Rahul Gandhi may need more than a 'hug-and-wink' routine to counter BJP's grand strategy for 2019

It is a little amusing to watch Rahul Gandhi, tin sword in hand, hurl himself majestically into the election battlefield like Sergius Saranoff, the Bulgarian nobleman in George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. If the Congress president hasn’t yet read (or watched) Shaw’s play, set in the backdrop of 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian war, he should. It may cure him of his misplaced romanticism.

Entitled dynast, amateur socialist, part-time politician and full-time sensationalist Rahul Gandhi has no idea of what he is up against as he strives to place himself as Narendra Modi's chief challenger in 2019.

The BJP under Modi and Amit Shah is a well-drilled, organised and efficient unit that tries to stay several steps ahead of its rivals. During the election to Rajya Sabha deputy chairman’s post, for instance, we witnessed how the party trumped the Congress in its own game — stitching an unlikely ‘mahagathbandhan’ to help its ally JD(U) win the seat in a canter despite the NDA’s numeric disadvantage in the Upper House.

From the proceedings at the Monsoon Session and certain simultaneous developments in the last couple of weeks, it is possible to get a glimpse of BJP’s grand strategy for the 2019 general elections. Among other issues, the party is likely to stress on three verticals during its campaign — social welfare, social inclusion and a tacit Hindutva card.

By no means would these be the only areas of focus. Efforts are on to spread awareness on the deep-seated, structural reforms that it has undertaken — such as the GST, demonetisation, direct benefit transfer through the JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) network, Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code that fulfills the long-pending need for a modern bankruptcy law, improvements in ‘ease of doing business’ rankings, inflation targeting and fiscal consolidation, deregulation of fossil fuel prices, etc.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

Modi has also demonstrated an ability to execute major programs on scale. As Arvind Panagariya, former NITI Aayog chief and professor of Economics at Columbia University, points out: “Aadhaar cards have risen from 650 million in March 2014 to 1.2 billion… Under JDY (Jan Dhan Yojana), 18 million bank accounts were opened in one week during August 23-29, 2014, a feat that found mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. Today, the total number of JDY accounts stands at 316 million. Finally, under SBM (Swachh Bharat Mission), rural households with toilets in their homes have risen from barely 38% to 84.2% with 17 states declared open defecation free in rural areas.”

Yet some of these far-reaching reforms also carry significant transitory costs and the benefits are not visible in the near term, making them politically inexpedient. It is a measure of Modi’s resolve that he spent considerable political capital to see these through but equally, it renders him politically vulnerable until such time that the reforms bear fruit or are seen to be bearing fruit in public perception.

That is precisely why the Modi government is likely to stress on its execution of a range of marquee welfare schemes for the poor, highlight its social inclusion initiatives targeting caste dynamic and underline vigorously its achievements in plugging leakages and smoothening last-mile delivery mechanism.

In terms of its rural outreach programs, the Modi government is well placed. Its pet scheme Ujjwala Yojana, that allots free LPG connections to poor households in accord with the Socio-Economic Caste Consensus (SECC), has beaten its own deadline by nearly eight months. On 3 August, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan handed over an LPG connection to a beneficiary that completed the five-crore mark of the prime minister’s flagship pro-poor scheme.

Some of the remotest villages in India (such as Richukrong in Arunachal Pradesh) now have LPG connection for the first time.

According to a PIB statement, Uttar Pradesh (87 lakh), West Bengal (67 lakh), Bihar (61 lakh), Madhya Pradesh (45 lakh), Rajasthan (37 lakh) and Odisha (30 lakh) have accounted for nearly 65 percent of the connections while 47 percent of the beneficiaries are SC/STs. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) was launched in 2016, targeting five crore BPL households by 31 March, 2019 but the target was achieved in 28 months. It has now been revised to eight crore connections with a budgetary allocation of Rs 12,800 crore.

As Abhishek Kar and Hisham Zerriffi of the University of British Columbia in Canada point out, “PMUY’s real contribution is two-fold. One, before PMUY was launched, 62% of Indian households had LPG connections… Now it has extended to 85% households. Second, 60 lakh PMUY beneficiaries have now switched to LPG as the primary cooking fuel… It would not have been possible for most of these poor women without support from PMUY.”

Success of these social welfare schemes facilitates significant political leverage. Combined with the social inclusiveness built within the structure of these initiatives, the government will be well placed to reap political dividends. According to an article in Open magazine, the revised target of PMUY connection in 8 crore households by 2020 “will cover all SC/ST households, beneficiaries of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), forest dwellers, Most Backward Classes (MBCs) and tea garden residents, besides poor households identified by the SECC.”

What the Opposition may not get is how these changes fuel aspirations among the poor. Already, the pressure cooker industry is reaping the benefits of a successful implementation of Ujjwala with a major uptick in sales. This is also the reason why empty rhetoric on poverty might be nearing the end of its electoral effectiveness after a nearly seven-decade stupendous run. One wonders if amateur socialist Rahul Gandhi, still locked in '80s rhetoric, has caught on to the change on the ground.

The Modi government has replicated this success in other areas, most noticeably in the rural electrification program where the government has again beaten its own deadline to provide electricity to all of India’s 5,97,464 villages by April 2018.

Similarly, Modi government’s rural housing scheme — that seeks to provide housing for all by 2022 — is also on track.

These welfare schemes form one part of the government’s report card. The other part is the stress on social inclusiveness where a series of steps has been taken to increase BJP’s reach among India’s backward communities and hold on to its gains among the Dalits.

Towards this end, the government took two important steps during the Monsoon Season of the Parliament. One, it overturned a Supreme Court order (that had introduced certain safeguards against arrest) to restore the original SC/ST law. Two, it gave more teeth to the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) by shepherding a bill that provided it constitutional status. The panel now has the power to safeguard the rights and interests of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), a task which was earlier outsourced to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes.

This, along with the proposed sub-categorisation of the OBCs, is expected to boost BJP’s chances in getting a significant share of the OBC vote that, according to some estimates, stands at 41 percent or even higher.

With its share of the Dalit votes expected to take a hit in the Hindi heartland due to possible consolidation of BSP and SP vote banks, the BJP is betting on the NCBC bill and the division of backwards into categories like “backward”, “most backward” and “extremely backward” and “sharing of 27% quota among them in proportion to their population.”

Alongside, the BJP is also planning programmes such as naming at least one road in each district of Uttar Pradesh after the deceased former Bihar chief minister Karpoori Thakur, who is among the “leading architects of the political mobilisation of extremely backward classes (EBCs) in Bihar.”

The third part of BJP’s 2019 plan will rest on the controversy arising out of the publication of the second NRC draft in Assam which provides the saffron party the opportunity to shape the political discourse into a ‘pro-nationalist’ and ‘pro-illegal Bangladeshi immigrant’ binary. The BJP has already raised the pitch for a replication of the NRC in other states. The Congress, which has strived in recent times to move away from its ‘pro-minority’ image and has been stressing on ‘Shiva-bhakt’ Rahul Gandhi’s janeu-dhaari credentials, might be wary of walking into the trap.

It nevertheless allowed the government one more chance to be painted into the regressive corner by once again blocking the passage of the triple talaq bill in Rajya Sabha, despite the government making space for some of Opposition’s key demands in the landmark Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017.

The contours of BJP’s grand strategy will become clearer as we move along the calendar. To take on such an organised campaign marked by meticulous attention to detail, however, it will possibly take more than the ‘hug-and-wink’ routine that symbolises Congress politics under Rahul Gandhi.


Updated Date: Aug 10, 2018 20:04 PM

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