Rahul Gandhi's wit may get him social media traction, but is there an economic plan to counter Narendra Modi?

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has been gaining traction of late, both on social media and on the ground. Or at least it appears so from reports in poll-bound Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

Gandhi's rallies in both states have witnessed large crowds, and he has used pointed phrases (sometimes accompanied by shayaris) targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his policies — Jadugar, Gabbar Singh Tax, Modi-Made Disaster, jumlon ki baarish to name a few — in Modi's own style. And if you go by social media trends, it seems to be working.

Gandhi has particularly attacked Modi over the latter's two major economic moves — demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax (GST) — calling them 'twin torpedoes', a 'double tap' at the heart of the economy.

File image of Rahul Gandhi. PTI

File image of Rahul Gandhi. PTI

But beyond the rhetoric and beyond aiming barbs at Modi, do Rahul Gandhi and Congres have a clear-cut, prudent economic roadmap to counter the government's economic policy flaws? Probably not. At least, there is no evidence of that so far in Gandhi's speeches, or in the Congress party's counter-narrative against BJP. His speeches have been limited to attacking the Modi government's steps, but they lack solutions and alternative ideas to gain the confidence of the informed voter.

For instance, take a look at Gandhi's stated position on GST, one of the biggest tax reforms in India's indirect tax regime. Both Gandhi and Congress have criticised the way tax reform was implemented from the very beginning, saying that multiple tax rates and flawed implementation have made it a reality far from the original idea of a "one nation, one rate" tax that is simple to comply with.

True, GST's roll-out has been far from perfect. Lack of proper planning and inability to foresee challenges are evident in the frequent changes being made to the rules and rates within just four months of the roll-out. Small traders are worried because they find it difficult to comply with filing multiple returns, to bring order to their businesses, as different raw materials that go into making a product often attract different tax rates. There are confusions and concerns all across the country, despite a recent reduction in tax rates announced by the government.

But what would the Congress do differently at this juncture, had it been in power? In one of his recent speeches, Gandhi said that in 2019, his party (assuming Congress wins and forms government) will reduce GST rates to just one slab of 18 percent. This is at best wishful thinking in a vast country with a complex economy like India, as tax experts have warned time and again.

Congress leader P Chidambaram too had suggested one revenue neutral rate (with plus and minus rates for luxury items essential items respectively). Even a panel headed by government's chief economic adviser Arvind Subramaniam had suggested a three-rate GST structure.

Unlike smaller countries, it's neither advisable nor feasible to implement a single GST rate.

Instead of making random statements, Gandhi and Congress would do well to come out with a well-thought out alternative economic plan on how GST should be modified, so that it doesn't terroriser traders and customers further. This clarity is missing so far.

Secondly, Gandhi and other Congress leaders, including former prime minister Manmohan Singh, have indulged in enough Modi-bashing on the topic of demonetisation, its ripple effects on the economy, and its failure to work as a tool to eliminate black money. 'Note ban tragedy' has been the hot topic for Gandhi in all political rallies since. Gandhi and his team have largely been on the right track, given that demonetisation has failed to meaningfully achieve any of its initially stated objectives.

But does the Congress have an alternative plan to tackle the parallel economy which Modi attempted to target through demonetisation? While Congress is justified in opposing demonetisation and its ill effects on the economy, it utterly fails in its duty as the principal Opposition party by not presenting as a better policy solution to curb black money.

Even Modi's biggest political opponents cannot deny the fact that India is one of the biggest victims of black money in the world, with estimates of black money (in the form of cash and other assets) in the domestic market alone around Rs 15 lakh crore to Rs 20 lakh crore, and a further Rs 65 lakh crore stashed in tax havens. It's a cardinal mistake for any government to ignore this problem.

But here again, Gandhi has failed to offer a credible roadmap to address the problem. There are other areas too where the economy needs urgent solutions — addressing the agrarian crisis, the mess in the banking sector, rising unemployment, etc. The economy needs real solutions from policymakers rather than political mudslinging and personal accusations. The challenge for the Congress — and Rahul Gandhi in particular — is to come up with a credible economic narrative to counter Modi and the Centre beyond Twitter barbs and the art of headline making.

Until then, it is highly improbable for Rahul Gandhi to gain acceptability among the informed voter.

Updated Date: Nov 14, 2017 14:03 PM

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