Demonetisation presents an opportunity

December 30, 2016 12:06 am | Updated 01:44 am IST

Penalty for holding the demonetised currency.

Penalty for holding the demonetised currency.

A flailing Congress party, after suffering several electoral defeats in many State elections since 2014, has narrowed its focus on to pro-poor and agrarian issues as a way to shore up popular support, a strategy that predated the elections and adopted earlier this decade. The demonetisation issue has given the party an opening to pursue this strategy in a more concrete manner.

On Congress Foundation Day, December 28, party vice-president Rahul Gandhi sent out a clear, unequivocal message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi: his demonetisation decision, far from securing the future of the country’s most vulnerable sections — as he was claiming in his well-publicised, almost-without-a-pause speeches — had actually devastated their lives.

In a brief speech at the Congress headquarters, he asked Mr. Modi to quantify both the economic losses to the country since November 8, as well as spell out how many on the margins had lost livelihoods and, some, even lives. “Demonetisation was done,” the Congress’s vice-president said, “for 50 families at the expense of the poor, small farmers and shopkeepers and the youth.”

He then went on to demand that the government waive all agricultural loans, pay a 20 per cent bonus for farm produce, give all BPL Poverty Line) women ₹25,000, double MGNREGA wages and waive half the income tax and sales tax dues of small shopkeepers.

Tapping a changing narrative

Fifty days after 86 per cent of the country’s currency notes were outlawed at one stroke, the mood in the country is gradually turning sour. Mr. Gandhi’s demands were, therefore, perfectly timed, pointing out that it was time people paused and figured out who had gained and who had lost through the demonetisation exercise.

Equally significant, his message was also in tune with the politics he has been working towards for the last few years, manifestations of which have been visible since 2011. That year, he had stood in solidarity with farmers in western Uttar Pradesh, in Tappal and Bhatta-Parsaul, who were battling land acquisition. In 2014-’15, he led his party’s battle to ensure that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s people-friendly land acquisition law was not changed beyond recognition by the Modi government: the Congress and supporting Opposition parties won that round. More recently, ahead of the Uttar Pradesh polls slated for next year, the centrepiece of his kisan yatra was a promise to waive all farm loans if the Congress is voted to power.

But if there was a clear emphasis in all these actions, there was one problem: just as he did not follow through his U.P. agitation till the 2012 polls, his recent kisan yatra just petered out in mid-October. Mr. Gandhi’s inability to sustain an agitation, even when successful, has been his besetting sin.

A high and low

In 2004, the Congress had countered the BJP’s “Shining India” message with an expansive 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 by 2012, the image and fortunes of the UPA government it led began to take a hit.

At the AICC session in Delhi on January 17, 2014, Mr. Gandhi had 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. He travelled across the country, repeating his concern for “the hands that build the nation” promising them a “new future,” not through handouts but “a basic rights and welfare package” that would go beyond the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act of 2008.

The Congress’s analysis was: one, if most political parties look at voters through the prism of caste or religion, governments divide citizens into 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 had 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 had been phased out. Three, economic liberalisation had increased job opportunities, fuelling migration to cities and swelling the unorganised sector. This sector may have benefited from health, homes and food entitlements, but labour laws did not apply to it. Four, the Congress, using literature on the subject, had calculated that Indians who earned between ₹1,000-₹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 — numbered 70 crore.

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

Another chance

Unfortunately, in 2014, the Congress suffered an ignominious defeat in the general election. But its losses had nothing to do with the direction in which Mr. Gandhi was seeking to take the party; rather, the mood created by Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign provided a perfect launch pad for the BJP that year.

But, today, the ill-effects of demonetisation have provided the Opposition — of which the Congress is the largest party — an opportunity to change the narrative to its own advantage. Parliament’s recent winter session saw an unusual degree of solidarity among Opposition parties on the issue, and if West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had seized the initiative initially, by the end, Mr. Gandhi was well on his way to helming the Opposition’s efforts to corner the government. Unfortunately, he stumbled, not realising that his going with his party colleagues to meet the Prime Minister on the farm loan waiver issue on December 16, would be read as breaking ranks. The other Opposition parties are so annoyed that most of them boycotted his December 27 meeting intended to plan how to carry forward the battle jointly.

Mr. Gandhi’s heart may be in the right place, but he continues to falter on consistency and credibility, and an understanding of how the political game is played. But, it's still not too late for the Congress vice-president to change his advisers.

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