Congress has a chance to keep the fight going

Subir Roy | Updated on October 31, 2019

Electoral test Congress has a chance   -  The Hindu

The recent Assembly elections showed that economic distress cannot be ignored. The Congress can use this to its advantage

The results of the Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly elections have come as a big boost for the Congress. Though the party lost, it put in a credible performance when the general expectation was that it would be decimated by an NDA walkover. The Congress is very much alive, and will be around when the next electoral test comes.

For the country, the results are even more significant. The BJP is set to change the nature of the Indian republic — by turning it into a Hindu rashtra — and the task before the Congress is to preserve the country in the form provided by the Constitution.

The election results are important for another reason. The Congress has put in a credible performance in spite of itself. It was riven by internal strife between the old guard and the young blood. Campaigning got off to a late start and Rahul Gandhi remained aloof. The input from the Nehru-Gandhi family was minimal.

A positive for the Congress is that it can now free itself from accusations of dynastic succession, as neither Rahul nor Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra seem eager to take over. Instead, these elections saw a bunch of regional leaders and allies.

Current prevailing issues

It is critical for the Congress and those who trust it to keep India plural, tolerant and open to chalk out a pathway. As a first step in this direction, a committee has been set up by Sonia Gandhi to formulate the party’s stand on key issues.

One of the most intractable is the Citizenship Amendment Bill. It seeks to discriminate on the basis of religion, which is anathema to the idea of India. But opposing it can cost the party the support of a certain section of Hindus. At some point, the Congress will have to decide to stand by its core beliefs despite short-term electoral considerations. For this, members have to bring their heads together and arrive at a consensus.

Another overarching issue is the state of the economy. It is currently on a steep downward journey, and falling GDP growth figures are a matter of intense political discourse. But the impact is also being felt at the grassroots and has affected popular sentiments. There is acute rural distress caused by the raw deal being meted out to the nation’s farmers. Stagnant rural purchasing power and the inability of farmers to even recoup their costs have manifest themselves in the adverse Assembly election results for the NDA from Haryana, and the drought-ravaged Vidharbha region of Maharashtra.

This is not all. Small businesses and the urban self-employed are yet to recover from the twin blows of demonetisation and chaotic introduction of the GST. This has affected jobs and brought unemployment to historically high levels.

In addition, there is serious concern over the state of the financial sector. First, it was the large banks which were crippled by their large NPAs and as a result unable to lend. Then came the NBFC distress, which further stifled credit flow, affecting the demand for housing and consumer durables.

The absolute last straw seems to be the troubles in the Punjab and Maharashtra Cooperative Bank and the RBI’s restrictions on withdrawals from it. As a result of this scam, focus has shifted to the extremely low level of deposit insurance prevailing in India. People are full of disquiet over whether their money is safe in banks.

Even those who should know better are worried. Odisha’s Finance Ministry first issued instructions to the entire State government machinery to be careful about keeping money in banks. A clarification was thereafter issued, obviously under pressure from the RBI, but the damage to public confidence was done.

Any Opposition party which has got its act together will today mount a concerted campaign against the ruling dispensation for mismanaging the economy and causing enormous hardship to the people. In the case of the Congress, it can compare the present situation with how the economy was launched on a high growth path by a Congress government under the intellectual leadership of Manmohan Singh. So what the Congress should be doing now that the voter has rescued it from threatened oblivion is position itself as an alternative which will promise a plural and prosperous India.

Election duality

The elections have also established a clear duality. The people voted sweepingly for Narendra Modi at the Centre a few months ago but did not vote in a similar manner for the BJP in the States. This is a repeat of the electorate giving Modi a sweeping victory in 2014, but thereafter bringing in Congress governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

In the latest Assembly elections, the BJP actively campaigned on the basis of nullifying Article 370, but the electorate was uninterested. National security and patriotic issues moved people in national elections but jobs, prices and caste grievances were the focus in State elections. This duality will be threatened if all elections are held simultaneously, which Modi dearly wants.

The writer is a senior journalist

Published on October 31, 2019

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