While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went to early elections in May 2004 on the platform of high economic growth, the Congress counter was, “Aam admi ko kya mila (What has the common man got)?”
The Congress formed the government, forming a coalition of 20 parties — the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Inclusive growth — distribution of growth through welfare schemes – became the buzzword. The party retained power in 2009.
Although inclusive growth remains the key slogan of UPA-II, which completes one year in seven weeks, its articulation is different this time.
The emphasis on welfare projects continues – there is the food security Bill in the offing, for instance. But the political narrative around it has been fine-tuned to reflect a changed Congress strategy. “The UPA-I accommodated caste identities. The party is now trying to ignore caste assertions, and centralise and consolidate its politics,” says Imtiaz Ahmad, political sociologist.
“The Congress always favoured universalistic politics. It has always been reluctant to accommodate caste identities, though it has accommodated religious identities,” says Zoya Hassan, professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Two things have changed between UPA-I and UPA-II – the Congress now has 206 MPs, 61 more than in the previous Lok Sabha, and its dependence on smaller parties is much reduced.
“Democracy seeks an equilibrium between ideology and arithmetic. When the arithmetic is favourable, ideology needs to be pushed,” says Manish Tiwari, Congress spokesperson. “It’s the natural and legitimate impulse of any political party to extend its sphere of influence.”
The Congress ideology, based on the abstract idea of a pluralistic India, was severely challenged by the caste- and religion-based politics in the early 1990s.
“After realising that we cannot fight both sectarianisms at the same time, we compromised with the caste parties in 2004. Now it’s time we fought caste politics, too,” says a senior member of the Congress Working Committee on condition of anonymity.
A comparison between the Budget speeches of the UPA-I and UPA-II gives an indication of the changed vocabulary.
All the speeches during UPA-I had a section on Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, which was missing in the two Budgets presented during UPA-II.
In the 2008 Budget speech – the last before the 15th general elections – then Finance Minister P. Chidambaram detailed how the welfare schemes specifically benefited these sections and promised, “They will continue to receive special attention.”
In the 2008 speech, the word caste was mentioned six times. In 2009 and 2010, however, the word was mentioned only once each.
With the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad, Lok Janashakti Party’s Ramvilas Paswan and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s Shibu Soren in the alliance, UPA-I had to articulate its inclusive agenda in terms of caste. The National Common Minimum Programme, negotiated between the Congress and the allies, even promised to consider reservation in private sector jobs.
UPA-I implemented OBC reservation in institutes of higher education and brought in a constitutional amendment to overrule a Supreme Court ruling that unaided educational institutions cannot be forced to provide quotas of any sort. It appointed a committee to talk to industries for affirmative action for deprived castes.
But UPA-II has quietly buried all these. “We have no plans to legislate quotas in private colleges. We will expand the educational sector,” says a Union minister, who did not wish to be named. It’s not that the government is ignoring the deprived castes. On the contrary, the ministry of social justice, which drives most schemes for weaker sections, received an outlay increase of 80 per cent this year, the highest for any ministry.
A lot of it will go to scholarships for SC/ST and OBC students, in line with Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi’s idea of facilitating opportunities rather than providing quotas.
“What UPA-II refuses to accommodate is caste as a political identity,” says Ahmad. “Women and youth are two categories that are pan-Indian — cutting across castes, regions and religions,” an aide to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said while explaining the political philosophy of UPA-II.
The Congress’ refusal to cave in to caste politics was emphasised when it rejected the demand for sub-quotas in the Women’s Reservation Bill. But the party is open to negotiations with religious identities. The party’s support for sub-quotas for backward Muslims within the OBC quota is quite evident.
Though the Congress firmly believes that appealing to women and youth will bring in political dividends, it’s still a hypothesis. “You can appeal to women and youth, but the electoral behavour will primarily be driven by caste and class,” said Ahmad.