December was a game-changer for the Congress since it finally woke up to the unfavourable ground realities of 2014 general election which its myopic leaders had ignored largely because of the blindness caused by their socialistic baggage.
However, as in the case of the nuclear deal in 2008, which might not have received the Congress’ approval but for Rahul Gandhi’s intervention, it was the heir apparent who again chose the right path by correctly interpreting the reason for the party’s drubbing in the election of four north and central Indian states.
He appeared to have realized that what had hurt the Congress most – besides the scams – was the economic slump. If the economy had prospered, creating employment and fostering a sense of wellness, the party might not have fared so abysmally in the election.
Hence his hint at a meeting of corporate honchos that the Amartya Sen-Jean Dreze model of welfare-first policies may no longer receive the kind of political backing as they have till now over the Jagdish Bhagwati-Arvind Panagariya version of a growth-first economy.
Although the party vice-president said that it wasn’t a question of a “trade-off” between the two models, the fact that he criticized the delay in granting environment clearances to industrial projects even as the minister in charge of the ministry, Jayanthi Natarajan, was asked to resign, showed that the earlier left-of-centre preferences of the party, and of party president Sonia Gandhi, were in the process of being discarded.
It is not known if the attention which Rahul Gandhi has paid to the concerns of the industrial magnates is an attempt to wean them away from Narendra Modi in the 2014 election, who has long been recognized as a favourite of the corporate sector.
But what this development shows is how some of the main actors are influencing one another in the run-up to the general election in summer. If the Congress has decided to focus on economic reforms again instead of on sops and subsidies like the rural employment scheme and the food security law for the election, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s concern has more to do with politics than economics.
Its fear is that the new kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), may upset its apple-cart by winning over a sizable section of the BJP’s traditional vote bank – Hindu upper caste and urban middle class youths (and also elderly people) – who have been impressed by the new party’s sense of idealism.
If that happens in Delhi and nearby states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, then the BJP’s dream of winning 170/180 seats in Lok Sabha elections to pave the way for Modi’s coronation as prime minister by luring some of the regional parties to its side will be dashed.
What till now was expected to be a three-way election contest between the BJP, the Congress and the regional parties would now become a four-cornered fight with the AAP’s entry. Irrespective of whether the BJP or the Congress suffers the most as a result of the exodus of their supporters to the AAP, what is obvious is that the political scene will become even more messy during the upcoming election.
The AAP may not have any prime ministerial aspirant like the Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, the BJP’s Modi and the AIADMK’s Jayalalitha, whose party has already announced her candidature. But what the AAP’s entry will do, in addition to cluttering up the political scene of the election by adding to the numbers of assertive players, is to sow confusion about the country’s economic direction.
Where Rahul Gandhi’s nod in favour of capitalism, as evident from his controversial view that the labour laws need reform (an aspect of the economy which Modi hasn’t touched), has virtually put the heir-apparent on the same page as the Gujarat strongman, the AAP has taken considerable pride in flaunting its socialist credentials while avowing that this preference doesn’t make it “silly”.
Since postures of this nature can lead to weird cross connections, as between the “left of left” AAP and the left-of-centre National Advisory Council (NAC), which is Sonia Gandhi’s kitchen cabinet, there is bound to be bewilderment among a section of voters. As a result, it will not only be the primordial caste and communal allegiances which will influence their choice but also the AAP’s appeal of honesty and transparency, Modi’s development model and Rahul Gandhi’s newly-acquired business-friendly outlook.
What will be of interest is to see how the regional parties react to the changed political scene. Till now, most of them were fairly secure in their respective states – Bahujan Samaj Party in UP where it is believed to be gaining ground at the Samajwadi Party’s expense, the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, the Janata Dal-United in Bihar and so on.
Up to now, their calculations related to the two national parties – the Congress and the BJP. With the expected erosion of the strengths of both of them because of the AAP’s inroads, fresh equations will have to be worked out.
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