With Kharge as leader in Lok Sabha, Congress looks to tone down pro-reform stance

AM Jigeesh New Delhi | Updated on June 08, 2014

Mallikarjun Kharge

Party leadership hopes to make common cause with the Left, regional parties

The selection of Mallikarjun Kharge as the Congress party’s leader in the Lok Sabha signals new alignments in the Opposition benches with a shrunk Congress using the former Union Labour Minister to make common cause with the Left.

Understanding that other significant parties in the Opposition — the AIADMK, the BJD and the TMC — can, at best, be relied on in very few cases, the Congress believes a scaling down of its known position on reforms can help it play a stronger Opposition role.

For this reason, perhaps, Congress President Sonia Gandhi chose Kharge over seniors such as former Karnataka Chief Minister M Veerappa Moily and pro-reform MP Kamal Nath. Kharge, a known opponent of neo-liberal policies when he was in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet, was projected by the Congress in order to reflect a ‘toning down’ of policy while the party is in the Opposition.

As Labour Minister, Kharge was a favourite of the trade unions. He initiated talks to increase the EPF pension, amend the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act of 1970 and fix minimum wages at ₹10,000 a month.

“He was sympathetic to our cause. But he could not do anything for workers as the decision-makers of the UPA Government, such as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister P Chidambaram, and the Congress leadership were apathetic to the problems of workers. He did not carry any weight in the Cabinet,” said Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh general-secretary Brijesh Upadhyay.

Kharge had even told a delegation of trade union leaders that he has been vocal in raising the issues of workers in the Cabinet, but “can hardly sit in a dharna at the gates of the Prime Minister’s residence”.

The Left, however, is suspicious of what it believes is “opportunistic positioning”. Left leaders believe that the Congress and the BJP oppose neo-liberal policies only when they are in the Opposition. The Congress was vocal in criticising the activities of the department of disinvestment headed by Arun Shourie in the AB Vajpayee Government. The BJP was critical of the decontrol of petroleum prices.

“Kharge is a nice man. But his selection is not a signal of change in the Congress’ policies. Whenever they are in the Opposition, both the BJP and the Congress have claimed that they are opposed to neo-liberal policies. But the moment they come to power, they forget such opposition,” AK Padmanabhan, President, Centre of India Trade Unions, said.

Reaching out

Sources in the Congress said there is a feeling in the party leadership that the party’s policies need to be reviewed. Vice-President Rahul Gandhi has been critical of many of the policy initiatives of the UPA Government. A section of the Congress says such contradictions within the party and the Government led to the massive defeat in the elections.

Congress leaders from Kerala had publicly said the decision to link Aadhaar card with subsidies, decontrol of petrol prices and the decision to limit subsidised LPG cylinders are the real reasons for the defeat. “Kamal Nath and Veerappa Moily are proponents of such policies. Kharge is different,” said a former Minister.

The Congress leadership has already reached out to the Left parties and some regional parties on building an alliance in the Opposition space. Rahul Gandhi, who has declined the Opposition leader’s post, is likely to take a tour of the country to look at ways to revive the Congress’ units.

Published on June 08, 2014

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