To understand the Congress President's proposed Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY), it is important to understand the grand old party's shifting economic outlook since Nehru.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s Nyuntam Aay Yojana (Minimum Income Scheme) or, in short, NYAY, which means ‘justice’ in Hindi is in keeping with Congress’ economic thinking of ‘social left and economic right’. The pre-poll announcement has a potential of a game-changer and blunting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s muscular politics and hyper nationalism.
Rahul, 49, has some understanding of economy and has reportedly been in touch with economists Thomas Piketty and Angus Deaton to address the Indian model of economic disparity between the rich and the poor. Privately, Rahul is said to have often wondered that if huge non-performing assets (NPAs) of industrialists can be written off, why shouldn’t India’s poorest of the poor get a basic income. According to a Reserve Bank of India (RBI) report, corporate loan defaults to the tone of Rs 1,08,500 crore and Rs 1,62,700 crore were waived off by banks in 2016-’17 and 2017-’18 respectively.
A flexible thought
Since Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s times, the Congress’ thinking has been fluid and flexible. Nehru’s biographer, S Gopal felt that even during the Nehru era, the real aim of the Congress was not so much to implement its declared policies but to ensure continuation in power. For this objective, the Congress under Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi accommodated men of different economic thinking even at the expense of the stated social and economic commitment to the country.
From 1967 to 1972, Indira displayed her extraordinary political acumen and sense of realpolitik. She kept pitting one Congress leader against the other to deal a body blow to the conservatives during the bank nationalisation, abolition of the privy purse and the presidential polls that pitted Neelam Sanjiva Reddy against VV Giri. Chandrashekhar and others took on the high and mighty on the basis of her ‘stray thoughts’ at the stormy AICC meets in Bangalore, Bombay and Faridabad.
In the larger context, party leaders handling economic issues reinforce a stand that as an ideology, the party has been following the course of change with continuity. From Nehru to Sonia and Rahul, the party leadership has not followed any dogmatic or indoctrinated ideology. Successive Congress leaderships have instead chosen to reinvent, avoiding confrontations and sharp divisions in a multi-cultural and pluralistic Indian society.
From its inception, the Congress functioned as an amorphous organisation. Describing the Congress at the Avadi session, UN Dhebar, president of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in 1955, spoke extensively in poet’s flair in the presence of Nehru, Indira and others, who nodded their heads in approval. Dhebar said, “What is the Congress? It is a tear, fallen from the sufferings and agonised heart of humanity in bondage, coming to life.”
According to Nehru, the Congress was always something more than a party and capable of drawing allegiance from millions who were not formally with the party. Speaking in New Delhi at the 1951 AICC session, Nehru said, “We have to retain something of that wider aspect of the Congress, but this should not lead to floppiness and loose thinking and an accommodation of all kinds of contrary opinions within its fold. In regard to principles – social, economic and political – this must be clear. There should be no room for reactionaries in the Congress fold. Nor should there be any room in it for those who seek, through its medium, personal advancement and profit at the cost of the public good. We have to pull ourselves up from the narrow grooves of thought and action, from factions, from mutual recrimination, from tolerance of evil in public life and in our social structure, and become again fighters for a cause and upholders of high principles.”
Absence of ideological clarity
In subsequent party sessions and position papers, the Congress clarified and explained that its concept of socialism was not dogmatic or indoctrinate. In 1972, under Indira, the election manifesto prepared for the assembly polls read, ‘Poverty must go. Disparity must diminish. Injustice must end.’ Earlier, at the Mumbai AICC session, Jagjivan Ram moved a resolution saying, ‘Modern man is the inheritor of all that is noble and good in human thought. And thus our democratic socialism is a synthesis of all that is best in the thinking of the East and the West and provides an ideology superior to other sectarian ideologies which are communalistic or communitarian.’
In terms of ‘science of ideas’ or ideology, many feel the Congress’ strength lies in the absence of ideological clarity. Senior Congress leader Shriman Narayan Agarwal (who later dropped his caste surname) used to insist that the Congress ideology should not be interpreted in any rigid set of ideas whose acceptance was obligatory to all Congressmen.
The culture of having a powerful, dominant leader and the tendency to change from time-to-time as per the political situation kept giving the Congress fresh ideological frames. These were more matters of policy than faith. Such a compromise between various interest groups helped in the sharing of power and the doctrinal pluralism of its leaders.
By the time the Congress under Sonia met at Pachmarhi (1997), Shimla (2003) and Hyderabad (2006), the party had formally accepted the need for coalitions with parties of varying ideology. The political resolution in Hyderabad said, ‘At present, coalition of political forces and opinion is inevitable. Each political epoch needs a leader and a visionary who changes the traditional paradigm of society to face contemporary challenges.’
Focus on the poor
Away from public scrutiny, Sonia and Rahul have found Manmohan Singh’s economic thinking to be on the same page as theirs. The Gandhis do not believe in a State-controlled economy. Sonia’s lengthy discussions with Singh prior to 2004 had convinced her that a market-controlled economy, if properly guided, could benefit many, including those who were at the margins of society. Her understanding of the new world order and need for reforms contributed significantly to convincing the great Indian middle class and captains of industry that under Manmohan Singh, reforms would continue and there would be further liberalisation.
Singh, too, made it clear that his government was not Sensex-driven, but functioned in a transparent, pro-industry, 24 Akbar Road, 252 pro-entrepreneur manner. In a nutshell, Sonia managed to communicate to the masses, even those who did not read newspapers or watch television, that the Congress’ prime responsibility towards the poor did not stand compromised by Singh’s economic reforms.
Rahul had been contemplating to unleash a socio-economic programme that would help him score a point or two against Modi. This explains his frequent and often long trips abroad where he has supposedly spent some time with Piketty and Deaton. Rahul somewhere fancies himself as Indian version of Emmanuel Macron of France or Jeremy Corbyn of England.
Rasheed Kidwai is a visiting Fellow of the Observer Research Foundation. He is resident commentator with CNN-Network 18For more Opinion pieces, click here.