A Manifesto for Mr Gandhi

The Congress party seems to be getting its act together. Here are three areas they need to focus on to pose a challenge in 2019.

If Rahul Gandhi’s US-trip is any indication, he is now ready to lead. There also seems to be a team working behind him that has helped to make his speeches more purposive, with several good ideas scattered in them. If 2019 is to be a contest, Team Congress have to start plotting now.

If it is now settled that Rahul Gandhi will be the face of the Congress party in 2019, what he needs next is a manifesto. His recent public interactions have included several good ideas. A key thrust of his argument seems to be that India needs to be built from the bottom-up. That governments need to channel the ideas and energies of millions of people, as opposed to being commandeered by the wishes of an individual, or a small cabal of people. No government in India so far has actually lived up to this ideal, so the challenge in realising this vision is understandably massive.

To win elections, the Congress party needs a narrative. A narrative that exposes the BJP’s ‘messiah’ model, and specific policy proposals that voters can peg their hopes on. In this column, I offer three such proposals.

One: Build on the SME narrative

Rahul Gandhi has got it right on Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises when he says they needed to be the centre-piece of the Make in India campaign. He has also stressed the challenges of job creation. These need to be developed into a coherent plan. Everyone recognises that the constraints to job creation are structural – the poor quality of education, viability of our farms, labour contracts in our factories, the credit constraints that have depressed industrial activity, etc. Skill missions lie abandoned, while religion and history seem to be the prime targets of education reforms. The government has repeatedly tried to pass off restructured small loans as job creation success stories.

In response, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress need to go big on SMEs and large manufacturing industries that create jobs. It needs to demonstrate a consultative mechanism to tackle key problems. For instance, could they find a way to approach labour reforms without blowing it up politically? A round of consultations, starting right now, should help. Ultimately, if political parties and labour unions recognise the problem at hand, and agree on even an initially limited set of reforms, it might make a huge difference.

The Congress party needs to come out and show itself to be pro-business. Creating a pro-business environment does not mean making it easier for businesses to break rules or avoid taxes. They need to communicate that it makes a clear distinction between ‘big business’ and ‘bad businesses. According to the Economist, India ranks ninth in its ‘crony index’, with cronyistic industries accounting for 3.4% of the country’s GDP in 2015. Cronyism is a problem, and the Congress party should promise their support to banks and financial institutions, and the judiciary to curb this menace.

Two: Revive local governance

Panchayats have slowly been sliding downhill. After initial enthusiasm, the government, over the last several years, has failed to fight on their behalf, and have allowed state governments to encroach the powers that should lie with Panchayati Raj institutions. Urban local governance is a disaster, with little accountability even where funds are plenty. Local governments are responsible for last-mile implementation, or monitoring of most public services. Starving them of resources and capacity building support is counter-productive. Empowering local governments politically has already proven to be one of the most effective tools to empower women en masse. As local governments wither away, there is a serious risk that these gains will come undone.

Focusing on local governance fits right into the emphasis on empowerment at the lower-levels of governance, right down to rural communities. Strengthening local governments will lead to improvements in the functioning of social safety nets, and the delivery of essential services delivered by the state, such as health, education, etc. There are several stalwarts within the Congress party whose advice and guidance would be valuable in crafting a revival strategy, and this is an area where Rahul Gandhi should actively look to take his father’s legacy forward. In order to be effective, local governments need an enabling environment where they work collaboratively with bureaucrats in the line departments. Bureaucrats who either do not understand how to work with local governments or distrust them need to be educated.

Three: Commit to individual liberty

The Congress party’s track-record on individual liberty is weak, but this can be changed. A commitment to protect Freedom of Speech in all forms is a basic minimum. It should resolve to clamp down on all violations of individual liberty, and promise to undo damaging legislations that currently place restrictions on what one can eat, read, watch, love, etc. Dissenters and whistle-blowers should be protected, and all unfair restrictions on NGOs and activists should be lifted. This goes against the grain of a political party in India, and it will be an incredibly difficult power for a ruling party to give up on. However, Rahul Gandhi must do so, and be evidently seen as doing so, if he is to convince voters that the Congress party is a party of the 21st century.

The timing is right. Prime Minister Modi, as popular as he may be electorally, has been exposed for his mismanagement of the economy. A spate of bad press has not helped. Op-eds are being written on how grand schemes of the government are falling short on performance. Influential opinion-makers may not care about social and cultural issues, but are affected when the economy starts faltering. They then care, they write and voice their concerns. It is hard to say how long it will last, but this is a sweet spot for the Congress party, and the perfect time to launch an offensive on the BJP.

After a first few encouraging steps, Rahul Gandhi needs to keep up the momentum. A strong opposition is an essential part of a democracy. With the right political strategy, who knows, 2019 may not be a done deal after all.