There have been conflicting signals from the Congress. While senior general secretary Digvijay Singh has indicated that the party intends to look beyond the poorer classes to the so-called aspirational generation who straddle all sections of society, vice-president Rahul Gandhi apparently wants the party’s focus to remain on the underprivileged.

As if to emphasize his intention, Rahul unabashedly told an election rally in Delhi that it was indeed he who instructed former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan to look after the interests of the tribals and other indigent forest-dwellers while clearing industrial projects. While resigning from the Congress, Natarajan had complained in a letter to party president Sonia Gandhi that the vice-president had been interfering in her ministry, compelling her to hold up industrial projects on environmental grounds despite objections from her cabinet colleagues.

While a party bigwig has every right to tell a minister about his preferences, it is doubtful whether he has the right to ignore the norms of official functioning. It is for the government to accept or reject industrial applications. By persuading a minister to adhere to his personal predilections and not the views of cabinet colleagues, the Congress vice-president can be said to have encroached on a territory not his own.
He was able to get away with it because of the Congress’s sycophantic culture. Neither the minister nor the prime minister had the gumption to tell him off. After all, Rahul is someone who can tear up a cabinet-approved ordinance in full public view because he disagreed with its contents. He had morality on his side in that case because the ordinance intended to protect tainted politicians. In the issue involving Natarajan, however, Rahul palpably exceeded prescribed limits.

What the episode shows is why the Congress is at sixes and sevens. Rahul’s decision to ride roughshod over a matter which concerns only the government underlines the confusion at the top. First of all, there is evidently no unanimity on a crucial subject such as industrialization vis-a-vis the environment. If the murmurs of protests in the cabinet over Natarajan’s stalling of projects are a sign, then the government obviously wanted to push ahead with them. Not surprisingly, prime minister Manmohan Singh once said that the licence-permit-control raj was still in existence in the environment sector.

Indeed, Natarajan’s ouster from the ministry and the subsequent rapid clearances given to various projects by her successor, Veerappa Moily, confirmed the government’s pro-industrialization outlook. Yet, as Rahul’s boast about his “interference” shows, the party – or, at least, the heir apparent – and the government were not on the same page. There is little doubt that this dissonance was behind the perceived policy paralysis which brought down the Manmohan Singh government.

Now, a hint of such divergence of views is again available from what Digvijay Singh has said and what Rahul intends to do. According to the former, the aspirational generation includes not only the middle class, but also the young among the underprivileged who look forward to the employment opportunities provided by a buoyant economy. This realization has apparently dawned on Singh and a few others after it became obvious that the urbanites who voted for the Congress in 2009 because of a flourishing economy switched to the BJP in 2014 when the latter vowed to follow pro-development policies.

Clearly, the earlier support for the Congress was due to the expectations aroused by the high growth rates achieved by the Manmohan Singh government in its first term. It was the decline in the growth rates because, as the then finance minister P. Chidambaram admitted, the government made the mistake of taking its foot off the accelerator of reforms, which made the middle class and others in the urban areas desert the Congress.
However, this is an explanation which the left-inclined in the Congress are unwilling to accept. According to them, the reforms are essentially anti-poor since they benefit only the capitalists. This has been their view right from 1991 when the country took its first baby steps towards a market economy. The left in the Congress, however, would apparently prefer a return to the controlled economy of the past although they do not say so in public.

However, Rahul’s pro-poor bias implies a rejection of the reforms. This outlook is in line with what Sonia Gandhi’s kitchen cabinet, the left-of-centre National Advisory Council, followed with considerable zeal in the last five years of the Manmohan Singh government, thereby digging its grave. The belief that the Congress won in 2009 not because of the high growth rate but because of the rural employment scheme is likely to dominate the party’s thinking once again if and when Rahul becomes the president.

In taking this line, the Congress may receive the support of the communists as well as the “socialists” of the Lalu Prasad Yadav- Nitish Kumar variety. But, there cannot but be a debilitating impact on the economy with the pursuit of caste-based reservations at the expense of merit, the campaign for extending the quota system to the private sector and the aversion towards foreign investment. That such “socialistic” policies have supporters in the saffron camp as well in outfits such as the protectionist Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the various trade unions and farmers bodies is worth keeping in mind.

The Congress’s tragedy is that those in the party like Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram who are aware of the adverse economic fallout from such policies may not have the guts to speak out.

(Asia News Agency Editorial Board)