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Welfarism is the primary weapon of the Congress

The Congress has always been Hindu in its personality, signifying elite upper-caste interests but pulling in lower castes because of its policy of patronage

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The extraordinary emphasis on welfare in the Congress manifesto constitutes the beam and truss of the bridge that the party hopes to build between its predominantly upper-caste leadership structure and the teeming lower castes. The Congress hopes its version of social engineering will replace the politics of identity with that of interest and diminish the appeal of religion and caste.

 Welfarism is the primary weapon of the Congress

Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi display copies of Congress party's election manifesto. Reuters

The manifesto also implies that the Congress will not directly engage the Bharatiya Janata Party in a competition on nationalism and Hindutva. Nor it will take on regional outfits on caste-based equity. The Congress’ self-definition has influenced its choice of welfare as a weapon to tackle them.

A catch-all party, offering something to everyone, the Congress in its decades of dominance depended on the social alliance it had forged, in the main, between the upper castes, particularly Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims. It was Hindu in its personality – for instance, its governments in four states passed anti-cow slaughter laws in the 1950s – but eclectic and inclusivist in its ethos. It signified the elite upper-caste interests and yet pulled in the lower castes because of its policy of patronage.

Mandal, or social justice, and Mandir, or Hindutva, gradually tore apart the social alliance of the Congress from 1990, particularly in north India, from where maximum number of MPs are elected to the Lok Sabha. A clutch of parties predominantly aligned with a numerous caste or two in different states cannibalised the subaltern base of the Congress – for instance, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

This, in turn, prompted the upper castes to switch to the BJP, through which they hoped to preserve their hegemony. Hindutva, after all, provided an overarching ideological framework to unite disparate social groups – upper and lower castes, rich and poor – on the basis of their Hindu identity. Yet majority eluded the BJP until Narendra Modi’s slogan of development gave Hindutva the sharp edge to slice through the support base of most political outfits in north India in 2014.

It is impossible for a catch-all party to overtly resort to the politics of religion. The Congress cannot groom an Adityanath because it would alienate its minority and liberal Hindu voters across India. Nor can the party’s Dalit leaders emulate Mayawati, who flaunted her caste identity in the 1985 bypoll in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, by saying, “I am born of a Chamar mother. I have not forgotten my dalit and oppressed brothers the way that others, who live as slaves in Brahminical parties, have forgotten them.”

Mayawati was alluding to her Congress rival, Meira Kumar, a dalit herself. Kumar could not adopt Mayawati’s tone as it would have alienated the upper castes from the Congress. Kumar’s speeches have always espoused the dalit cause as one of the many the Congress promotes. The difference between Mayawati and Kumar’s rhetoric is vividly illustrated in the academician Kanchan Chandra’s observation: “...Even in everyday conversations about Scheduled Castes, Kumar prefers to use the term ‘they’ rather than ‘we.’”

Historically restrained from spawning an Adityanath or a Mayawati, welfarism becomes the Congress’ weapon to battle the practitioners of identity politics, both on the right and left of India’s ideological spectrum.

Welfarism will have an echo among social groups which are, typically, poor and small in number. They are fragments of the support base of both the BJP and regional outfits. The manifesto, therefore, is unlikely to help the Congress quadruple its 2014 tally of 44 seats in the 2019 elections.

Yet it could enable the party to build upon its last year’s victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh; or give it an additional momentum in, say, Kerala, where Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest has queered the Left’s pitch. It also gives the Congress a campaign point in a state like Uttar Pradesh, where it is fighting solo, and in states – Tamil Nadu, Karanataka and Bihar – where it is part of an alliance.

The Congress’ decision to make life difficult for regional outfits opposed to the BJP – Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Left – has been interpreted as a long-term endeavour to rebuild the party at their expense. Yet this possibility ignores the fact that if the BJP is unable to form a government, the Congress will need anywhere between 45%-50% of the majority figure of 272 seats to stake claims to lead a coalition of parties. Or else it could increase the bargaining position of regional satraps. Every seat counts for the Congress, which is what its manifesto seeks to achieve.

(Ajaz Ashraf is a senior journalist)

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