The Congress is working overtime to prove its reforms credentials. Or should we say: re-prove them. After being hobbled down by a Leftist Mamata for far too long, the Congress seems to have found its space all over again. In doing so, the Congress is playing a shrewed political game – sensing an opportunity which few others have sensed. It has also managed to de-position the BJP.
Here’s how. The Congress’s traditional voter base has been the rural poor, the farmers and the Muslims (in most states, except in UP and Bihar). In some of the states, it has squandered its grip to offshoots – like the TMC in Bengal, the NCP in Maharashtra and more recently, the Jagan led party in AP. All these parties are essentially the Congress itself; but having a separate identity helps their leaders secure a more prime place in governance and in politics. The big point however is that the Congress’s politics is about rural areas. Hence the MNREGA; the loan waiver; the repeated increases in Minimum Support Price; the Food Security Bill; the lavish Land Acquisition Bill etc etc. While every party is pro-poor and pro-rural folks, the Congress is the biggest claimant to this class of voters.
To this, the Congress added in 2009 the fast growing segment of urban middle class, usually a BJP strong hold. The Congress has added this segment on the back of a few gaping holes in the BJP armory. Traditionally, the biggest bugbear of the urban middle class – its complaint with the BJP – has been the “Hindutva” agenda of the party. Most urbanites have evolved and moved away from petty religious issues and believe in communal harmony. The focus has shifted towards economic progress. The BJP’s fierce and divisive politics of Ayodhya still rankles them. But the more orthodox of the middle classes have lent support to the BJP on this score.
The other gaping hole has been the BJP’s apparent lack of progressive economic thinking. The BJP first showed that during the 2008 Indo-US nuclear deal debate and vote in Parliament. Most urbanites anyday prefer anything “US” to anything “Russian” or indeed today anything “Swadeshi”. The BJP has completely misread this sentiment, preferring to fork a US-phobia to urbanites. The urban voters wanted the nuclear deal, just like they want the Jaitapur and Kudankulam power plants. But the BJP voted against the deal and squandered an otherwise strong position they had before the 2009 elections. The BJP’s long term ally, the Shiv Sena, is now creating a shindig around Jaitapur.
The BJP has made a huge mistake in opposing reforms. Whatever the party may do to explain that every reform is not related to FDI, in the common person’s space, it is. If more FDI enters the country, the country progresses faster. They get more jobs. There are more “foreign-like” shops that open. Our cities look more global. There is more pride in the people etc etc. Honestly, no one in the urban centers agrees with the BJP on the “40 million jobs will be lost” theory the BJP is propounding. They have seen more than 2000 Indian large formats open and they have only seen more jobs being created.
Then there is the larger issue of opposing all reforms. The BJP opposes everything. All this doesn’t go unnoticed. The middle class is savvy enough to demand alternate solutions rather than just questions being asked.
Net Net, the Congress has rightly regained its reforms imagery. If reforms was not the Congress’s agenda, why would it want to have Manmohan Singh as the PM? It could have had any pliant politician to hold the job until Rahul became ready. Here’s the other truth about the middle class. They love Manmohan Singh, no matter what attempts the BJP may make in calling him a puppet of Sonia. There is a strong belief that MMS is clean and in today’s politics – when the BJP’s party President Gadkari is again and again getting embroiled in corruption controversies – even that is good enough.
The Congress also realizes how the mood has swung around since it started announcing the reforms. As I write this post, the Sensex is kissing 19K and the Re has bounced back to the 51 levels. There is a visible relief in the corporate sector that the economy will start to roll again. Investments are expected to start soon too and with that job growth. In today’s India, at least as far as Lok Sabha elections go, economics has started to matter significantly. By positioning itself on the reforms bandwagon, the Congress is carving out a completely isolated and unique position for itself. Equally importantly, it has completely depositioned the BJP, which suddenly appears to have nothing to offer as far as growth and reforms are concerned. It has also managed to create a rift within the party – with business minded states like Gujarat being forced to tow the party line, in spite of their genetic bias towards progress.
The real truth is that the Congress has managed to position itself as the sole supporter of reforms. In a country that aspires, first and foremost, for rapid growth and well paying jobs, that’s a solid advantage. The BJP may stick to its head in the sand attitude for now; but sooner rather than later, it will have to change tracks.