Originally Published 2013-04-09 00:00:00 Published on Apr 09, 2013
Rahul Gandhi, during his recent 75-minute talk at the CII, may have left enough hints - and some more pronounced than the rest -on the need for the party to 're-invent' itself and re-visit some of the policies, including those of the 'economic reforms era'.
Rahul Gandhi's CII talk and the hints for policy-makers
Ruling Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi may not have said it all in his 75-minute CII talk in New Delhi. Yet, he may have left no one in doubt that the party has to - and will, in his time - revisit the policies of the past decades and take it back to the 'basics' as far as the core ideologies and constituencies of the Congress went.

Analysts who expected more from Rahul Gandhi in his first full-fledged and public interaction with the nation's Big Business have been uncharitable at best and critical otherwise. With a party Government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, rightly hailed as the 'Father of Economic Reforms', and a more exuberant Finance Minister in P Chidambaram, both well in place, anything more that Rahul Gandhi could have been misconstrued by party insiders and misinterpreted otherwise. Thus he walked the tight-rope and was seen doing it with as much ease and poise for someone much younger and inexperienced in governance and policy-making as he is.

Yet, Rahul Gandhi may have left enough hints - and some more pronounced than the rest - on the need for the party to 're-invent' itself and re-visit some of the policies, including those of the 'economic reforms era'. The most pronounced and the most direct of his messages pertained to de-centralisation of power and power-sharing through the panchayati raj scheme, the pet theme of his slain father Rajiv Gandhi when he was Prime Minister. In his time, Rajiv Gandhi himself sought to revive the Congress' pet ideology based on Mahatma Gandhi's vision that 'India lives in its villages'. Increasingly, post-Independence, post-reforms India has moved away from that scheme. There are others beside Rajiv Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi who have felt - and argued, even more assiduously - for empowering the panchayat 'pradhans' as a means to address some, if not much of the nation's accumulated ills of governance, and/or non-governance.

Reforms with a 'human face'?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had coined and popularised the slogan, 'Reforms with a human face' during the successful ruling UPA's campaign for the 2009 parliamentary polls. It was an improvement on party President Sonia Gandhi's 'aam aadhmi' slogan from the previous 2004 polls, and an indirect admittance that it had not worked through the first five-year term of the UPA Government, and needed refurbishing and replenishing. Rahul Gandhi, it can be said, is now seeking to serve old wine in a newer bottle, still. Alternatively, it can be argued that he is seeking to revive the spirit of those slogans and the ideology that they represented and stood for in a bygone era.

There is also general acceptance that the 'trickle-down' theory of economic reforms has not worked, as marketed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from his days as the Finance Minister in the Nineties. In political terms, he has been in overall charge of the nation's economy and economic policies for 15 of the 20-plus years that the 'economic reforms' has been at work. With the result, whatever Rahul Gandhi may have said on the current health of the economy, either by way of observation or prescription, would have been interpreted, misinterpreted or mischievously interpreted as an 'indictment' of Prime Minister Singh.

Instead, by broadly outlining his vision to the industry leaders that everyone has to cooperate and work together, Rahul Gandhi took his unspecified, yet not-wholly uncharted discourse, beyond decentralisation. He was hinting at the Government and the Big Business to work together to ensure 'inclusive growth' which did not seem to have happened the way and to levels expected. Questions remain. Already, the UPA Government has re-packaged the forgotten 'Food for Work' progamme as a 100-day rural employment scheme with a cash component replacing food. The more recent 'cash transfer' scheme in terms of food subsidy also implies replacing the food component, over which there are arguments galore.

Consistent, revivalist

It is the kind of dichotomy that Rahul Gandhi will have to address, if his 'vision' for the nation has to be consistent, meaningful and result-oriented. Despite his public pronouncements of the kind not producing the expected electoral benefits over the past years, he is seen as being consistent at the very least - unacknowledged by most, though. The gap between the party policy that the 'First Family' identifies with and those of the Congress-led Government ever since Sonia Gandhi led it back to power in 2004, however, are pronounced. Wherever the Manmohan Singh Government makes concessions to the forgotten 'socialist values' of equity, if not equality, the fight has been within the Congress, not extending to the larger UPA mostly. The Government has been seen granting those concessions rather reluctantly, with the result the resultant media discourse has not brought any political or electoral benefits to the party that even catchy slogans like 'aam aadhmi' had done.

It is equally unclear if the Rahul Gandhi prescription for the Congress Party and any future government led by the party would distinguish between liberalisation and globalisation, which had together formed the crux of the 'economic reforms' process. At a time when not much substantial has been seen as coming in the form of FDI, as had been hoped for in the past, Indian industry has been investing more and more overseas, in captive coal-fields to manufacturing units of all kinds, shapes and sizes. This again has to do with regulations of a different kind. In the place of the much-maligned 'permit raj' from the past, we now have other impediments to growth and development like overzealous civil society positions on environmental issues, constant judicial intervention that also lacks in consistency, policy and programme shifts accompanying change in political leadership (the 'Golden Quadrangle' being the striking example).

All of this only goes to show that the Indian industry can do as much as a foreign investor would do. What is needed is a climate conducive to such investments, fast-tracked decisions and double-quick implementation. At the introduction of the economic reforms regimen, these precisely were spelt out as problem areas, and these were sold as the eternal solutions that a mind-set change alone can induce. After two decades and more of reforms, that has not happened. Instead, impediments of a different kind -- however justified, as the defenders of the 'permit raj' used to reason out in their time -- has taken over. This does not mean that the environment lobby, pro-poor ideologues defending the inherent rights of small and marginal land-owners, tribal people and the rest, do not have a cause - or, a case. Or, that the urban middle class does not have a case to expect more of (good) governance (again of a different, non-interventionist kind).

Capturing imagination

Anna Hazare's movement was about corruption. But the popular appeal of the same transcended corruption, and covered all aspects of bad governance and mal-governance. The nation-wide students' protest on the 'Delhi girl rape-case' was about the inability of the nation's youth - and the rest, too - to live with growing lawlessness. In rural areas, be it in Singur, Koodamkulam or Chattisgarh, it has captured the imagination of the local population differently. In the increasingly urbanising parts of reforms-rich India, the rich-poor gap is growing even more strikingly, and is being felt even more constantly, still. The anti-Bangladeshi protests in Mumbai, the anti-Sri Lanka students' demonstrations in Tamil Nadu (apart from the competitive politics of regional parties, to which chorus the so-called responsible national parties too have added their contrasting yet constricted voice) are also a reflection of the present-day youth's fear of the unknown, the fear of the 'pink-slip' that their forebears did not even know had existed.

Rahul Gandhi's indication that the Government and the industry should work together to ensure 'inclusive growth' would be watched with interest for the kind of methodology that he would have to suggest, after the existing model, like the 'socialist raj' before it, has failed to deliver on the utopian promise. Even more interesting - and challenging - would be his efforts to involve the panchayats and pradhans in this undefined vision of his. This in itself has its roots in the dream of his father, who in turn was seen by many as 'hope for the future' - not when Rajiv Gandhi entered politics but definitely when he became Prime Minister after Indira Gandhi's assassination.

Of panchayats and pradhans

In Rahul Gandhi's scheme, for instance, the panchayats and pradhans should have a voice in the developmental agenda. At one-level, they will be speaking for - and are expected to speak for - the people, not the party, and not certainly on behalf of the policy-maker, distanced in time and space from their own rural circumstances. Clearly, Rahul Gandhi is not speaking Gandhiji's economic agenda, based on rural India. He is speaking, rather reviving Jawaharlal Nehru's combination of building a nation with the 'temples of modern India', namely, the industries, but with the freedom, participation and freedom of participation for the grassroots-level population.

It is just not about handing out subsidies, in cash or kind or ensuring social equity through reservations and promotions. It is plain and simple about participation at the decision-making level, which the panchayati raj system had envisioned but had failed, like all others. The problems of the panchayati raj are also a problem about Centre-State relations even in the best of times. With increasing regionalisation of national politics, re-calibrating the States to grant the kind of freedom and empowerment for the panchayats that they themselves demand from the Centre is going to be more than a Herculean task. That Rahul Gandhi did not attempt it even with the Congress-ruled States should speak volumes.

'NaMo model' in Gujarat

Thus, both forward and backward integration of the vision that Rahul Gandhi has for a 'newer India' after the 'new India' has become old is as much about nut-and-bolt mechanics as it is about concepts and knowhow, which again he is yet to outline in clearer and simpler terms. In political terms, any such grandiose clarification of his will be tested against the existing touch-stone of 'NaMo model' of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, which is said to be working under the existing socio-political and politico-economic schemes of the 'reforms era' - though, only in the State thus far.

That again is a grandiose plan that Modi would have to explain to the nation how he intends to work at the national-level, with all its complexities. Not all those problems can he hope to address off-hand as he has done in Gujarat. The complexities of the coalition era are as much constitutional as they are political.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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