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Monday, August 3, 2020

Meet Sonia as Indira


As the economy tanks, Sonia plans a repeat of "Garibi Hataoā€¯ polarization last seen in 1971. Modi is gambling on a wave of anger last seen in 1977. All bets are off. Sonia Gandhi attempts an Indira Gandhi
Tags : 2014 Lok Sabha polls | Indira Gandhi | Sonia Gandhi | Congress | Inflation | Poverty | Food security bill | UPA | Narendra Modi | Rahul Gandhi |

“Sonia and the National Advisory Council (NAC), which allegedly does her dirty work, has been taken to the cleaners. Whatever the validity of the charges made by the Davoswallahs, I have not in the last ten years at least, witnessed one individual being subjected to this kind of concerted assault. Politicians of all hues make blunders -- the dismal science can trip up the best and the brightest. However, this brutal targeting of one politician is unprecedented...I always thought the charge against the smug and self-satisfied Indian elite of being fundamentally anti-poor is a bit over the top. Now I am not so sure...I defend her (Sonia) because in Shining India she is the lone political voice speaking out for the poor. More power to that voice". Vinod Mehta in The Times of India dated September 1, 2013.

Read the lines carefully and read between the lines. What insights do you get? The first one has been known to political pundits for a while: the Congress is not sure of Rahul Gandhi. The second, more important one is unfurling: Sonia Gandhi will defend the onslaught launched by Narendra Modi and she will present herself as an avatar of Indira Gandhi to voters. More than 40 years ago while facing a disillusioned and confused electorate in 1971, Indira Gandhi proclaimed: My opponents say Indira Hatao...I say Garibi Hatao.'' Sonia and her advisors are gambling on a repeat of 1971. According to a very senior Congress politician, informal messages have been sent out to all 'sympathizers' of the Congress in the media to hammer home, and keep hammering home the point that only Sonia Gandhi is genuinely concerned about the poor. The logic is simple: the voter may be unhappy with scams, rising prices, dwindling job opportunities and worse, but they will perceive Sonia as the "lone voice" fighting for them in these distressing times. A lot of pundits might think this Congress strategy or gamble is preposterous given the level of anger of the people. But they do forget that even stranger things have happened in Indian politics.

It is not as if critics of Sonia and the Congress are not aware of this strategy. They are convinced that issues like the Food Security Bill are cynical ploys by the ruling regime to retain power at all costs. On September 1, 2013, when well known journalist Vinod Mehta sang praises for Sonia, another well known journalist Tavleen Singh wrote in her hard hitting column in The Indian Express:   "This dream of prosperity is what Sonia has killed in the decade that she has been India's de facto prime minister. She has killed it by changing our economic direction and taking us back to the times when Indira Gandhi sold us a more diminished dream—'Garibi hatao'. With the passage of the food security and land bills in the Lok Sabha last week, Sonia has made it clear that this is all she wants for India. Not prosperity but just the removal of poverty. She seems uninterested in India becoming a rich and prosperous country with fine, modern cities and a growing middle class. Could it be because such things threaten dynastic democracy? It is easier to persuade Indians mired in poverty and marginal farming that dynastic democracy is in their best interests because like in feudal times, they will be looked after."

It is this sense of anger and disgust that Narendra Modi and his team as trying to tap as they prepare for the 2014 showdown. There is a lot going outwardly for the challenger Modi. The biggest weapon in their armory seems to be the sorry state of the Indian economy. And of course, pervasive middle class disgust with the corruption and arrogance of the current UPA regime. Modi's team is betting that the new Indian voter will see through "gimmicks" like the Food Security Bill and hold the Congress responsible for the economic mess when it is time to vote. Says senior journalist and former economics editor of news agency Press Trust of India T N Ashok: "High prices of onions are known to have brought down governments in the past. When a government hurts a man by hitting at his stomach, the voter does not become unfriendly but becomes enraged and votes against the government." This view is echoed by communications expert Prateek Shah who says: "While everything else hurts, there is nothing that hurts as bad as a bad economy. We are headed into a phase of deeper economic uncertainty, something that will only accentuate the already prevailing negative sentiment against the present government. This might be the final nail in the coffin to oust the people in power and being in a fresh perspective". Many analysts seem to think that the prevailing sentiment is similar to the days immediately after the Emergency when angry voters booted out Indira Gandhi. To that extent, while Sonia and her team are hoping for a 1971 style election while Modi and his team are hoping for a wave of  1977 style anger against the regime.

Clearly, Modi and his team are banking on this. More importantly, they have realized that the voter is looking out for a savior who can rescue the nation from the depths to which it seems to be falling. Modi is quite cleverly offering his much vaunted track record of good governance and the Gujarat Model of governance as an alternative to which the Indian voter, particularly the youth will be attracted. The current economic situation seems to indicate that the Indian voter will be an angry one. But will that lead to a debacle for the Congress as predicted by many in the media? The consensus seems to be that the middle class voter gave a decisive mandate to Sonia and Manmohan in 2009 and is now feeling betrayed. Will this translate into a wave like 1977 or even a mini wave like 1989 when the governments of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi respectively were ousted? Despite a clearly visible undercurrent across the country in favour of Narendra Modi, there are serious doubts about Modi's team to convert a pro-Modi and anti-Congress wave into enough seats for the BJP. Says analyst Suvol Kumar Dutta: "No doubt people are angry because of corruption and rising prices. But the BJP has been unable to take advantage of it. Because of internal squabbles and differences, the principal opposition party has failed to take this fight against the Congress to the grassroots level. I have a feeling the BJP is handing over an unexpected advantage to the Congress".

Let us look at some hard facts. Pundits contend that the UPA regime started losing its popularity as well as credibility since late 2010 when various scams started exploding across the country. Besides, since 2011, there has been a distinct and decisive downturn in economic sentiments, coupled with perceived anger against the regime for brazen corruption. So how did the angry voters of India behave since then? The seemingly unpopular and hated Congress party won a massive electoral victory in the Assam assembly elections. This was the third consecutive time that the Congress won a mandate. Analysts ascribed it to a successful strategy of consolidating Hindu votes adopted by Congress leader and chief minister Tarun Gogoi. Maybe they are right. Then the Congress led alliance won a victory in the Kerala assembly elections. Pundits said this was expected because the Congress-led and the CPM-led alliance in Kerala switch governments after every election. Maybe they are right. Then the Congress won a victory in the Uttarakhand assembly elections. Pundits proclaimed that internal bickering  within the BJP handed a victory to the Congress. Then we come to Himachal Pradesh where the Virbhadra Singh, the chief ministerial candidate of the Congress faced serious charges of corruption. By this time, the number of scams being exposed in the media and the judiciary had multiplied and become an embarrassment for the UPA regime. By then, the UPA regime had also hurt middle class and lower middle class Indians by resorting to a massive increase in the prices of LPG cylinders. BJP workers in Himachal Pradesh had started taking out LPG "processions" to highlight the plight of the aam aadmi under the UPA dispensation. And yet, the Congress won a decisive victory. Again, the pundits said that Himachal voters have a habit of throwing out incumbent governments. Maybe they are right. The only state that the Congress lost while being in  power was Goa. And the two states where the Congress performed very poorly are Punjab and Uttar Pradesh where pundits had predicted dramatically improved results for the party. And then came the Karnataka elections this year where the Congress has swept back to power with a massive mandate.

So what does this tell us about the behaviour of the angry and betrayed Indian voter? How did the angry and betrayed Indian voter give so many favourable and decisive verdicts to the Congress? There are two ways of looking at this. One is to accept the disturbing premise that the Indian voter is tolerant of corruption, arrogance and poor governance. The other is to accept the premise that voters now deliver their verdict based more on local and regional factors rather than national issues. Going by this logic, the corruption of the BJP government in Karnataka was of more concern to the voter than the corruption of the Congress led UPA regime in Delhi. To that extent, it would be fair to say that Lok Sabha election results have become an aggregation of state results. Recent history certainly seems to bear it out. Pundits say that NTEGA and farm loan waivers played a huge role in the 2009 victory of the Congress. Yet, data shows that predominantly rural states where these populist measures had the most impact- Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh- are the ones where the Congress performed miserably in the 2009 Lok Sabha Elections.

Either ways, one thing is clear: pundits have been consistently getting their analysis and forecasts wrong when it comes to the behavior of the Indian voter. The one state where pundits expected to handsomely win the assembly elections was in Punjab because the Akali Dal- BJP ruling alliance was perceived to be corrupt. And yet the Congress lost badly; in fact, it was the only time that the voters in Punjab re-elected an incumbent government.  The strategy, or the gamble of the Sonia team is quite clear. They are not foolish and have realized that there is tremendous anger of people against the government. But what they are banking on is that the anger is against the Manmohan Singh government and not against Sonia Gandhi, or even Rahul Gandhi for that matter. As the Anna Hazare movement indicated, people of India are angry with the "system". And that system includes all political parties. No wonder, the Congress party and is sympathizers have largely succeeded in the media in portraying the BJP as an obstructionist party without any genuine concern for the people. It does help when Nobel laureates like Amartya Sen slam opposition parties for delaying the Food Security  Bill. This strategy of attacking opposition parties may not convince them that the government is honest; but it would certainly confuse them. And TSI reporters across India have talked to a startlingly large number of people who curse Manmohan Singh for his poor governance but still think that Sonia Gandhi, like Indira Gandhi is genuinely concerned about the poor. If even 25 percent of voters across India think so and vote for the  new age Indira Gandhi, Sonia would end up pulling off another political miracle.

And what if this Sonia is the new age Indira gambit doesn't work and voters genuinely want to punish the Congress?

The Sonia team is ready with Plan B: create such fear amongst minorities and 'secular' voters around the possible victory of Narendra Modi that worried voters will plump for any anti-BJP (read Modi) candidate and party even if it is not the Congress. Predicts businessman Keshav Rao: "UPA 1 and UPA 2 have followed unproductive policies. It has affected the economy. The 2014 elections will be like the 1996 elections". That is Plan B indeed. Because if Modi is not able to translate the anger of Indians against the UPA regime into 200 odd seats for the BJP, we will have a situation where the Congress supports a rag tag Third Front government and lives to fight another day.

If you think that is improbable, read what one of the most trenchant critics of Sonia Gandhi, Tavleen Singh, wrote in her September 1, 2013 column: "After the damage done by this one, we must hope that it will be a government with a happier economic vision. But since our leading opposition party has supported two of the most retrogressive laws ever made, the BJP does not deserve this chance. Narendra Modi is the only political leader, since Jawaharlal Nehru, who has articulated an economic vision that is new and definitely not socialist but how can he implement it with the Congress party's B team as his A team? He needs to ask himself this question."

We Indians need to ask ourselves a lot of questions. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017