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Taking the Indira path

india Updated: Nov 25, 2008 00:16 IST

Congress president Sonia Gandhi observed at last week's

HT Summit

that Indira Gandhi's vision of nationalising banks nearly 40 years ago had saved India from the full impact of the current global economic crisis. This was an acknowledgement of her mother-in-law's political wisdom. It was equally an attempt to pre-empt the Left's propaganda that its opposition to the economic policies of the UPA government had saved our banks and, as a consequence, people who have deposited their money in them.

The reference to Indira Gandhi and her socialistic brand of politics is also a clear indication that the Congress was now planning to once again position itself as a 'pro-poor' party. The message, which had got blurred over the past five years, is ‘Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath’ (The Congress hand is with the common man), the slogan the party gave shortly before the last elections.

Many political pundits will also interpret Sonia's acknowledgment of bank nationalisation as an attempt to distance herself from the policies pursued by the Congress-led government since its inception. While reading out from a prepared speech, she said that liberalisation needed to be regulated and she was not advocating "the controls" to be back. However, there was need to strike a balance and have reforms with regulations.

The change in shift is perhaps out of realisation that the Congress will have to answer a lot of questions on the way it handled its economic policies when it faces the electorate the next time. The global economic crisis has put on the back-burner many achievements that the UPA thought would have been its main talking points. But the failure to project the achievements effectively up to the grassroots level has left the Congress, in particular, with little option but to revert to the tried and trusted methods of Indira Gandhi.

Those who have watched the Congress closely over the last decade can easily point out that just before the 2004 verdict, the party had been liberally using Indira Gandhi's political idioms. In fact, Sonia Gandhi's speech at the Simla Conclave in 2003 and the party declaration subsequently were inspired by Indira Gandhi's political idioms. But after coming to power, there has been little evidence to suggest that people's expectations from the Congress victory had been fully met.

It could also be because Sonia Gandhi declined the prime ministership and instead chose Manmohan Singh as her nominee. In doing so, she allowed him to set the agenda even for economic policies that were going to directly impact our politics in general and the politics of the Congress in particular.

It came as little surprise that while the media and academia talked very highly of our reform process and World Bank prescriptions that were calculated on the basis of the Sensex, the Nifty, the growth rate etc, the benefits did not percolate to the common man and the whole idea looked ridiculous to people who found, to their dismay, that everything was becoming dearer and the money in their pockets was diminishing. The benefits may have touched few, but they helped increase the gap between the rich and the poor.

So it has become very important for the Congress to reinvent its economic agenda for a greater connect with the people.

Allies in the UPA are beginning to distance themselves from many decisions. It is more or less certain that the UPA in its present form or the NDA will not come to power in 2009. Three months ago, I had written about the possibility of a regional leader holding the reins of power even for a short while in the 15th Lok Sabha and that possibility is increasing -- something that was even hinted by both Lalu Prasad Yadav and N. Chandrababu Naidu at the HT summit.

But by once again invoking Indira Gandhi's brand of politics to re-establish her connection with the common man in this country, the Congress president is trying to resuscitate her party and get it ready. The success in the strategy change will depend on how the people view it. Between us.