Winning, although narrowly in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, was the easy part for the Congress.
The favourable signals were there from the party’s earlier by-election victories in the two states. But despite the Congress’s latest success, what must be worrying for the party is that it missed losing by a hair’s breadth, given how close the voting percentages were for the two contenders – 39.3 per cent for the Congress in Rajasthan against 38.8 for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and 40.9 per cent in Madhya Pradesh for the Congress against the BJP’s 41.
What this means for the Congress is that it doesn’t have a moment to lose to show that it can provide better governance than its predecessor. There is no time for the party to bask in the glory of having risen like a Phoenix from the ashes of the 2014 drubbing. It has to hit the ground running, as the phrase goes.
It will not do for the Congress to bank only on populist measure like loan waivers for farmers which are frowned upon by economists as sops which ultimately help neither the farmers nor the agricultural economy. The loan waivers are in line with Sonia Gandhi’s favourite rural employment scheme of the Manmohan Singh government which was of no help to the party in 2014.
Nor will the pursuit of a “soft” Hindutva line to project the Congress as a BJP minus the gau rakshaks be of any help. Instead, the party will have to take definitive steps to demonstrate that it means business in dealing with agrarian distress and unemployment – the two main factors which brought about the BJP’s downfall.
Neither of the two steps will be easy for a state government, especially when there is an unfriendly regime at the centre, waiting to see how it fumbles. But an emphasis on irrigation and on groundwater and surface water management can underline the state government’s serious intent.
An expansion of the formal credit facilities can also reduce the dependence of the farmers on rapacious money-lenders, as can efforts to ensure that the routine subsidies are not misappropriated by the richer farmers.
Similarly, joblessness can be partly alleviated by helping in the growth of small and medium businesses in states which haven’t yet been able to shed the damaging BIMARU tag of being “sick” where the social and economic indicators are concerned.
But, in addition to such initiatives which are within the capabilities of the state governments, it is time that the Congress at the national level outlines its broad economic vision, which has been hazy so far as was evident from Rahul Gandhi’s reluctance to specify what he means when he talks of supporting farmers, creating jobs and extending health care, as he did at the London School of Economics last summer.
The Congress and its president will have to realise that such generalities no longer pay political dividends. The voters, especially the youth, are interested in specifics, including the spelling out of targets.
Since the problem with the Congress is that it has been unable to make up its mind between populist and pro-market policies, it appears to be suspended in midair where economics is concerned with no one knowing what to expect from a Congress government – a return to Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms or to Sonia Gandhi’s focus on freebees.
So far, the Congress governments in Punjab and Karnataka have been run-of-the-mill ones with little to show them as result-oriented, especially in the matter of bolstering the economy.
But, now that three more states have come under the party’s aegis, there has to be greater focus in its policies instead of a recourse to homilies.
For Rahul Gandhi, the unambiguous projection of an economic direction in the run-up to the next general election will be a bigger test than containing the Congress’ age-old malady of internal factionalism dating to the Tilak-Gokhale split of 1907.
If Narendra Modi is perceived to be faltering, it is because he tried to tackle the country’s economic ills with patchwork repairs like opening myriad bank accounts, providing direct cash transfers for cooking gas cylinders, extending rural electrification and undertaking faster highway construction. But he failed in carrying out what are called “big bang” reforms to rejuvenate the economy, which was the expectation behind his 2014 success.
If Rahul Gandhi, too, is found to be following in the BJP’s footsteps not only in pursuing “soft” Hindutva, but also in the economic field, the unforgiving people of India, who are increasingly becoming impatient for quick results, will have no hesitation in dumping the Congress.
The Congress president’s problem is that he will have carry with him his allies in the mahagathbandhan – if and when the grand alliance is formed – and so he cannot make unilateral announcements on key issues.
But he must remember that the eagerness with which many of them court foreign investors shows that the earlier aversion of the average politician to capitalism is dying out.
Rahul Gandhi will have to state whether he shares their views or still considers himself to be a foot soldier of the Niyamgiri tribals of Odisha who ensured the eviction of investors from their sacred hills.