At this stage in the campaign, it would be difficult to offer a prediction other than the conventional wisdom that says the BJP will return to power albeit with a reduced majority on the following, among other, factors: 1. In common urban thinking, there is no viable alternative 2. The BJP campaign machinery is well-oiled, well-funded and strong and 3. The BJP-led NDA will be a more stable than any other combination of over-ambitious satraps rushing in on the national stage.
Yet, somewhere along the heat and dust, unsaid, unmarked and unexplained, the BJP narrative has begun to falter and look tired while the Congress narrative is beginning to look decent if not good and at times even inspiring. This may or may not mean much for the Lok Sabha election results. A host of complex factors will play out and there is no denying the fact that lack of opposition unity does make it that much easier for the return to power of the BJP. As that pushed the Congress in a corner, the party has been forced to take a clean and clear stand on an agenda for the weaker sections. This can pull the party, and the national political debate, back to the centre-left alignment that India has lived with for a large part of our journey as an independent nation.
And if this were to truly play out with all its manifestations, it carries the capacity to turn some votes and offer revolutionary changes in the policy of liberalisation and privatisation – a gift of the Congress that led to what is considered the dramatic swelling of numbers of the middle class, who incidentally have become among the stronger support bases of the BJP. The World Economic Forum reported that since 1990, households with high disposable income have risen twenty-fold. The number of households with a disposable income of more than $10,000 has leapt from around 2.5 million in 1990 to nearly 50 million in 2015, according to Euromonitor International. The middle class, is of course much larger, and the numbers depend on how the class is defined.
This is the class that is likely the most unenthusiastic and unwilling to listen to arguments in favour of the Congress promise of the ‘NYAY’ scheme and a guaranteed income to the lowest 20 per cent households on the simple question: “Where is the money?” One pointer in the direction of more spending for the weaker sections comes from the “Statement of Revenue Impact of Tax Incentives under the Central Tax System” offered as a part of the budget documents. The 2018-19 budget pointed out that “the total revenue impact of tax incentives for the financial year 2016-17 comes to Rs 1,71,824 crore,” of which Rs 48,191 crore was on account of what are called “conditional” exemptions, Rs 1,00,660 crore on account of “unconditional” exemptions and Rs 22,973 crore on account of “area based” exemptions. This is also money given out but the middle class remains more worried about payments to the poorer sections.
By picking this very anxiety of extra spending for the poor at what is presumed to be the cost of the middle class, Modi has also taken a stand against the politics for the poor. In Tripura, the Prime Minister took up this question to say on Sunday (April 7): “Not even once the Congress manifesto (he derisively calls it the ‘dhakosala patra’, a document of deceit) mentions middle class…such hatred for the middle class. They think the middle class has made Modi win and that is why they are punishing middle class.” From the Congress manifesto to attacks on the Congress party and its performance, promises and leadership, the BJP has now immersed itself into a negative campaign that forgets that it is the incumbent and must frame the debate on the course it wants to chart ahead.
Of course, the BJP has not yet released its manifesto and one can expect a robust document but so far, the BJP’s offering is a combination of governance (the ‘chowkidar’ metaphor), security (cross-border strikes) and development (the ‘vikas’ platform). Each of these positions is today mired in some controversy, leading to a reasonable set of questions that weakens the promise, be it the Rafale deal, the overuse of Balakot for the campaign and past actions like demonetisation that take the sheen away from the idea of development for all.
On the other hand, the Congress now appears sharper when talking about health and education as the two pillars of growth, support for the poor and a politics in which the air of hatred for the other will be replaced with love and understanding. The attacks by the BJP, as the Prime Minister did again on Sunday when he said the Congress speaks about scrapping Article 370 and Pakistan has the same demand – “What’s the connection?” – are cheap shots that are looking tired for the audience and for the speaker himself. They inspire the hardcore base but won’t turn those on the margins.
Rahul Gandhi’s words on the other hand are simple but they are helpful in expanding his appeal, which is still considered to be limited when compared to Modi. “Hatred is cowardice. I don’t care if the entire world is full of hatred. I am not a coward. I will not hide behind hate and anger. I love all living beings, including those temporarily blinded by hatred.” The appeal is enhanced when audiences look at the BJP leadership – always angry, always in attack mode and always pointing fingers, preaching lessons and standing sanctimonious. It is difficult to understand why a party that received an overwhelming, never-before kind of mandate only five years ago is so bitter and complaining about almost everything under the sun.
This is a good frame into which the Congress can spread the message of its manifesto. But more importantly, the party will have to reengineer and rewire itself if it has to take the turn that it seeks to reestablish itself in the minds of the people as a party for the poor. This is not easy play. The middle class is powerful and growing. It brings with it many prejudices and a rather fixed way of looking at issues of development. For an example, in Mumbai, there is much praise for the way T2 has come up as a glitzy airport. There isn’t enough understanding, debate and direction of why the railway stations continue to suffer from poor services, why the civic bus services (once considered among the best in the country) are being slowly killed and why Mumbai has had several collapses of foot-over bridges that the ordinary everyday people use. These are perspectives lost in the story of development that excludes the majority and celebrates selective achievements as progress. The metro rail projects, the Sea-link super highways and the ‘Trump Tower’ (one is reportedly coming up in the Worli area of South Mumbai) are also development but that is skewed development that will continue to challenge India and create fissures that we may not always be able to foresee or navigate.
The answer is a different development model but the Congress must recognise that it is responsible for bringing in the skewed model in the first place. It must reject this skew and all those associated with it (and this must include the elegant Dr Manmohan Singh and the suave P Chidambaram) if it wants to be reborn as a party of ‘NYAY.’ Anything less will be farce.