Two Strikes By The Congress On Itself: The Manifesto And Wayanad

by Rajeev Srinivasan - Apr 7, 2019 04:01 PM +05:30 IST
Two Strikes By The Congress On Itself: The Manifesto And WayanadCongress releases its manifesto for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls (@ShuklaRajiv/Twitter)
  • The Congress’ latest ‘surgical strikes’, the manifesto/NYAY and Wayanad, may in fact end up hurting the party.

    They have done plenty of damage to themselves, and I await the next ‘big idea’ from their think tanks: that would be the third strike.

The American baseball phrase, “Three strikes and you’re out!” comes to mind when considering what the Indian National Congress has been doing recently. The Sanskrit phrase “vinasha kaale viparitha buddhi” also comes to mind. Wayanad and the manifesto are two strikes already, and we might soon see another.

A case could be made for the idea that the party is on its last legs, and that the recent wins in three states in assembly elections were like the last flicker of a candle before it is extinguished forever. There is also the opposite perspective that the Congress will rise like a phoenix from its 2014 rout and the paltry 44 seats it won then. We will soon see the truth of the matter, come 23 May, but I’d say that the odds are against any such revival.

Wayanad and the manifesto are both avoidable, self-inflicted wounds. But then people go nuts in the election season, clutching at straws. And I’m not saying that the manifesto they put out is entirely unreasonable. For instance, the idea that the Supreme Court should be a constitutional court, and only a constitutional court is something I too suggested, along with regional courts of appeal, in analogy with the US’s federal district courts. Here’s what I said a year ago in “Can We Fix The Deeply Troubled Judiciary?”:

Create a system of SC-level regional courts of appeal that have SC judges being rotated through them. These courts will hear everything that exceeds the purview of high courts, for instance, inter-state disputes; as well as everything that is on appeal from the high courts that are non-Constitutional. The regional courts will need to be set up in each of the regions (eg. Chandigarh, Pune, Bangalore, Guwahati), and SC judges should be rotated through them, spending only their last five years before retirement in the SC itself. An important fringe benefit: by being away from Delhi, they will avoid being compromised by the Lutyens establishment and the lawyer-media-NGO nexus and their many siren-songs.

But then, this is only half the battle. The Congress manifesto completely ignores reforming the present system of selecting judges, an opaque, nepotistic nomination process where cliques and mutual back-scratching thrive, where the elected representatives of the people have no role. That is presumably because the Congress is satisfied with their ability to pack the court with friends. Let us note Congress lawyers hailed SC overturning the NJAC (National Judicial Appointments Commission) even though it was passed by both houses of Parliament and by state legislatures.

Maybe there are one or two other ideas worth considering in the rest of the manifesto, but they are few and far between. Overall, it harks back to the rights-based, socialist, mai-baap sarkar trope that left India far behind as the rest of Asia steamed ahead. It didn’t work in the past, and, given what happened in Venezuela, it probably won’t work well in future either. It’s old wine in a new bottle, a sign that the Congress is out of ideas and out of its depth in an aspirational, 21st century world.

There is a lot about the rights of citizens, but nothing about the responsibilities of citizens. I have seen this in action in Kerala: there are negative unintended consequences to entitlements. For instance, by raising agricultural wages, paddy cultivation in Kerala ended up decimated, which was not the intent. The entitlement was provided at unrealistic cost, but not a corresponding obligation on the part of the labour to work without unnecessary strikes and other disruptions.

Even rich nations are not able to provide cradle-to-grave Universal Basic Income doles because the costs are ruinous, and because of the moral hazard problem. In India, selectively giving money to the lowest 20 per cent will immediately push the next 10-20 per cent down into the lowest 20 per cent, which means they also have to be given the dole, and so on, ad nauseam. NYAY (Nyuntam Aay Yojana) is absurd on many levels, but the hope is that people will be seduced by the idea of free money.

But as they say, “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. There are always strings attached. The strings here are galloping (hyper) inflation and eventual starvation, including for the comfortable middle classes. Remember Venezuela, with its oil wealth and its beauty queens? Once the fourth highest per capita income in the world, and now they’re starving to death or fleeing. I had a Venezuelan friend in grad school, on scholarship. I have no idea what’s happened to her. I hope she’s still alive.

Back to the manifesto, a lot of it is of the nature of dog-whistles and signals to its favourite vote-banks and ideological chums. Some dubious bits that stand out include:

1. Dilute the AFSPA Armed Forces Special Powers Act: signal to separatists in the Northeast and in Kashmir

2. Remove the sedition law: comfort to the tukde-tukde gang of #breakingIndia enthusiasts

3. Minimum Income Guarantee scheme NYAY: a siren-song to the poor, but something that is impossible to implement fairly, avoid moral hazard, or keep deficits under control. As admitted by Abhijit Banerjee, the MIT poverty specialist who wrote this bit, it will result in new taxes and high inflation. He thinks India is under-taxed, and requires an “inflation tax”

4. Minority status of AMU: signal to Muslims

5. Loan default not a criminal offence: signal to crony capitalists

6. Withdraw the Citizenship Amendment Bill: signal that pseudo-secularism rules

7. New law against hate crimes: Communal Violence Bill redux, which has the axiom that Hindus are always criminals and that non-Hindus are always victims

8. 33 per cent quota for women in government jobs: signal to JNU style feminists

9. Eviscerate Aadhaar: lose all benefits of having big data on citizens

10. Right to healthcare: let’s start India down the path to ruinous over-use of allopathy

11. Single rate of GST and fuel under GST: this is clearly a throw-away, as none of the states will ever agree to either of them

You, dear reader, can easily figure out the audiences to which these dog-whistles are directed. It’s certainly not the tax-paying middle class, who can expect that a return to the Indira Nehru days of 97.33 per cent top marginal income tax, which will mean that we can kiss goodbye to a) Foreign Direct Investment, b) Make in India. The middle class had better get off its bottom and vote: the Congress is assuring us that all the hard-won ease of doing business, competitiveness, and infrastructure spending, in fact everything, will be reversed, and it’ll be back to the License Permit Raj, and the 2-3 per cent Nehruvian rate of growth that’s the Congress’ specialty.

Similarly, the decision by the Congress president to compete from both his family fiefdom Amethi and in Wayanad in remote Kerala sends out massive vibes. On the one hand, it suggests the Congress is no longer confident of retaining that seat in the wake of a determined assault by Smriti Irani.

Secondly, the symbolism of competing in a constituency which has about 58 per cent Muslims does not escape anybody. Please note that the district of Wayanad is distinct from the Parliamentary Constituency of Wayanad, which has some assembly constituencies from neighboring Malappuram and Kozhikode districts: this drives up the Muslim numbers. The winning candidate in this constituency and the losing candidate have always been Muslims. That the Congress president chooses to compete from here, a bastion of the Indian Union Muslim League, suggests that, for all practical purposes, the Congress has become the B-team of the Muslim League.

This move has also deeply annoyed the communists, and they were loud in their protestations. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPI(M) follows a remarkable political stance: in Kerala, they alternate in power with the Congress, and so are the principal combatants. In the Centre, they are allies. This cozy smoke-and-mirrors arrangement suits both parties well. Most of us have forgotten that the 2004-2014 heyday of the Congress was mostly based on their little ‘understanding’ with the communists.

Here are the seat counts in 2004:

Congress: 145
BJP: 138
Communists: 59
Bahujan Samaj Party: 19
Samajwadi Party: 36
Telugu Desam Party: 5
Rashtriya Janata Dal: 21

And so on. The Congress only won seven seats more than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was only because the communists supported the Congress from outside that they were able to form a government. Furthermore, it was because of the shenanigans of a communist speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, that Manmohan Singh was able to fend off a probable defeat in the cash-for-votes scandal.

In effect, every vote for the communists in Kerala ended up being a vote for the Congress at the Centre. This truth is now dawning upon Kerala voters, I hope. The BJP should go to town on it.

Thus the understanding with the communists helped the Congress (and especially the unelected NAC) to rule. What did the communists get in return? They have been decimated in Bengal and Tripura, and now they are down to just Kerala. It is unlikely that they are going to get more than five seats from Kerala, as they did not cover themselves with glory in cyclone/flood relief or in the Sabarimala gestapo action. A damning amicus curiae report on the floods directly accuses the communist government of incompetence or worse in the catastrophe that took 483 lives. The vicious oppression of innocent Sabarimala pilgrims shocked Hindus in Kerala.

Chances are that, instead of 59 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, the communists will end up with far fewer this time. Therefore, they are not of interest in Parliament to the Congress, which is openly dissing them, and making much of its alliance with the Muslim League. Too much, perhaps, because the optics of the sea of green Muslim League flags (a bit difficult for the untrained observer to distinguish from the Pakistani flag) in the Congress president’s rallies in Wayanad may be sending a subliminal message that will not resonate so well in the Hindi heartland.

Thus, with one stroke, the Congress has given the BJP a propaganda victory, and quite possibly killed off the communists! Just as it has happened in West Bengal, the communists may cease to exist as a factor. The point is that, with the Congress tie-up, all Muslim votes will go to Congress in a direct Congress-communist fight. There has never been any question about Christian votes: they will only vote for the Congress. That’s half the Kerala electorate gone kaput for the communists.

There has been a dependable Hindu vote bank for the communists: the Ezhava/Thiyya community, which is the largest Hindu jati in Kerala. They have stuck with the communists through thick and thin, seduced by victimhood narratives, although they were in truth being exploited by the communists as cannon fodder. But now, especially after the Sabarimala protests, they may be having second thoughts.

In Wayanad, the NDA candidate is Tushar Vellappally, the president of the BDJS (Bharat Dharma Jana Sabha), a party associated with the SNDP (Sri Narayana Dharama Paripalana Sangham), the voice of the Ezhava community. Tushar and the NDA are doing a little bit of their own signalling in this case. It’s not clear how much this will move the Ezhavas, but it’s a risk for the communists.

Thus the little charade of fake-competition in Kerala and cooperation in the Centre is not going to work this time. That is, perhaps, why the communists in Kerala are so steamed. It could also be theatre, shadow-boxing for the benefit of the public, but I think the anger is real. If so, then there’s a very interesting consequence: the communists may tell their cadres and voters to abstain from tactical voting for the Congress against the BJP.

That could then boomerang on Congress candidates in tight contests. As an example, in Trivandrum, in 2014 Shashi Tharoor of the Congress won with 298,000 votes against O Rajagopal of the BJP with 282,000 votes. The third place went to Bennet Abraham of the CPI, with 249,000 votes. This time the contest is between Shashi Tharoor, Kummanam Rajasekharan of the BJP, and C Divakaran of the CPI. There is a small chance that communist anger with the Congress will end up costing Tharoor his seat.

Thus the Congress’ latest ‘surgical strikes’, the manifesto/NYAY and Wayanad, may in fact end up hurting the Congress. They have done plenty of damage to themselves, and I await the next ‘big idea’ from their think tanks: that would be the third strike.

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.

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