Monday 28 November 2011

Can Rahul do a Narasimha Rao? (Sunday Guardian)

AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi at a rally during his Jan Sampark Yatra in Balrampur, UP on Thursday. PTI
haring power with "outsiders" is not a trait associated with the Nehru family, and Rahul Gandhi has been focusing on strategies whereby his party can once again rule the country on its own. To his way of thinking, it was Nehru who brought democracy to India and Indira Gandhi who protected it. As for Rajiv Gandhi, he was deprived of his legacy (and his majority) by jealous foes who spread vile calumny with the sole motive of gaining power. Rahul shares Sonia Gandhi's view that people of India need to have the strong, protective hand of the (Family-run) state, if they are to be preserved from chaos. That the only people worth taking seriously are loyalists who follow the course mapped out for them by the ruling segment of a family which alone has the wisdom and the charisma needed to keep this country from fragmenting. The Nehru family holding on to power is therefore not at all a personal goal, but a key national priority.
Only Mayawati can boast of a cadre as loyal to the boss as the Congress party. Partly, this result comes out of triage, as those of suspect loyalty are mercilessly excluded from top positions. However, the major reason for such devotion is that fealty to The Family is immensely profitable for an individual and his clan, as witness the rise and rise — and rise — of Vilasrao Deshmukh. Farmers may commit suicide in their hundreds, administration may become so soggy that Maharashtra now is closer to pre-Nitish Bihar than to neighbouring Gujarat in effectiveness of governance. Family members may cavort in Dubai with dubious elements, some of whom had Indian passports before these were thrown away. Officers known for graft may flock to the portfolio held by the regional strongman. Complaints may arrive with the frequency of snowflakes in an Arctic winter. No matter. The only attribute used to form a judgement is Loyalty, with a capital L. Sonia and Rahul are fiercely loyal to those fiercely loyal to them.
Sonia Gandhi has clearly attained a fluency in handling her party, a gift passed on to her two children, Priyanka, and Rahul Gandhi, who has retained the loyalty of his chosen team in the manner of his mother and grandmother. Unlike his father, who switched the personnel in his team almost as often as he changed Chief Ministers. The Rahul cohort follows the example of Ahmed Patel in being discreet to the point of secrecy, and in ensuring that one's head be constantly kept below the radar. They keep out of the media spotlight.
Unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, who stressed policy over politics, Indira Gandhi acted in accordance with the axiom: Politics in Command. For her, turning left or right in policy, rewarding an individual or punishing another, was always on the basis of political impact. While policies could get tweaked or changed, the fundamental principle of politics — power — was never lost sight of. While Rajiv Gandhi was in a mould of his own, Sonia Gandhi has returned to the Indira Gandhi model. The NAC, for example, has been filled with admirers and acolytes, and her backing for any specific policy is always with an eye on its impact on politics. She and her chosen advisors have been good at dreaming up schemes that entail huge expenditures, without once bothering about how the country will grow enough to afford such outlays.
The increased complexity of the global environment, added to the needs of a huge population, mandates a shift away from a politics-filled model to a model of Policy First. Of course, India in 2011 is very different from what it was in the 1950s or the 1970s, and hence policies that are 21st century relevant will need to get formulated and implemented. While some of Rahul's (all too few) policy speeches have been in the Indira-Sonia Politics First mould, others (in the past) have honed in on policy issues, sometimes at the cost of "politics as usual". The brushing off of an alliance with Lalu Yadav during the last Assembly elections and the broadsides against Mayawati show a Jawaharlal-style contempt for the axiom that each gesture, each speech, has to be based on present day political ground realities. Rahul Gandhi seeks to ensure that the Congress party takes away enough of the votes of the secular parties to make them marginal. However, he is attempting to do this the way his mother does, by throwing open the exchequer in the manner of Indira-style loan melas. A flood of cash has erupted from the RBI, drowning all efforts at lowering inflation, while government spending has ballooned together with a vigorous Raid Raj by the Income-Tax authorities.
ndira Gandhi made no real effort at improving the quality of governance. Instead, on the same model as Vilasrao Deshmukh's Maharashtra, she presided over a system of patronage that depended on grease for its salience. As the anti-corruption movement is showing, the public at large has had enough of Politics as Usual. They want sound policies, and the will to implement them. During 1992-95 (till the split in the Congress party paralysed him), Narasimha Rao changed the policy matrix in a way that semi-transformed India. Does Rahul Gandhi have the will and the wisdom to do a Narasimha Rao at a time when reform has disappeared from the lexicon of his party? Or will he continue the Indira-Sonia politics (sorry, policies) that have since 2004 converted the manufacturing economy of India from growth to stagnation, and threatens to do the same to a once-vibrant services sector?

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