Mired in trouble
LAST Sunday, the Congress party held a rally in Delhi to celebrate the United Progressive Alliance government’s disastrous decision to open up multibrand retail to foreign direct investment. This proved that the party has lost its basic political instincts. In fact, the Congress has done what no other Indian party has done: openly claim ownership of a right-wing measure that favours a tiny elite but hurts millions. The nearest anyone came to doing this was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its “India Shining” campaign of 2004, which became a major factor in its electoral defeat.
The Wal-Mart-style hypermarkets to be promoted under the new policy will destroy street-vendors and petty shopkeepers, who cannot match giant corporations in attracting the upper middle class consumers through predatory pricing. It will also make farmers and other suppliers dependent on corporations which have every reason to squeeze them.
Going by western experience, hypermarkets will gradually eliminate competition and turn against the consumer too. Foreign-controlled retail will promote a repugnant culture of greed and wasteful consumerism that’s the opposite of environmental sustainability and social and economic equity.
Yet, by linking the FDI decision to the Congress’s “historic achievements” such as the Green Revolution in the 1970s and market-fundamentalist neoliberal policies since 1991, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have wiped out the distance the Congress had taken from the UPA and Manmohan Singh.
Under the division of labour prevalent since 2004, the Sonia Gandhi leadership projected a left-of-centre image which fit in well with the progressive initiatives proposed by the National Advisory Council. Her emphasis on equity and inclusive growth was at odds with Singh’s policies. Now, that autonomy from Singh – chipped away gradually through repeated dilution and rejection of the NAC’s proposals on rights to food, education and healthcare, and through a change in the NAC’s composition – has vanished.
The Congress, which promised to be aam aadmi-centric, has been reduced to chanting the mantra of GDPism, the ridiculous belief that GDP growth is desirable in itself, regardless of its employment and income effects. Economist Simon Kuznets, who developed the concept of the GDP, disapproved of its use as a measure of overall national well-being because it fails to distinguish “between quantity and quality of growth, between costs and returns, and between the short and long run.”
The Congress’s rightward shift erases another lesson: the party has done well in elections whenever it adopted a left-ofcentre stance. It’s now cultivating foreign corporations and a narrow upper class stratum and alienating the masses just when its main opponent, the BJP, is extremely vulnerable.
Recent media exposes of BJP President Nitin Gadkari’s shady business dealings have made his position untenable, as borne out by great turmoil in the BJP. The company Gadkari controls, Purti Power and Sugar, is owned by 18 shell companies, a majority of which have addresses in slums, and many of whose directors are Gadkari’s employees, including his chauffeur, besides having Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) connections.
The key to Gadkari’s rise in the Sangh Parivar is money laundered and routed through Purti. Purti has benefited handsomely from Gadkari cronies such as Ideal Road Builders, whom he favoured as Maharashtra’s PWD minister in 1995-99. The IRB, which had only built 10 km of roads in six years, was given contracts worth hundreds of crores and became Maharashtra’s biggest toll-road company. As if to return the favours, its main owner loaned INR164 crores to Purti.
To their disgrace, the BJP-RSS have unconvincingly defended Gadkari. The RSS chief, at whose behest Gadkari was appointed party president, made the amazing statement that “it’s not important how much money has been earned; it’s important ... whether it has been put to good use or not”. Such rationalisation of corruption couldn’t have been more blatant.
The Gadkari expose’ highlights nasty personal rivalries within the BJP. Gadkari has complained to the RSS that the person who leaked damaging evidence against him is party national general secretary Arun Jaitley. Jaitley probably has his eye on the party presidency, and is closely allied with the RSS joint general secretary Suresh Soni. Although the BJP constitution was recently amended to allow a second consecutive term to the president, it looks improbable that Gadkari will get it when his first term ends in December.
Gadkari’s embarrassment has produced hidden glee among his many rivals and detractors inside the party, not least former party president Rajnath Singh, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha. Gadkari riled Modi by appointing his bete noire Sanjay Joshi as election coordinator in Uttar Pradesh. In retaliation, Modi refused to campaign in the UP elections and eventually had Joshi dismissed from the party’s national executive.
Gadkari, a novice to national politics, never enjoyed much credibility, leave alone respect, in the BJP. He was considered a clown, and duly acted out that role through a series of footin-mouth comments. Many of his detractors have chosen to tactically ally with Gadkari because they are loath to see either Modi or Jaitley become the party president.
Various BJP leaders are making different alignments to promote individual interests. Some are even campaigning for the 85-year old LK Advani to be made party president. Yet others are rooting for Modi. Many are watching the RSS’s moves. The RSS has tightened its control over the BJP, and appointed three senior leaders (in place of one) as coordinators of its relations with the BJP.