After the Bharatiya Janata Party’s unprecedented and massive victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls in March last year, former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah had despondently tweeted that the Opposition “might as well forget 2019 and start planning (and) hoping for 2024.” Even till a few months ago, dislodging Prime Minister Narendra Modi looked like extremely difficult, if not impossible. No longer. After the saffron party’s defeat in the three Hindi-speaking states—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. A one-sided match suddenly has started looking interesting. But the Congress would do itself a disservice if it lulls itself into believing that there is a wave in its favor.
There is indeed considerable discontent against the Modi regime, but even then there are no clear answers as to how would this translate against it in the voting pattern, much less if that would benefit the grand old party. For the GOP not riding a wave of popularity; the party just scraped through in MP, even as it was much ahead of the BJP in Rajasthan and it did very well in Chhattisgarh. It lost Mizoram; its grand alliance in Telangana proved to be a non-starter. A little more push by Modi, the consummate election campaigner, a few more rallies by him may have had different results, at least in MP. But that was not to be, and hence the rise of Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
After a long list of failures, he has finally proved himself—not only by winning the three states but also choosing Chief Ministers. Going for Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and Kamal Nath in MP was bang-on. While Sachin Pilot did a lot to revive the party in the desert state, Gandhi’s preference for Gehlot was extremely prudent, as his experience would help staunch any threat to the state government where the party is just near the winning post. Any sulking, let alone sabotage, by the elderly Gehlot, would have made Pilot’s position precarious had the latter been made the top post. For Pilot is young, and it would be in his self-interest to wait, but Gehlot is old and could have been impatient and troublesome. The same is true about the Nath-Jyotiraditya Scindia duo. It would, however, be premature to conclude that the Modi-Amit Shah juggernaut has been reversed, or even halted; at the most, it has just hit a few big roadblocks. For Modi’s popularity has been little reduced by the indifferent performance of his government; he still remains the top choice for the post of prime ministership, far ahead of his rivals. Rahul Gandhi doesn’t come near his arch-rival in terms of popularity.
Further, Gandhi doesn’t have any narrative to sell to the electorate. This is sharp to contrast to what Modi offered in 2014. He hinted at a pro-reforms regime to India Inc and global investors, who were exasperated by the Congress-led UPA dispensation’s anti-business attitude and policy paralysis; in the run-up to the 2014 poll, he said that the business of government is not business; he mocked at the doles and entitlement schemes of the UPA. To nationalists, he promised a strong nation that would take on Pakistan and China. He was able to convince the Religious Right on the Ram Temple and uniform civil code. To the people at large, he pledged acche din. That most of his promises have not been kept is another story. Rahul, on the other hand, has nothing novel or appealing to offer; he is either highlighting the shortcomings of the present government or peddling the same old and failed, policies like farm loan waiver. While Modi had a narrative (his detractors would call it a bundle of chunavi jumlas), Rahul has none. His party continues with the discredited ideology that it imposed upon the nation for decades—socialism (It is ironic that it was a Congress prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao who almost discarded it, but the dynasty is yet to turn its back on the ideology). This became evident from the economic resolution that the Congress at the 84th plenary in March 2018. The resolution said, “State ownership of businesses in certain critical sectors such as defence production, mass transportation, natural resources, and financial services is both needed and justified where maximization of value to shareholders may not be the sole measure of success.” In plain English, it means that the party is not only opposed to the privatization of big public sector undertakings and banks (PSUs and PSBs) but also to the private sector participation in Railways, metro, roadways, airlines, petroleum, steel, aluminum, coal, etc. More importantly, the Congress does not like private companies to participate in defence production.
There is something very odd about the Congress’ dislike for the involvement of domestic private companies in defence production, for it doesn’t have problems with foreign private companies in the sector. This, by the way, was government policy till 2002, when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime allowed private enterprise in the sector. Announcing the change, Union minister Pramod Mahajan had highlighted this dissonance in policy. The announcement paved the path for private companies in defence production. Two years later, however, the Congressled United Progressive Alliance came to power—and all progress in defence production came to a standstill. For eight years in the UPA’s two tenures, A.K. Antony was defence minister. Defence preparedness suffered enormously under him; defence production hit one roadblock after the other. At the time he quit off, the Indian military needed arms and ammunition worth $100 billion. The well-known defence expert, Rear Admiral K. Raja Menon (Retired), called Antony the “worst defence minister ever.” Antony’s biggest problem, as also of the entire UPA, was his marked tilt towards socialism. So, the eight defence PSUs, 39 ordnance factories, three defence shipyards, and 52 DRDO laboratories continued functioning in typically sarkari manner. The private sector was anyway looked with suspicion. The upshot was that our dependence on defence imports rose to around 65 percent. This is not to say that all is well with private sector participation in defence in defence in particular and with Make in India Programme in general. In fact, the Modi government’s performance on economic reforms is less than stellar. But the Congress seems to worse: it is against the very idea of liberalization if the Resolution is anything to go by.
An illustration of the GOP’s fascination with socialism is its conviction that state-owned banks ought to continue. “Pinning all the woes of India’s banking sector merely on state ownership of banks is a gross simplification of the problem,” the Congress Resolution says. This is factually incorrect, for Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has ruled out denationalization of PSBs, even though former chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian favors privatization. In May 2017, RBI Deputy Governor Viral Acharya had also recommended the sale of some PSBs. Besides, there have been committees constituted by the Reserve Bank of India that suggested privatization of PSBs. It seems that the Congress wants to nip any such move in the bud. This is despite the fact that PSB reprivatization is the solution to the banking woes. Denationalization is necessary for two reasons.
First, the taxpayer has been suffering because of PSBs: in the last 11 years, their recapitalization has cost the exchequer Rs 2.6 lakh crore; in the next two years, about Rs 1.3 lakh crore would be needed. Second, since 70 per cent banking is in the public sector, rickety PSBs become a drag on the entire economy. On other issues too—whether it is foreign policy, national defence, internal security, administration, or law and order—what the GOP offers is a string of condemnations of the Modi regime, not any viable and alternative measures. A challenger to government in a democracy, in which people are getting more aware and informed, has to add some positivity to his campaign—something that Rahul has not done so far. Course correction is due.
From the BJP’s perspective, course correction has to be of a different kind. It can’t keep telling people that things have improved in general, because they haven’t. Few doubt Modi’s personal integrity; that he has good intentions is also general believed. But BJP leaders need to realize that good intention don’t automatically translate into desired results. Well, God can create anything ex nihilo, out of nothing, just by saying so. He says, ‘Let there be light,’ and there is light. Similarly, when Lord Shiva is pleased with a worshipper and wants to bless him, he just has to say ‘Tathastu,’ and his wishes come true. But, unfortunately, Modi is not a god, despite his devotees’ belief to the contrary.
So, his good intentions and commands don’t get divinely get translated into reality. He says, Make in India, but it doesn’t happen because he is human; and humans have to follow a certain path and adopt a specified procedure to achieve any desired result. Similarly, he can sound convincing against the backdrop of a corrupt and incompetent government, but not when he makes more promises even when the old ones have been observed in the breach. And he can lord it over allies when they have reasons to believe his capability to impress the electorate, but not when his influence seems to be waning. Less rhetoric and more humility will help the Modi-Shah duo and the BJP. Just like more specifics and less negativity will help Rahul and the Congress. What is certain is that the contest in 2019 will be interesting.