Analysis | Can the Congress form a new class of voters?

Can migrant workers form that new support base for the Congress?   | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

Long before the rest of India learnt about the ‘Gujarat model of development’, migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were meant to be the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s brand ambassadors.

While the Hindi heartland States failed to offer ‘rozi roti’ (daily bread), Gujarat under Mr. Modi filled that vacuum.

In a leading business paper, Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar had written on their importance in Mr. Modi’s and the BJP’s unprecedented success across the country.

“The biggest, most credible explanation I found in a pre-election tour of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar was the message carried home by migrant workers in Gujarat,” Mr. Aiyar wrote on May 18, 2014.

Six years later, after migrant workers in Surat violently erupted over the lack of food, the Congress is trying hard to build a counter narrative: that the ‘Gujarat model’ was the creation of a well-oiled propaganda machine.

“The defining image of the pandemic has been the lakhs of migrant workers, many with children, walking hundreds of kilometres, without money, food or medicines, desperate to reach their home States,” Congress president Sonia Gandhi said while addressing a virtual joint meeting of Opposition leaders on May 22.

The long march of migrant workers is indeed a ‘defining image’ but, in some measure, they also reflect the failure of the State governments, including in Congress-ruled Rajasthan and Punjab, that saw migrants leave on foot.

One can always argue that the respective State governments could not adequately assure or address the issue of migrants in the wake of loss of livelihood.

‘No funds or power’

But the Opposition’s counter is that the State governments neither have the funds nor the powers for decision making as most decisions have been taken over by the Centre under the National Disaster Act, 2005 and the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897.

“The government has also abandoned any pretence of being a democratic government. All power is now concentrated in one office, the PMO. The spirit of federalism which is an integral part of our Constitution is all but forgotten. There is no indication either if the two Houses of Parliament or the Standing Committees will be summoned to meet,” Ms. Gandhi added.

‘Party that cares’

In an effort to go back to its slogan of ‘Congress ke haath, aam aadmi ke saath’ (Congress’ hand is with the common people of India), a slogan that triumphed over BJP’s Shining India campaign in 2004, the party is attempting to recast its image of being a party that cares.

From Ms. Gandhi asking State Congress units to pay the train fares of migrant workers, to Priyanka Gandhi Vadra facing off with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath over deploying buses to ferry migrant workers, to Rahul Gandhi’s much publicised conversation with a group of migrant workers, the principal Opposition party seems to be trying to build a new constituency of supporters.

For a party that lost to regional players when it comes to complex caste arithmetic in the Hindi heartland States, can migrant workers form that new support base? With much criticism and anger against the Centre’s handling of the migrant workers’ issue, will they form a new ‘class’ of voters for the Congress?

Class consciousness as a political weapon has been much less successful in India than caste affinities and religious polarisation. In recent times, Congress’ attempt to build farmers as a ‘homogeneous community’ in States such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh met with limited success.

Bihar Assembly poll

The political fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic will perhaps be tested later this year in the Bihar Assembly election and possibly other crucial polls by April-May next year in Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

But then Assembly elections have their own State-specific dynamics and national elections are four years away, enough time for Mr. Modi to regain lost ground.

The Congress, on the other hand, will have to effectively settle its leadership question.

Not only should the leader be able to win the confidence of a section of voters who may be angry with the Central government at the moment but also other Opposition parties. And, given the current state of the Congress, that looks like a tough ask.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 12:33:53 AM |

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