Mired in trouble by Praful Bidwai

Last Sunday, the Congress party held a rally in Delhi to celebrate the United Progressive Alliance government’s disastrous decision to open up multi-brand retail to foreign direct investment. This proved that the party has lost its basic political instincts. In fact, the Congress has done what no other Indian party has done:
openly claim ownership of a right-wing measure that favours a tiny elite but hurts millions. The nearest anyone came to doing this was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its “India Shining” campaign of 2004, which became a major factor in its electoral defeat.
The Wal-Mart-style hypermarkets to be promoted under the new policy will destroy street-vendors and petty shopkeepers, who cannot match giant corporations in attracting the upper middle class consumers through predatory pricing. It will also make farmers and other suppliers dependent on corporations which have every reason to squeeze them.

Going by western experience, hypermarkets will gradually eliminate competition and turn against the consumer too. Foreign-controlled retail will promote a repugnant culture of greed and wasteful consumerism that’s the opposite of environmental sustainability and social and economic equity.

Yet, by linking the FDI decision to the Congress’s “historic achievements” such as the Green Revolution in the 1970s and market-fundamentalist neoliberal policies since 1991, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have wiped out the distance the Congress had taken from the UPA and Manmohan Singh.

Under the division of labour prevalent since 2004, the Sonia Gandhi leadership projected a left-of-centre image which fit in well with the progressive initiatives proposed by the National Advisory Council. Her emphasis on equity and inclusive growth was at odds with Singh’s policies. Now, that autonomy from Singh – chipped away gradually through repeated dilution and rejection of the NAC’s proposals on rights to food, education and healthcare, and through a change in the NAC’s composition – has vanished.

The Congress, which promised to be aam aadmi-centric, has been reduced to chanting the mantra of GDPism, the ridiculous belief that GDP growth is desirable in itself, regardless of its employment and income effects. Economist Simon Kuznets, who developed the concept of the GDP, disapproved of its use as a measure of overall national well-being because it fails to distinguish “between quantity and quality of growth, between costs and returns, and between the short and long run.”

The Congress’s rightward shift erases another lesson: the party has done well in elections whenever it adopted a left-of-centre stance. It’s now cultivating foreign corporations and a narrow upper class stratum and alienating the masses just when its main opponent, the BJP, is extremely vulnerable.

Recent media exposes of BJP President Nitin Gadkari’s shady business dealings have made his position untenable, as borne out by great turmoil in the BJP. The company Gadkari controls, Purti Power and Sugar, is owned by 18 shell companies, a majority of which have addresses in slums, and many of whose directors are Gadkari’s employees, including his chauffeur, besides having Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) connections.

The key to Gadkari’s rise in the Sangh Parivar is money laundered and routed through Purti. Purti has benefited handsomely from Gadkari cronies such as Ideal Road Builders, whom he favoured as Maharashtra’s PWD minister in 1995-99. The IRB, which had only built 10 km of roads in six years, was given contracts worth hundreds of crores and became Maharashtra’s biggest toll-road company. As if to return the favours, its main owner loaned INR164 crores to Purti.

To their disgrace, the BJP-RSS have unconvincingly defended Gadkari. The RSS chief, at whose behest Gadkari was appointed party president, made the amazing statement that “it’s not important how much money has been earned; it’s important ... whether it has been put to good use or not”. Such rationalisation of corruption couldn’t have been more blatant.

The Gadkari expose’ highlights nasty personal rivalries within the BJP. Gadkari has complained to the RSS that the person who leaked damaging evidence against him is party national general secretary Arun Jaitley. Jaitley probably has his eye on the party presidency, and is closely allied with the RSS joint general secretary Suresh Soni. Although the BJP constitution was recently amended to allow a second consecutive term to the president, it looks improbable that Gadkari will get it when his first term ends in December.

Gadkari’s embarrassment has produced hidden glee among his many rivals and detractors inside the party, not least former party president Rajnath Singh, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha. Gadkari riled Modi by appointing his bete noire Sanjay Joshi as election coordinator in Uttar Pradesh. In retaliation, Modi refused to campaign in the UP elections and eventually had Joshi dismissed from the party’s national executive.

Gadkari, a novice to national politics, never enjoyed much credibility, leave alone respect, in the BJP. He was considered a clown, and duly acted out that role through a series of foot-in-mouth comments. Many of his detractors have chosen to tactically ally with Gadkari because they are loath to see either Modi or Jaitley become the party president.

Various BJP leaders are making different alignments to promote individual interests. Some are even campaigning for the 85-year old LK Advani to be made party president. Yet others are rooting for Modi. Many are watching the RSS’s moves. The RSS has tightened its control over the BJP, and appointed three senior leaders (in place of one) as coordinators of its relations with the BJP.

The greatest gain from all the churning in the BJP-RSS is undoubtedly to Narendra Milosevic Modi, already the most powerful of the party’s second-generation leaders. Although the recent judgment in the Naroda-Patiya massacre, convicting 31 people including Modi crony and former minister Maya Kodnani, was an embarrassment, and although his right-hand man Amit Patel is in trouble over the fake encounter killing of Sohrabuddin, Modi’s stock remains high within the Parivar.

The recent ill-conceived British decision, driven by crass commercial reasons, to resume normal relations with the Modi government after a hiatus of 10 years, and the apparent softening of the US stand against granting him a visa, have also helped Modi. As has the praise showered upon him by numerous Indian industrialists for favouring them with sweetheart deals and enormous subsidies.

Modi is making an aggressive bid for the top party job. His bid will gather strength if the BJP wins next month’s Gujarat assembly elections. The hitch is the RSS, which doesn’t fully trust Modi because of his megalomania and highly individualistic style of working – despite his self-evident commitment to violent Hindutva and his success in reducing Gujarat’s Muslims to the status of second-class citizens. The RSS fears that a Modi takeover of the BJP will damage the party.

Yet, the RSS will have to give Modi a greater national role, perhaps as a campaign manager. Real resistance to Modi is unlikely to come from within the Parivar. It can only come from the BJP’s “secular” allies like Nitish Kumar – if they gather the courage to oppose his bid for the National Democratic Alliance’s prime ministerial candidate.

One thing is clear. Modi has blood on his hands. His candidacy will polarise the polity, and could help the Congress offset its continuing policy blunders. That would be quite an irony!

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1@yahoo.co.in


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