Proud, at last, to reform
Just when we were starting to view the coming general elections as little else but a serve-and-return match between the BJP and the Congress, the Grand Old Party has served up an ace.
To jump from one sporting metaphor to another, one can’t quite fathom why it had kept this ace up its sleeve for so long. After vacillating for years, the Congress has finally decided that it’s time to stop feeling shy about being the party which started the process of making India ‘shine’. While the manifesto is peppered with popular promises on expected lines — ensuring at least one job for each family, reservation for Dalits and tribals in the private sector and raising expenditure on education — this is the first time that the party has formally announced its support for privatisation.
One is still in the dark regarding what the Congress means by promising ‘selective’ privatisation. But with the ‘p’ word no longer taboo, the Congress argument that an 8-10 per cent growth and the setting up of a world-class financial sector is possible under the people who first kick-started reforms can be compelling, especially when the failures of the NDA government on these fronts are highlighted. Apart from the new direction taken in the party’s economic vision — which has already received the customary flak from the Left parties, for whose benefit the Congress has tactically kept mum about containing fiscal deficit — the manifesto also makes the right political noises. The issue of the BJP’s attempts to airlift minority support has been addressed by contrasting the Congress’s ‘open-minded, all-inclusive secular’ nationalism with the ruling party’s ‘narrow, bigoted and parochial’ version.
On a less ideological front, the Congress has dropped its earlier aversion towards coalition politics. Instead, realism has crept in through the door with the manifesto stating that the party has “joined hands with like-minded political parties in different states”. It has also realised that showcasing itself as a party for the poor does not necessarily mean junking middle-class concerns. In fact, it has claimed that along with economic reforms, the middle-class too is the “proud creation of the Congress”. Whether this 12-14 per cent segment of the Indian population — along with the party’s traditional bulwark — believes in the new Congress-speak is something that will only become clear after the election results are out. But one thing has been evident in the Congress Manifesto 2004: the party seems to know what it has to offer the Indian people. Which is always a good start.