The process of wearing political conversation down to a reductive and competitive exercise has been firmly in place for a while. But never before has the hollowness of customary politician-speak and broken governmental systems been more pronounced than during this pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has utterly exposed the lack of a cohesive agenda of governance, and the absence of a broader political and social vision to steer India forward beyond lockdowns.
Even some semblance of proper planning, for instance, could have protected migrant workers and spared them the unimaginable hardships they are having to endure. Trying to escape locked down cities on their way home, more than 130 migrant workers have died in separate accidents on highways, and on railway tracks. As disturbing images play out on our screens, top Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders deliver empty, bombastic speeches. And the opposition, as it has for much of the last six years, fritters away valuable time, almost abdicating its political role.
Against this bleak backdrop, paying some attention to former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s recent conversations with two economists, Raghuram Rajan and Abhijit Banerjee, may be useful. The conversations break away from politician-speak, opening up space for deeper, reflective musings between representatives of two groups – politicians and academics – who have not been seen within the same frame, engaged in substantive dialogue, for a fair few years in India.
There may, of course, be a tendency to dismiss such exchanges as being of little productive value, which bring meagre returns to real politics. A tendency that may have to do, in some measure, with our frayed imagination of politicians or mass leaders; not to mention academics. Given the tit-for-tat political exchanges that define so much of political conversation, it may only be a natural reflex to situate politicians as incapable of reflective thinking. Such scepticism can only be higher in the case of Rahul Gandhi, who, for a long while now, has seemed to fit the bill of a ‘failed politician.’
Since the BJP’s ascension to power in 2014, Rahul has faltered many times, dashing hopes of the Congress reviving itself as a credible opposition party. The main opposition’s dwindling political fortunes, though, have not prevented either Prime Minister Narendra Modi or his senior colleagues from training their guns on members of the Gandhi family, and particularly, Rahul Gandhi. The Congress’s inability to strike at the BJP’s divisive, communal politics with its own distinctive and cohesive counter, coupled by its internecine tensions have, many a time in the recent past, threatened to push Rahul into political irrelevance. Indeed, whether we think of the reaction to scrapping Article 370, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), or the upswell of unrest across the country, we would be hard pressed to identify any role the Congress has had in leading the charge against the government. Matters are not helped, of course, by the party’s own history of complicity in all manner of nefarious activities — from corruption to presiding over communal violence and riots.
Chinks in a seemingly impregnable armour
But times change. Sometimes in the blink of an eye, events drill chinks in a seemingly impregnable political armour. Could the disturbing events of the past four months dent the BJP’s shield? Could the terrifying spectacles of death and devastation in public spaces across India create an extraordinary moment an otherwise inept, unreliable, and almost extinct political opposition could seize?
This is not an ordinary profit and loss moment in the political life of a ruling or opposition party. COVID-19 has posed serious health, economic and social challenges in its wake. The severe odds facing migrant workers, the economic downturn, and the not yet fully unravelled nature of the virus itself, all call for thinking and caring leadership. Conversations beyond the usual party pale, with a range of experts and grassroots activists, could help this difficult process of meeting the many challenges. We must redefine the meaning and the image of decisive leadership. And in that process, widen the circle of political discourse and those who participate in it.
Gandhi’s conversations with Rajan and Banerjee, besides reflecting on many current challenges, draw attention to certain fundamental questions about economic policies that have often been uncritically embraced. Would it be fair to say that the global economic system, which has clearly “gone wrong,” was not working, Rahul asked. Rajan responded that it would indeed be fair to say that the economic system was not working for a lot of people:
“The growing inequality of wealth and income in developed countries is certainly a source of concern. The precariousness of jobs, the so-called precariat is another source of concern. You have these gig jobs without knowing if you’ll have any income tomorrow.”
It goes without saying that the groundwork for the system in question was done by the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress government in 1991, which under the stewardship of then finance minister Manmohan Singh, opened up the Indian economy, paving the way for global economic integration. So, Rahul’s question on this count casts a critical eye on the party’s own history, whether he means to or not.
UPA’s welfare policies
What about the efficacy of poverty alleviation programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in providing relief to increasing numbers of pauperised people? Banerjee replied to this query by pointing out there are a “bunch of people for whom there isn’t really a system. They aren’t eligible for MGNREGA, because there is no MGNREGA in Bombay … Part of the problem in the very short run is that the conceptualisation of the welfare structure was based on the idea that anybody who is really not in where they are supposed to be is actually working and therefore is earning an income and you don’t have to worry about them. And that’s what has collapsed.”
Recalling Narendra Modi’s stringent criticism of the United Progressive Alliance-sponsored MGNREGA in the past may provide useful insight into the dynamics playing out at present. The BJP’s regular jibes at the policy led to large-scale apprehension that Modi would scrap the scheme after he became the prime minister in 2014. A group of 250 eminent people, including 90 MPs, even wrote a letter asking him to “make the strengthening of MGNREGA an urgent priority.”
In February 2015, ending speculations, Modi mockingly told the opposition in parliament: “My political instincts tell me that MNREGA should not be discontinued because it is a living memorial to your failures. After so many years in power, all you were able to deliver is for a poor man to dig ditches a few days a month.”
Five years on, confronting a full-blown health crisis that crippled an already flailing economy overnight, the Modi government has fallen back on the very scheme it’s leaders routinely disparaged. Last Sunday, the Central government allocated an additional Rs 40,000 crore for the MGNREGA. “It will help generate nearly 300 crore person days in total, addressing the need for more work including returning migrant workers in the monsoon season as well,” said finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
In this context, one could ask why pro-poor infrastructures like the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) that the BJP claimed would transform the face of India, have been of such little or no help to destitute, penniless workers in their moment of need. It is indeed ironic that schemes like MGNREGA – piloted by a National Advisory Council (NAC) that the BJP relentlessly criticised as a “supporting ground for Naxalites” till as recently as two years ago – should now be what this government turns to in a moment of crisis.
The PMJDY, launched as the “biggest financial inclusion initiative” on August 28, 2014, aimed, according to the government’s website, to liberate people from a “vicious cycle” of poverty. Some of the scheme’s benefits included interest on deposit, accidental insurance coverage of Rs 1 lakh, easy transfer of money across India, and Rs 30,000 in life insurance coverage.
Four years on, in its 2018 Global Findex Database report, the World Bank said while 80% of adult Indians have bank accounts, nearly half of those accounts have remained inactive in the past year. “100 million adults with an inactive account have a debit card, while nearly 2.5 times as many — 240 million — have an inactive account plus a mobile phone,” the World Bank said. Many of the account holders have not yet used their new account. “In India, the share (of inactive account) is 48% — the highest in the world and about twice the average of 25% for developing economies,” the report claimed.
In his 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign, Modi highlighted the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), a scheme launched in 2016 to provide free cooking gas connections to women in families below the poverty line, as a key achievement. However, the situation on the ground, as noted by a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India report this January, showed a declining trend in annual average refill consumption.
The point here is not that the Congress got it right. It did not. But it is indicative that the basic, often inadequate, welfare systems the UPA put in place are all the present dispensation has at its disposal to alleviate the distress of thousands of people. That basic fact tells a story about Indian democracy that we would do well to focus on, away from the partisan bickering over right and left.
Hit the streets
If serious about building a support base among the rural and urban poor, Rahul will need to hit the streets. His conversations with experts provide a new layer to politics, departing from the high pitch intense animosity of discourse in recent years. Politics cannot be conducted through intermittent interventions, or catchy one-line slogans. Such desultoriness will not break the present status quo. The void produced by the present crisis gives Rahul Gandhi an opportunity — despite his party’s inertia and lack of commitment — to stay on the ground in a sustained manner, and show a different face of politics.
Hours after 24 migrant workers were killed in a road collision on an Uttar Pradesh highway, the BJP, last Saturday, released an audiovisual clip celebrating six years of the Narendra Modi government and its “unprecedented” achievements. The same day, Rahul met a group of 20 migrant workers in Delhi. While the BJP has, predictably, dismissed the act as “drama,” there is something to be said for compassionate leadership in these times.
None of this is to suggest that the Congress will bring salvation, or that Rahul Gandhi should be celebrated for acting thoughtfully in a crisis. But if conducting public discussions with academics and meeting those worst affected by the pandemic is “dramebaazi,” then a little more drama and a little less 30-minute-long primetime theatrics could be just what the doctor ordered.