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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Rahul Gandhi Icon

Wearing Garlands of Wilted Flowers

Rahul Gandhi has burst upon the Indian political scene with his well-publicized “Discovery of India” campaign. The name he has chosen is evocative of his great grandfather’s eponymous 1946 book; in it, Nehru introduced to the political lexicon three charged concepts: of nationalism amid cultural diversity, of indigenization to combat colonialism and of “unity in diversity,” a phrase to challenge the demand for Pakistan.

Trouble is the once-resurgent BJP exploited the divide between diversity and nationalism to advocate the chauvinistic concept of “cultural nationalism;” the Left expropriated indigenization to support and promote the corrupt and inept horror of license-permit raj and “unity in diversity” became a banal political slogan that provided air cover for cults and mafia formations based on caste politics.

This is the well-worn path of the Congress Party’s moribund ideology. There is no doubt that these ideas are well past the “sell by” date. And yet the Congress insists on garlanding Rahul with these tired old bromides. His two major forays into public policy have the makeshift look of photographs taken by a pinhole camera. To begin with, he led a delegation to the Prime Minister, asking for an expansion of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme; his latest was to seek a similar broadening of the government’s recently announced loan-waiver scheme for distressed farmers.

Noble in their intent, these initiatives nevertheless have a hare-brained aspect to them. They seem to be ill-conceived with hardly any thought given to the identification of beneficiaries and how to prevent leakages; their implementation plan has the nature of what enthusiasts of American football call a “Hail Mary” pass, in which a player throws the ball in desperation hoping someone will catch it and run it into the end zone to score a touchdown. Rahul’s push seems to be based on the Congress assessment that with populist schemes and a please-all budget, they have seized the political high ground.

As political strategy, the government’s latest moves may pay handsome dividends; in a few swift gambits, the opposition has been pushed against the ropes. Given the competitive populism that passes for politics, the government can rightly feel it has emerged triumphant.

However, the schemes will do with little for their intended beneficiary: the aam aadmi. The Congress line is that given the high growth rate, the government can afford to be generous with the “weaker sections.” Meanwhile, the government’s financial managers have, because their fear of inflation, succeeded in the reversing the growth story. The latest indices of production show a steep decline in manufacturing and a virtual collapse of the capital markets.

Analysts say the overall growth rate could come down to six percent over the year. That will reduce the amount available for populist handouts. Clearly, the schemes are unsustainable, especially if the economy tanks. I wonder if the mandarins of North Block have thought this through. Otherwise, the government’s shrewd populist move will devolve into just another time-worn ploy to buy votes with money.

Unless Rahul can shake off these wilted-flower garlands, he could find it difficult to accomplish what he let slip recently: to revive the Congress by ushering in inner-party democracy The party has not changed much; it is teeming with sycophants and fixers, and ambitious but clueless politicians, seeking to climb a rung higher. When Sonia Gandhi came upon the scene 10 years ago, the party was tottering, rent asunder by the wiles of petty men like the late Sitaram Kesri and Arjun Singh. She stabilized it, kept the flock together and went on to victory in the 2004 election.

Things have changed now and Sonia’s cautious, “don’t rock the boat” approach has passed the point of diminishing returns. The party rank and file stir themselves only to protect their turf and privileges. As things stand, it appears that for the Congress Party, we are still in the 1960s and 1970s when only state-approved voices were heard; the rest was ambient noise to be shut out by the sound-canceling earphones of ideology. From “garibi hatao” to “inclusive growth,” poverty still remains the dark side of what Nehru called the Indian adventure.

copyright: rajiv desai 2008