Good politics and good economics do not usually mix well in realpolitik. But on occasion, the admixture can work wonders. Or at least, that’s what the Congress-led UPA government must have counted on when they decided to resurrect Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ (remove poverty) slogan. This, if one cares to recall, was the slogan that had projected Indira as the messiah of the poor and the downtrodden in the Seventies. Just to stress that it’s not merely an empty phrase, the UPA government has re-packaged the 20-point programme, initially launched by Indira Gandhi in 1975, in an attempt to refurbish the pro-poor image of the UPA in general and that of the Congress in particular.
The move comes at a time when the government, which had come to power on the platform of serving the aam aadmi, is gaining the image of running a coalition that stands for a liberal economy in which the rich are the biggest beneficiaries. There is also a growing perception that the governmental welfare measures for the poor and the middle-class have been taken mainly due to pressures from the Left Front.
The ruling coalition certainly faces an image crisis. By conceding to the Left a space in which only the Left seems to stand for the welfare of the common man and the poor, the Congress runs the serious risk of a twin loss of image and vote base. It is precisely this kind of perception that led to the NDA’s ‘India Shining’ campaign driving out the Vajpayee government.
The Congress is conscious of the fact that over a period of time, its loss of a pro-poor image, its refusal to co-opt the backward castes in the power structure and, above all, the loss of its previous ‘umbrella’ character have reduced the party’s sphere of influence. The party today stands marginalised in the Hindi heartland that holds the key to the political structure. It believes that with Sonia Gandhi at the helm and with a catchy slogan like ‘Garibi Hatao’, it can get away from the sticky wicket it finds itself on. There has been a conscious effort on the part of the party to portray Sonia in the mould of her mother-in-law. But the circumstances are different. Pitted against the ‘Syndicate’ and conservative forces within the party, it took years for Indira to acquire and consolidate her pro-poor image. The slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ was enough to silence her detractors electorally and had legitimised her leadership in 1971.
A series of measures — the abolition of privy purses, nationalisation of banks, the abolition of zamindari, the enforcement of ceiling laws and action against smugglers — had consolidated Indira’s position. But the slogan itself, although backed by a concrete 20-point programme, did not eradicate poverty. By the mid-Seventies, spiralling price rises and unemployment provided a fertile ground for Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for ‘Total Revolution’.
The erosion in the Congress’s traditional vote base had already begun during Indira’s time. By the time Sonia inherited the party leadership, the process has picked up pace. The Congress’s acceptance of the compulsions of realpolitik had led it to latch on to the alliance game and Sonia’s own image of being able to keep the coalition together has served the party well. She is aware that the Congress is not in a position to come back to power on its own. Yet, she has to strengthen her party’s vote base to ensure that it remains in the running. Deliberately or otherwise, she has managed to maintain a distance from controversial decisions taken by the government. Her position on issues like the SEZs, where she voiced farmers’ concerns, are aimed at enhancing her image.
The revival of the ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan comes at a time when the heat is building up for the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls and when the UPA nears the halfway mark to the next general elections in 2009. The Congress thinks that the slogan is a tried and tested formula that will boost its image and its chances at the hustings.
But the world of 2007 and beyond is a vastly changed place from the one Indira Gandhi lived in. For one, in 1971, ‘Garibi Hatao’ had a freshness to those it was aimed at. Today, everyone will cynically say it is a reassertion of a failed promise. In the Seventies, today’s regional genies were firmly in the bottle. Now, the Congress is living with many real contenders for power. There’s also no more royalty to dethrone or industries to be nationalised. The Congress hopes the slogan will help the party to package measures, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, that have been announced since the UPA took over. The challenge is going to be to convince a cynical and slogan-weary electorate that this time, it’s for real.