2019: CONGRESS MUST FO­CUS ON ECON­OMY

Hindustan Times ST (Jaipur) - - Nation - Let­ters@hin­dus­tan­times.com

At the Hin­dus­tan Times Lead­er­ship Sum­mit last week, re­spond­ing to a ques­tion com­par­ing the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion in 2018-19 with that in 2013-14, fi­nance min­is­ter, Arun Jait­ley, said he would ac­tu­ally like to com­pare it with the one in 2012-13. Long-time watch­ers of the In­dian econ­omy will un­der­stand why: 2012-13 was a bad year, a re­ally bad year for the econ­omy. Growth was down, the ru­pee, fuel prices, and in­fla­tion were up, the fis­cal deficit was bal­loon­ing and the cur­rent ac­count deficit was soar­ing. Jait­ley should know this well. It is widely ac­knowl­edged that the cur­rent Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)-led Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance (NDA) came to power on the back of three fac­tors: the cor­rup­tion scan­dals that en­veloped the pre­vi­ous govern­ment; the United Pro­gres­sive Al­liance’s mis­man­age­ment of the econ­omy; and the Modi wave. By the mid­dle of 2013, the BJP’s nar­ra­tive for 2014, built around these three pil­lars, was ready. The party used this nar­ra­tive to good ef­fect in the state elec­tions in De­cem­ber 2013. It fol­lowed up by do­ing the same in the na­tional elec­tions in 2014.

Can the In­dian Na­tional Congress do the same, or even some­thing close to it, in terms of a nar­ra­tive for the five state elec­tions be­fore the end of this year and the par­lia­men­tary elec- tions in 2019?

Chanakya has re­stricted this ques­tion to the Congress be­cause, de­spite what other lead­ers, in­clud­ing Mayawati of the Bahu­jan Sa­maj Party (BSP) may think, the Congress is the only na­tional party with the same size and scale as the BJP. Sure, it is weaker, and poorer, but, like the BJP, it has work­ers ev­ery­where. It is also the party that en­gages in the most head-to-head con­tests against the BJP. In 2014, for in­stance, such con­tests spanned 150 Lok Sabha con­stituen­cies across sev­eral states where there were no other se­ri­ous con­tenders. Every­one knows how that turned out — the BJP won most of these di­rect con­tests— but the Congress must be hop­ing that it can do bet­ter next year. Ir­re­spec­tive of whether there is a grand al­liance or not, this will de­cide the Congress’ fu­ture. So, where, in 2018, does it stand on the same is­sues that mat­tered so much in 2013, and un­der its new Pres­i­dent, Rahul Gandhi?

Circa 2018, there is no Rahul wave. This isn’t to say there won’t be one, but it does take time for waves to build up. The Modi wave, for in­stance, was al­ready ev­i­dent by the mid­dle of 2013. Enough has been writ­ten on the on­go­ing Rafale con­tro­versy (in­clud­ing whether it is one at all), which the Congress has been fo­cus­ing all its fire­power on, and the jury is still out on whether this has pop­u­lar trac­tion. Some, in­clud­ing the Congress’ main strate­gists be­lieve that it is, which ex­plains the se­ries of press con­fer­ences the party has been or­gan­is­ing on the sub­ject. Oth­ers be­lieve it isn’t. That leaves the econ­omy, and other is­sues re­lated to the econ­omy, in­clud­ing the agrar­ian cri­sis and the lack of jobs.

There the Congress could find a nar­ra­tive if it is wishes to. There is a con­sen­sus that In­dia is in the midst of an agrar­ian cri­sis, and has been for some time. Apart from ex­treme weather events, the generic cause of this cri­sis is bumper har­vests and fall­ing food prices, not just in In­dia, but across the world. The BJP may be­lieve it has done enough to ad­dress this is­sue with loan waivers in some states where it is in power, and higher sup­port prices, but the lat­ter were only an­nounced this year and ex­perts are di­vided on two as­pects: their ad­e­quacy; and whether a year is enough time for farm­ers to feel bet­ter than they do right now. Ris­ing fuel prices and the fall­ing ru­pee may largely be on ac­count of global fac­tors, not the na­tional govern­ment’s do­ing, but they are both is­sues with mass ap­peal. In­deed, ahead of the na­tional election in 2014, the BJP made the ru­pee a sym­bol of na­tional pride, and launched a drive to high­light high fuel prices (which were ac­tu­ally lower than what they are to­day). The UPA didn’t ex­actly do a great job of de­fend­ing its record back then.

The BJP’s ag­gres­sion in 2013 and 2014 con- trasts starkly with the Congress’ ap­proach now; its at­tempts to raise these is­sues seem half-hearted. The party has re­served its fire­power and in­ten­sity for Rafale.

De­spite its ef­forts to build a con­vinc­ing al­ter­na­tive nar­ra­tive, the BJP is clearly on the de­fen­sive when it comes to the econ­omy. De­mon­eti­sa­tion was a shock to the sys­tem. So was the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Goods and Ser­vices Tax, al­though the new tax regime will def­i­nitely ben­e­fit In­dia in the medium- to longterm. The bank­ruptcy code isn’t a fun­da­men­tally re­formist move but its ben­e­fits, again, will be­come ap­par­ent only in the medium- to longterm. In pol­i­tics, es­pe­cially where elec­tions are con­cerned, the medium- to long-term has about the same elec­toral util­ity as ar­gu­ments about ben­e­fi­cial, al­beit com­plex poli­cies. Then, there’s the is­sue of jobs — there sim­ply aren’t enough be­ing cre­ated. There’s enough there to cre­ate a com­pelling po­lit­i­cal nar­ra­tive sur­round­ing the econ­omy, even if the eco­nomic logic of this can be ques­tioned.

Which is why the BJP’s strate­gic thinkers must be cheer­ing ev­ery time the Congress holds a press con­fer­ence at­tack­ing it on any­thing but the econ­omy.

NOT ENOUGH JOBS ARE BE­ING CRE­ATED. SO, THERE’S ENOUGH THERE FOR THE OP­PO­SI­TION TO CRE­ATE A COM­PELLING PO­LIT­I­CAL NAR­RA­TIVE SUR­ROUND­ING THE ECON­OMY, EVEN IF THE ECO­NOMIC LOGIC OF THIS CAN BE QUES­TIONED

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