In the last six months, the Bhartiya Janata Party
(BJP) has chalked up win after win in state and local elections, reflecting a continuation of the national Narendra Modi
wave that began with the 2014 general election.
In response to continuing electoral embarrassment, leaders of the Congress Party, including most recently Jairam Ramesh
and Mani Shankar Aiyar, have admitted that the party is facing an “existential crisis” and needs introspection.
The Congress Party’s strategy for the last two years has focused entirely on denouncing the intolerance that has flourished under the Modi government. In response to concerns of intolerance that are front of mind for urban liberals, the Congress has decided to make this issue its clarion call. While intolerance is a serious issue that we are all concerned about, this approach to politics
reflects laziness that has unfortunately become the modus operandi for the Congress. In the wake of any issue or event, when Congress leaders can’t find anything else to talk about, they just revert to often-rehashed remarks on intolerance. For younger members of the party, intolerance is an easy talking point because it is clearly in accordance with the party line. As a result, the Congress has effectively become a single-issue party.
Many of us today agree with the Congress on social issues and we support the fight against intolerance. But that is all that the Congress has offered us. The Congress once used to fight for “inclusive development,” but even that reputation has been tarnished by several corruption scandals and that focus has been lost. Recently, the Congress has picked up issues ad hoc, ranging from farmer suicides to floods in Gujarat, but it hasn’t really suggested any policies to solve these longstanding problems. As a result of this haphazard approach, the Congress Party
doesn’t have a coherent economic or development policy that we can get behind. Realizing this, even social liberals tend to abashedly side with the BJP on its agenda of economic liberalism. Hence, the Congress’s hold even on urban liberals is tenuous at best, dangling from one weak ideological thread. If the BJP somehow came to its senses and stopped condoning intolerance, then what reason at all would we have to support the Congress?
The Congress often argues that dealing with intolerance is a prerequisite for dealing with other economic and development issues. By their logic, secularism is so fundamental to our country and to our democracy that it serves as the foundation for all other progress. However, the Congress should perhaps take note of the implications of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on voting behaviour. Securing food and shelter is ultimately the primary concern of voters before they can begin to think about higher concepts like “justice” and “democracy”. Voters have even become willing to even give up “justice” and “democracy” if it means having a leader who can actually execute on a vision of economic progress and thereby satisfy more immediate, lower-level needs. Hence, for the hundreds of millions of poor farmers and labourers in India, there is a nascent belief that economic progress is perhaps paramount to social progress.
Unless the Congress realises the primacy of economic and development issues, it likely does not have a chance of stemming the tsunami of public support for the BJP. As the Congress gradually abdicated economic leadership over the last several years, the BJP astutely identified and exploited the void. Since 2014, it has sold a vision of “vikas” that has become a marching cry for the nation. This new economic agenda, which cuts across religion, language, and caste, brought the Indian middle class into the political dialogue and gave them a reason to vote. Since then, the BJP has continued to dominate the economic discourse, while the Congress is mired in debates about intolerance. Even though liberalisation of the FDI regime and introduction of the GST were ideas that the Congress Party
originally developed, Congress’s failure to implement them has allowed the BJP to usurp all the credit. It is imperative that the Congress now find its own economic vision to define the future of India.
Why is it that the Congress has recently ceased to come up with good economic ideas, and has completely ceded the development agenda to the BJP? Unfortunately the Congress has become a party that knows how to play politics, but has forgotten how to make policy. To address this issue, young leaders in the party, hungry for change, should be given more responsibility in setting the party’s agenda. Continuing to put the same old hands into positions of power means that the party will lack the fresh ideas it needs to compete with the BJP and will remain a victim of its own groupthink. These young leaders should be given the reins to reform, refine, and clarify the party’s policy platform. In addition, the party should try to attract a cadre of talented economists, businessmen, academics, and other professionals into its ranks to help shape this agenda, so that the final product has the imprint of actual policymakers, not just career politicians. On each leg of the platform, the party should seek to develop subject matter expertise so that it can propose concrete solutions. To do so, the party should constitute internal committees (akin to “thinktanks”) on each policy issue and publicly publish reports that clarify the Congress’s stance and demonstrate its competency.
As the party crafts its new policy agenda, it should refocus the debate away from intolerance towards a new economic and development vision for the nation. For example, could the Congress begin to focus on economic policies for the millions of micro, small, and medium enterprise owners and workers who have suffered under the BJP’s poorly implemented demonetisation and GST programmes? This group of voters has so far supported the BJP, but is likely beginning to discover that not all of the BJP’s policies have worked in their favour. Could the Congress create new policies to ease the infinite logistical hurdles that these businesses face? Could the Congress provide resources and training to help these businesses compete more effectively in a global marketplace that is increasingly dominated by large industrial conglomerates?
This is only one idea to re-establish the Congress’s economic credentials. India faces an infinite number of economic and development issues that all need new ideas and solutions. The point is that the BJP should not be seen as the only party that focuses on economic progress. The Congress should formulate and promote its own vision for the future of the nation. The years of being able to bank upon the Congress Party’s freedom-fighting credentials are long gone. Unless the Congress can transition from being a backward-looking party to one that can sell a vision for the future, it will likely find further defeat in the next general elections.
The author is currently pursuing the MBA/MPP joint degree at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he was selected as a Rubenstein Fellow. He was previously on the Private Equity team at The Blackstone Group and the investment banking team of Morgan Stanley’s Global Energy Group.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.