In the 2019 elections, the Congress must focus on the economy | columns

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 elections 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 contrasts 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 long-term. The bankruptcy code isn’t a fundamentally reformist move but its benefits, again, will become apparent only in the medium- to long-term. 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.

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First Published: Oct 13, 2018 19:25 IST

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