilot of a plane that faces mid-air turbulence, the government too has either taken corrective steps or tried to respond to the charges in a manner that its onward journey is not disrupted.
Initially, a minister of state in the Modi government tried to set the record straight by outlining how transformative steps have been taken to push up the economy's growth rate and revive investment.
A few BJP acolytes also wrote newspaper articles to challenge the assertions made by Sinha. Even Modi ticked off those who criticised the government for its economic performance.
In response to the website report, the BJP leadership prepared a quick response, denying all the suggestions made there and announcing that legal recourse will be sought.
Note that in all these cases, the government's response has been swift and aggressive. The turbulence analogy is appropriate. When the pilot senses that turbulence can be risky for passengers’ safety, she loses no time in taking necessary corrective steps.
But if the response is unusually aggressive and swift, it is also a reflection of the seriousness of the risk. It is reasonable to assume that the BJP leadership must be viewing the risks emanating from the developments of the last couple of weeks with some concern.
So, whatever be the force of denying that the economy faces strong headwinds, there is surely something the government also considers serious enough for it to respond with corrective steps.
Indeed, going beyond merely rebutting the criticism, the government has quickly decided to amend the GST rules, recognising the need to remove the glitches in the implementation of the new tax system.
The tax rates for several items under the GST were reduced to soothe the pain of small retailers and businesses. Units with a higher turnover level of Rs 1 crore, compared to an earlier threshold of Rs 75 lakh, have now been made eligible for the composition scheme that allows quarterly filing of returns, instead of a monthly cycle, and payment of lower rates of taxes between 1 and 5 per cent.
Moreover, businesses with a turnover of up to Rs 1.5 crore, too, can now file quarterly returns.
Remember that the RSS chief also had wanted the government to safeguard the interests of small traders and businesses.
The BJP leadership's quick response also has helped the ruling party to internalise the Opposition to its government's economic policies.
Sinha’s broadside against the government has of course exposed the weaknesses in its management of the economy. But equally significantly, it has usurped the role that rightfully should have belonged to the opposition political parties.
Yes, there have been periodic attacks against the Modi government from some Congress or Left leaders. But Sinha's decision to 'speak up' in a newspaper article (external link) has shifted all the focus of government criticism away from what the opposition leaders have been voicing sporadically.
Instead, the central focus of criticism against the government is either what Sinha articulated in his article or what Bhagwat outlined in his Dussehra address.
In a way, the BJP has expropriated the role that usually is played by the Opposition.
Optically, this might embarrass the BJP and even inconvenience its leadership. But having taken charge of a narrative to beat the ruling dispensation with is arguably a political gain in the short to medium term.
The only risk is if the movement initiated by the so-called insiders goes out of the BJP's control and boomerangs on it. But for that to happen the country needs a strong and active Opposition, which at present is missing.
So, the more important question today is: Where are India's opposition political parties? What are they doing?
It is time for the Congress, in particular, to regain the Opposition space that should ideally belong to it.
In recent weeks, there has been a resurgence of Congress leaders as many of them, including its vice president, Rahul Gandhi, have begun making important interventions to provide meaningful opposition to the government, a key ingredient in any democracy.
That, however, is not enough. The Congress voice is too feeble to make much of an impact, particularly when even the narrative on criticising government policies has been taken over by the BJP.
Not only is the Congress voice feeble. Whatever one hears from its leaders is largely a reaction to what the BJP government is doing.
To make its voice more credible and impactful, the Congress must articulate its alternative agenda for reforms, economic growth and a more inclusive political discourse that shuns socially polarising initiatives.