BY PRAFUL BIDWAI
Last Sunday, an Indian National Congress rally celebrated the United Progressive Alliance’s decision to open up multi-brand retail to foreign investment. Thus the Congress, which seems to have lost its basic instincts, openly defended a Right-wing measure that hurts millions. This is similar to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s suicidal ‘India Shining’ campaign its 2004.
Cong’s policy blunders
Wal-Mart-style hypermarkets opened under the policy will not only destroy street-vendors and petty shopkeepers, who cannot match giant corporations in attracting upper-middle class consumers through predatory pricing, but will also make farmers dependent on corporations which have every reason to squeeze them.
Going by experience, hypermarkets will gradually eliminate competition and turn against the consumer too. This will promote a culture of greed and wasteful consumerism that is the opposite of environmental sustainability and social-economic equity. Yet, by linking the decision to the Congress’ "achievements" like as the Green Revolution in the 1970s and neo-liberal policies since 1991, Ms Sonia and Mr Rahul Gandhi have wiped out the distance the party had taken from the UPA.
Under the post-2004 division of labour, the Sonia Gandhi leadership projected a Left-of-Centre image which fitted closely with the progressive initiatives on rights to food, education and healthcare proposed by the National Advisory Council. Her emphasis on inclusive growth was at odds with Dr Manmohan Singh’s policies. Now, that autonomy - chipped away gradually through repeated dilution and rejection of the NAC’s proposals, and then a change in its composition - has vanished. The Congress, which promised to be aam aadmi-centric, has been reduced to chanting the GDPism mantra, the ridiculous belief that GDP growth is desirable, regardless of employment and income effects.
Economist Mr Simon Kuznets, who developed the concept of 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’ Rightward shift goes against its own experience: it has done well in elections whenever it adopted a Left-of-Centre stance. It is now cultivating foreign capital and an upper-class stratum and alienating the masses just when its main opponent, the BJP, is extremely vulnerable.
Rivalries in BJP
Recent media exposes of the BJP president, Mr Nitin Gadkari’s shady business dealings have made his position untenable and produced great turmoil in the BJP. The company he 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 Mr Gadkari’s employees, besides having Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh connections.
The key to Mr Gadkari’s rise in the Sangh Parivar is money laundered through Purti. Purti has benefited handsomely from cronies such as Ideal Road Builders whom he favoured as Maharashtra’s PWD minister in 1995-99. 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. In return, its owner loaned Rs 164 crore to Purti.
To their disgrace, the BJP-RSS have defended Mr Gadkari. The RSS chief, at whose behest he was appointed the party president, stated amazingly that "it’s not important how much money has been earned; it’s important … whether it has been put to good use or not." Since then, a pro-RSS accountant has indulged in sophistry to shift the blame.
The Gadkari expose highlights nasty personal rivalries within the BJP. Mr Gadkari has complained to the RSS that general secretary, Mr Arun Jaitley leaked the evidence against him. Mr Jaitley probably has his eye on the BJP presidency, and is closely allied with RSS joint-general secretary, Mr Suresh Soni.
Although the BJP constitution was recently amended to allow a second consecutive term to the president, it looks improbable that Mr Gadkari will get it. His discomfiture has produced hidden glee among his many detractors, not least former BJP president, Mr Rajnath Singh, Gujarat Chief Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, and Messrs Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha.
Mr Gadkari riled Mr Modi by appointing his bete noire, Mr Sanjay Joshi as Uttar Pradesh election coordinator. Mr Modi refused to campaign in the elections and had Mr Joshi dismissed from the party’s national executive. Mr Gadkari, a novice to national politics, never enjoyed much credibility in the BJP. Considered a clown, he duly acted out that role through foot-in-mouth comments. Many of his detractors are silent about him because they are loath to see Mr Modi or Mr Jaitley become the BJP president.
Rival BJP leaders are making different alignments in individual interest. Some want the 85-year-old Mr L K Advani to be made the party president. Many are watching the RSS’ moves. The RSS has tightened control over the BJP and appointed three leaders (in place of one) to coordinate relations with it.
Modi - the biggest gainer
The biggest gainer from all this is Mr Narendra Milosevic Modi, the most powerful of second-generation BJP leaders. Although the recent judgement in the Naroda-Patiya massacre was an embarrassment to Mr Modi, his stock remains high within the Parivar. The recent British decision, driven by crass commercial reasons, to resume relations with the Modi government after ten years, and the apparent softening of the US stand against granting him a visa have also helped Mr Modi. As has the praise showered by Indian industrialists for favouring them with sweetheart deals.
Mr Modi is making an aggressive bid for the BJP presidency, which will gather strength if he wins the next month’s Gujarat elections. But the RSS does not fully trust him because of his highly individualistic style - despite his commitment to violent Hindutva and success in reducing Gujarat’s Muslims to second-class citizens. The RSS fears that a Modi takeover will damage the BJP.
Yet, the RSS will have to give Mr Modi a national role, perhaps as a campaign manager. Real resistance to him can only come from the BJP’s "secular" allies like Mr Nitish Kumar - if they gather the courage to oppose his prime ministerial candidacy bid. Mr Modi has blood on his hands. His candidacy will polarise the polity. That could, ironically, help the Congress offset its continuing policy blunders.