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Lessons from the Raj: Avoid the left turn, Mr Gandhi

If the Congress party wants to bring itself back as a credible alternative in the next general elections, it will have to reinvent its working style. Else, another defeat in 2019 might prove fatal for this grand old party.

twitter-logoAnilesh S Mahajan | May 15, 2015 | Updated 10:52 IST

Anilesh Mahajan, assistant editor, Business Today
Learning lessons from someone else's mistakes is a trait that Indians are taught regularly. This time, the lessons of wisdom come from a few time zones away: the United Kingdom. The country recently went through general elections and saw the Conservative Party's David Cameron retaining his prime ministerial post. This was historic because most surveys had given the edge to the Labour party and its leader Ed Miliband.

There are some lessons in this for the principal opposition party in India and its leadership. The efforts are on to project Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi as a socialist with Leftist flavours. Socialism is an old comfort zone for many in the Congress. Till now, most outside Congress, and many in the party, too, don't find Gandhi as a plausible prime ministerial choice. But unlike other parties, Congressmen don't have a choice but to accept the Gandhi scion as their leader.

In the second leg of the Budget session, Gandhi took centre stage in attacking the NDA government in the Lok Sabha. He kept Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the centre of his attack, especially on the Land Acquisition Bill. His rhetoric is that the amendments in this Bill are anti-farmer, although he was unable to site the clauses that may harm farmers.

One of his jibes was to quote unknown Russian economists, saying thieves wearing suits will come to steal the land of farmers. He taunted the PM for wearing a pinstripe suit when the US President Barack Obama visited India. The Congress has successfully blocked key reform bills like the GST and the Land Acquisition Bill. Taking breaks from the Parliament, Gandhi also visited farmers in Maharashtra, Punjab and other parts of the country and linked the farmers' condition, which was actually caused by poor weather, to the Land Bill.

The effort is to paint the government as pro-corporate and anti-farmer, and grab the socialist space left vacant in the country. It was a similar path that the Labour party opted for under Ed Miliband in 2010. After the defeat in 2010, the party took a left turn, especially from the policies pushed by Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and his successor Gordon Brown during their rule between 1997 and 2010.

Despite being a Labour prime minister, Blair took some bold decisions that raised many eyebrows, but these steps helped push investments in the country. In fact, when the Labour party was defeated, it was not because people disliked their policies but because many believe the Britons were tired of Labour rule.

After that, the party had rounds of a fiercely fought leadership battle between Ed and his elder brother David Miliband. Ed, who was backed by the trade union core of the party, got to steer it. Meanwhile David, who in 2009 was the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and had once accompanied Rahul Gandhi to spend a night at a Dalit's home in Uttar Pradesh, opted for political exile with a caution that leftism may not work in the UK.

His fears came true this May. In the past two decades, Britons have increased their trust in the economics of the right-wing parties. Two terms under the leadership of Manmohan Singh and the role played by Sonia Gandhi - who ideologically were at extreme poles of capitalism and socialism - left the Congress and the government confused. Singh moved towards socialism only in the last leg of this second tenure. From there on, the Singh government moved towards a consumption-led economy.

Traditional Congressmen might feel comfortable with Gandhi's discourse of leftist socialism; but it might not find resonance among India's new breed of voters. They understand that the country has to generate jobs for 10 million every year and leftism is unlikely to have a bright future in this country.

What is different between Gandhi's and Miliband's circumstances, is that Ed, like his brother, was also a Cabinet minister under Brown and had administrative experience. The problem with Gandhi is that he comes with this huge baggage of being an unconvincing politician. Many in the party also believe that he is not a full-time politician, and they often invoke the name of his sister Priyanka to take on the lead role.

Rahul has this tendency of taking leave, unexpectedly, especially when he is needed the most. No one in the party knew where he was during the first half of the Budget session. In the second half he is picking up issues that are found to be short of facts. This makes his work more complicated, as he has to make more of an effort to convince people of his thoughts. But even if he is able to convince people, what are his own ideas for India?

If the Congress party wants to bring itself back as a credible alternative in the next general elections, it will have to reinvent its working style. Else, another defeat in 2019 might prove fatal for this grand old party, especially after new alternatives like AAP, and the unified Janata Parivar, who have championed socialism and soft leftism to their core, are popping up.

Hopefully, lessons learnt from Ed Miliband will help Congress - and Gandhi - find the right path.

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