Guest post by RUCHI GUPTA
For those of us, whom the well organized Right on the internet describes as “sickular”, the prospect of Modi as Prime Minister is unthinkable. Congress is then a reflexive default – not a party of choice. Its secular credentials too are tarnished with 1984, but its communal capitulations are opportunistic (and thus contained) unlike the BJP with its official Hindutva party plank. Moreover with all its corruption and contradictions, the Congress has always had a strong left-liberal strand, providing some space for engagement to further progressive agenda, enacting for instance the landmark Right to Information Act, NREGA and FRA. However faced with a Rahul Gandhi versus Modi contest – the former a reluctant prince leading a dithering party, the latter the decisive machismo king of no-nonsense governance – it appears that Congress has decided to move so far to the Right that 2014 looks set to become a Modi versus ‘sickular’ Modi contest.
There’s been a palpable ceding of space to the Right by the left-leaning strand within Congress, be it on issues of economic policy, social security, national security, or capital punishment. The party and the government have enthusiastically converged on economic policy, which gives primacy to the markets over all other democratic priorities. This is not just about foreign direct investment in retail or deregulation of fuel prices, where arguably greater nuance in public discourse is needed. The real issue is that despite UPA’s rhetoric of “inclusive growth”, the Economic Right has hijacked the public discourse to the point where “growth” has somehow been ranged against social security. Social security is about equity and (re)distribution and is a political decision; however the ideological space has been so cornered as to present a false choice between “opportunity for the meritorious and aspirational” and “handouts to beggars” while leaving the underlying paradigm which favors capital over people untouched. The party for the “aam aadmi” (not the cleverly named, AAP!) is now working overtime to pass a food security act, which will reduce existing entitlements and arbitrarily exclude so many from benefits as to render the Act inequitable and unworkable on the ground. This pruning is not due to any difference of opinion on what “food security” entails but is steered by the bogey of fiscal deficit, which predictably rears its head only on social welfare spending. At the same time, Congress is running its other social security legislation, NREGA to the ground through willfully poor implementation in the face of concerted anti-poor lobby complaining about rising labour wages negatively affecting “growth”. In other recent developments, “linear projects” were exempted from gram sabha consent thus diluting a key safeguard for forest dwellers and environment – again falsely pitching social welfare against growth. The Prime Minister led National Investment Board (now CCI) to fast-track clearances for projects above Rs 1000 crore too is an authoritarian conception straight out of Narendra Modi’s Gujarat with single-window clearances for industry projects to run roughshod over other democratic concerns.
The response too of the Prime Minister to the beheading of an Indian soldier on the LoC was aligned more with the BJP hardline than his own policy of engagement and trade with Pakistan to further the peace process. Instead of advocating restraint and putting Pakistani soldier’s actions in context with similar action by our soldiers, the Prime Minister absurdly capitulated to the high-pitched harangue of the BJP and TRP-crazy television anchors to state that there could be no “business as usual” with Pakistan. The Army Chief said that India reserved the “right to retaliate at a time and place of its choice”. The visa-on-arrival for Pakistani senior citizens was put on hold; Pakistan’s hockey team was sent home. In this, Sushma Swaraj’s preposterous rhetoric of “ten heads for one” instead of being marginalized by reason was validated, leaving her to relish that “the Prime Minister has understood our point of view and mood of the nation and responded accordingly”. While the issue did not escalate further, the government and Congress did little to steer the discussion, looking instead as if they had been prodded into tough action by the hardliners in the Opposition and television studios.
The latest example of the Congress’ rightward turn has been its sudden bloodlust, on exhibit at its most callous with Afzal Guru’s secret execution. This bloodlust comes despite eight years of unofficial moratorium and amidst renewed calls for greater debate on the merits of the death penalty as the Supreme Court itself has held that the administration of the death penalty is deeply flawed. The government executed Kasab in secret last November but was met with generalized approval for its “professionalism”. The BJP predictably immediately renewed calls for the execution of Afzal Guru. Congress clearly insecure of its national security credentials and upcoming polls, complied. In a shameful secret execution marked by bureaucratic subterfuge (letter to the family through Speed Post) and Executive overreach, the government denied Afzal Guru the right to even meet his family. The Congress and especially the Home Minister has trumpeted that everything was done “by the book”, however the execution was done in secrecy, precisely to avert last minute legal recourse which may have delayed the execution, thus squandering possible political gains. Subsequent protests in Kashmir were squashed by a week long curfew, including suspending newspapers and telephones. The government looks set to hang a few more poor souls, if only to show its evenhandedness in meting out death and thus not antagonize its Muslim constituency (the execution of the four Veerappan aides was scheduled, but was stayed at the last hour by the Supreme Court).
There are other indications of Congress’ convergence with the Right. It has embarked on a massive project to give its entire population biometric identification while enumerating them in as national population register. In conjunction with the comprehensive interlinked databases envisioned under NATGRID, this is a massive surveillance state in the making – a hallmark of authoritarian not liberal governments. It has also used the IT Act to appropriate for itself draconian powers of censorship. In a blow to transparency, the government took the CBI out of the ambit of the RTI Act. To stop the peaceful protests in the wake of the Delhi gangrape, the government responded with shutdown of public services, pummeling the protesters with lathi-charge and teargas. What remains unclear though is whether these developments are the outcome of a power struggle in which the conservatives in the Congress have finally won or is it the inability of the leadership to assert ideological control over policy decisions. Congress has mastered the art of speaking in many different voices to keep its many different constituencies happy. Yet now there is the unmistakable feeling that the leadership lacks the courage of conviction to follow through with its ideological imperatives. It is easy to be persuaded of the good intentions of the top leadership; however without this courage of conviction, the Congress looks set to be a version of – not an alternative to – Modi.
Ruchi Gupta is associated with the MKSS. The views expressed are personal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org