By engaging with a section of people not defined by caste or religion, but by income and aspiration, Rahul Gandhi is trying to build a new constituency for the Congress

In 2004, the Congress countered the Bharatiya Janata Party’s “Shining India” message not with its “Congress ka haath, garib ke saath” slogan, a tired throwback to “Garibi hatao,” Indira Gandhi’s battlecry of the 1970s, which was resurrected at a meeting of the party’s block presidents in 2003, but with a more expansive and, as it turned out, winning catchphrase: “Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath.” The aam aadmi was a nebulous figure, but the description resonated not just with the dispossessed and the poor but also struck a chord with the aspirational and, indeed, even swathes of the middle class.

The new line worked for the Congress in two successive general elections in 2004 and 2009. But in 2012, as the image and fortunes of the United Progressive Alliance government it led began to take a hit, a scrappy challenger built a political formation around an anti-corruption movement — and made the Congress’ slogan its own. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was born and, a year later, it laid the Grand Old Party low in its bastion in Delhi. For the Congress that had seen its pulling power as an umbrella party gradually diminish, with political formations that peaked in the 1990s appealing to and attracting its core voters on religious, caste and regional lines, the AAP’s rise was the last straw.

At the All India Congress Committee session in Delhi on January 17 this year, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi stressed the need to create a “support base” for the 70 crore Indians who had risen above the poverty line but not yet entered the middle class. Now, as he travels across the country making his election pitch, Mr. Gandhi has been repeating his concern for “the hands that build the nation” — as the Congress manifesto evocatively describes them — promising them a “new future,” not through handouts but “a basic rights and welfare package” that will go beyond the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act of 2008.

Mr. Gandhi’s formulation, Congress sources say, has emerged from detailed discussions with his core advisers, responding to the current situation.

Party analysis

The Congress analysis is: One, if most political parties look at voters through the prism of caste or religion, governments divide citizens into Below Poverty Line (BPL) and Above Poverty Line (APL). Two, with successive attempts to define BPL turning controversial, and implementation of welfare programmes proving to be less than satisfactory, the government has moved to universal entitlements with exclusions (those who are income tax payees, own a car etc. are not eligible for such benefits). In operational terms, BPL has been phased out. Three, economic liberalisation has increased job opportunities, fuelling migration to cities and swelling the unorganised sector. This sector may have benefitted from health, homes and food entitlements, but labour laws do not apply to it. Currently, it is bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. Four, the Congress, using literature on the subject, has calculated that Indians who earn between Rs. 1,000-Rs. 15,000 per head per month, and fall in this in-between category — christened NRMB (not rich, not middle class, not BPL) for in-house discussion — number 70 crore.

By engaging with this section — railway porters, rickshaw wallas, saltpan workers, fishermen etc. — not defined by caste or religion but by income and aspiration, Mr. Gandhi is trying to build a new constituency for the Congress that has seen its core constituencies being eroded steadily over the years.

Indeed, the AAP’s success in last year’s Assembly elections sprang as much from its anti-corruption campaign as the fact that its pitch sliced through identities, in a setting, Delhi, where sectional appeals resonate far less than say in rural India.

And the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, had flagged the “neo-middle class” in his manifesto for the Gujarat Assembly elections in 2012. This is a section that, political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot noted (in The Indian Express, April 17, 2013) had been crucial to Mr. Modi’s rise. Quoting a survey from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies for that election, he wrote that 57.4 per cent of the richest voters and 54.2 per cent of the middle income bracket voters went the BJP way (against 28 per cent and 34.4 per cent for the Congress respectively — which got the vote of the poor), stressing: “This neo-middle class is made of aspiring groups that tend to change their political colour after migrating to an urban milieu…this is particularly striking in the case of the OBCs: while the Kolis vote more for the Congress when they are in a rural context (53 per cent), they move to the BJP the moment they join a semi-urban constituency (65 per cent)… the data shows that caste identities — and caste-related political cultures — are submerged by class considerations when formerly rural groups come to the city, hoping to join the lower middle class.”

The Congress’ attempt to mobilise the NRMB class is not, a senior party leader said, inconsistent with the Left Parties’ focus on the working class. But “the nature and role of the working class has changed,” he said, because India has changed.

Ironically, the Left parties, on their part, were forced a few years back to recognise that political parties that ignore caste realities do so at their own peril. At its 19th Party Congress in Coimbatore in 2008, the CPI (M) acknowledged: “A serious challenge is today posed by the growing political mobilisation based on caste identities… (posing) serious problems for the party and the Left movement… The party has to concretely take up the issues of livelihood and social oppression of the people of the various backward classes and the Dalits so that, by taking up a combination of class issues and social questions, the pernicious effects of caste fragmentation can be countered.”

The Congress that failed in large measure to cope with the rise of parties appealing to sectional interests, particularly in the Hindi heartland, now finds that its economic policies have created the push for migration to the cities and a constituency that the BJP, and even the AAP, have found easier to tap.

Balancing interests

Caught between the continuing appeal of caste and religion on the one hand, and the aspirational class on the other, the Congress has tried in its manifesto to balance the interests of both. If there is a paean to “the hands that build the nation,” and an assurance to find a way to give reservation to economically backward persons, it has promised that this will not affect the current quotas for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes. But the transition has begun — it has said it will set up a Commission to check which SCs, STs and OBCs have not benefitted from quotas (with a view to exclude those who have taken the lion’s share). It also talks of building a consensus on “affirmative action”(not quotas) in the private sector.

The appeal of caste and religion remains, but India is changing. And with it, all political parties including the Congress are trying to re-adjust the way they make their appeal to the electorate.

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