Monday, January 21, 2013

Chintan Check..../Power & Politics/The Sunday Standard/January 20, 2013

Chintan check: Between Sonia’s left and Manmohan’s right is a confused Congress

Pious intention sans action is a certain recipe for failure. It sounds great in speeches, but falls flat when action on the ground contradicts the spirit of the intention. Congress President Sonia Gandhi, as usual, was quite explicit and assertive in her speech to the 300-odd young and old Congress leaders who assembled in Jaipur to do some ‘chintan’ (debate). Her focus was clear; her vision well defined. Her target was the middle class and her message was to woo and win India’s new generation, which expects more transparency and deliverance than just promises on paper. The shivir was meant to lay the roadmap for the future. Instead, it turned out to be a perfect platform to unleash the spirit of sycophancy and turn the entire choreographed event into an exercise in futility. Sonia wanted the party and the government to pull up their socks for Battle 2014. But most of those present were seized with Rahul mania. It is tragic that the 120-year-old party that ruled India for over five decades is simultaneously searching for a new identity and asserting its ideological superiority. The mother-son duo often speak about internal democracy and protecting the Kalawatis of the country, but the Congress-led government talks about protecting the interests of investors, preferably foreign. The Jaipur declaration is the reflection of the mind of the party’s supreme leader. But when it comes to putting it into practice, its saboteurs are mightier than the mother of the new doctrine. They have left the middle class in the middle of the highway.

Sonia was surrounded on the stage and in the hall by those who seemed totally disconnected with what she and her son stand for. For all the Union ministers, state leaders and young MPs, her address on ostentatious weddings, the vulgar display of wealth in public, and an active engagement with the urban youth was simply déjà vu: She has always been warning them on these issues since she took over in 1998. But some Congressmen either ignored her advice or thought that such sermons were routine during such ritual gatherings. There was a total mismatch between the discourse inside the four walls of the shivir and the media bytes outside the campus. Inside, the Congress and the government were the concerns of the speakers. Outside, most of them were indulging in competitive oratory to assert their unflinching faith in Rahul Gandhi’s leadership.
Nevertheless, it was for the first time that the Congress party identified the new middle class as its target group for attention. It is evident that Sonia has realised that the Congress’s return to power for a third consecutive term would depend on its performance in urban areas. In 2009, the party won over 30 of the 36 seats in the major metros, which helped it cross the 200-mark after a gap of 20 years. In the previous elections, these cities had been voting for either the BJP or other regional parties. Sonia is also aware of the reality that the objective of anointing her son as the undisputed leader of the party and the future government hinges on the number of seats the Congress wins in 2014. But others in the government, including the prime minister, are losing their sleep over the rising budget deficit. For the past few months, various ministers have made the middle class their ground zero for raising revenue. Instead of taxing the rich or cutting government expenditure, the UPA has allowed the prices of essential commodities and petroleum products to soar. The price of a litre of petrol is up from Rs 35.71 in June 2004 to Rs 67.56; of diesel from Rs 22.74 per litre to Rs 47.65; the rate of an LPG cylinder from Rs 241.60 to Rs 410.50 each (with a limit of nine) and gold from Rs 7,000/10 gm to Rs 31,000 during the same period. The recent diesel price hike would impose an additional burden of Rs 2,700 crore on the Indian Railways, which would have to be recovered by raising fares for both freight and passengers. It was really a cruel joke on the middle class when Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh justified the diesel hike, saying that international crude prices were rising. On the contrary, global crude prices have fallen from over $100 a barrel a few months ago to less than $95 this month. Nowhere else in the world have gas prices risen so sharply as they have in India over the last decade. In spite of Sonia championing the middle class, the government has never taxed the rich by raising either dividend tax or the duty on luxury items. Moreover, it has been unable to boost employment, since its ministers were enamoured only with high-profile projects like new airports or dream homes for the super-rich. Ever since Sonia took over the reins of the Congress, the ideological divide between the government and the party has been widening. While she has increasingly chosen to move left, the Manmohan Singh government has pushed the nation towards the extreme right. In the process, others have captured the middle ground once held by Indira Gandhi, which has geographically shrunk the Congress.
The Congress chief is aware of the internal contradictions in her party. While indulging in the customary rite of praising the prime minister for his government’s performance, she also emphasised the need to find new allies who could bring votes from the classes and castes lost or ignored by the Congress. But in her quest for a new constituency, Sonia has taken a huge risk. With the country divided into India and Bharat, the party cannot afford to lose one to gain another. The message from Jaipur is loud and clear. The Congress has decided to open its doors to all and sundry, to simply cling to power.; Follow me  on Twitter @PrabwhuChawla

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