By Amulya Ganguli
Nothing shows the weakness of the Narendra Modi government more than the fact that it gives the impression of having been spooked by Rahul Gandhi to strive for a pro-poor image.
Hence, the directive to ministers to go around the country after the budget session to counter the perception that the government is anti-farmer.
In line with the Congress’ time-honoured practice of launching various schemes to help the poor, the BJP, too, is initiating several social security measures.
But the fact that it is fumbling in the dark is evident from the decision to invoke the saffron ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s “integral humanism” concept to burnish the government’s and the BJP’s image although the phrase is as meaningless to people outside the Hindutva camp as Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s espousal of “Gandhian socialism” when the BJP was formed in 1980.
No less fatuous is the hope in official and saffron circles that the Prasar Bharati’s radio and television channels will be able to spread the pro-poor message although it is no secret that the reach of Akashvani and Doordarshan remains as limited as it was before a saffronite was appointed as the Prasar Bharati’s head.
The point, however, is why should the government be running scared simply because Rahul Gandhi, with his batteries recharged in a Myanmar Buddhist monastery, has succeeded in infusing an element of belligerence into the Congress?
The government’s nervousness is all the more unwarranted because nearly all of Rahul’s allegations, based on unverifiable calumny and half-baked ideas of the social scene, can be easily refuted.
A simple rebuttal of his anti-industrial stance is that development itself is a pro-poor measure as it leads to employment-oriented growth which is brought about largely by the private sector. The government, therefore, has nothing to be apologetic about.
If it still gives the impression of being on the back foot, the reason apparently is that either the government does not have clear-cut ideas of what it intends to accomplish, or that there are not enough accomplished spokespersons in its ranks who can articulate its views with vigour.
Arguably, this uncertainty about the government’s objective – which has made fellow-traveller Arun Shourie accuse it of being “directionless” – is due to the transition which the BJP is currently making from being a party of ultra-orthodox, small town traders to an organization which sups in the sophisticated company of India Inc.
Given this dichotomy between the provincialism of the old Jan Sangh-BJP and the cosmopolitanism of its new avatar, the party is not sure whether it is on the right path.
Its problem has apparently been compounded by the dearth of an ideological wherewithal to buttress its case. Although always a rightwing outfit from its Jan Sangh days, the BJP’s outlook has been a mix of Hindu communalism and the commercialism of dingy shops in mofussil towns.
Now, however, it is moving into the glittering world of capitalism where the merchants operate on a global scale.
Moreover, big business shuns sectarianism because of the violence associated with the spread of divisive messages which hampers consumerism, the essence of capitalism. This is why Modi has clamped down on the Hindutva hardliners and has told Time magazine that the government will not “tolerate” any discrimination based on caste, creed and religion.
On the economic front, however, he is apparently still unsure about how far he can push his pro-business line against a political class which hasn’t always hesitated to put partisan interests above those of the nation.
Needless to say, the BJP itself has been a part of this cussed “culture” but, now, it is the Congress which is leading the pack comprising the communists and the caste-based Janata “parivar” to virtually oppose anything and everything which the government proposes.
It will be unfortunate, however, if this continuing political badgering deflects the prime minister from his developmental goal and turn to populism.
The lesson of the last general election is that welfare initiatives like sops and subsidies do not work at a time when the opening up of the economy has not only aroused what has been called the animal spirits of the entrepreneurs, but has also kindled the hope about the easy availability of jobs in a buoyant economy.
If populism was a panacea, then the Congress would have scored a runaway victory with its rural employment scheme (which do not build durable assets) or food security act (which puts an enormous strain on procurement, storage and distribution) or the right to education (where the absence of tests up to Class VIII has reduced the level of Class V students to that of Class II).
The average voter saw through the hollowness of such measures. Instead, it was Modi’s promise of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ (development for all) which paid political dividends to the BJP.
It will be a major mistake on the prime minister’s part, therefore, to change his line on being influenced by Rahul Gandhi’s anti-corporate sector tirades which will spell doom for the economic reforms and take India back to the 2-3 percent Hindu rate of growth of the licence-permit-control raj.