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Inevitably, much attention this past weekend was devoted to the official elevation of Rahul Gandhi to the number two position in the Congress party. Yet the events at the Jaipur “chintan shivir”, or party retreat, where he was appointed to the apparently largely ceremonial post of Congress vice-president, do not even finally settle the question of whether he will be a prime ministerial candidate next year. Far more important than this continuing drama, thus, were the signals being sent out by the Congress regarding its own orientation. These were most clear in the two speeches delivered by Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
Rather than sticking purely to the populist rhetoric traditionally beloved by India’s ruling party, there were indications that Ms Gandhi instead tried to steer the Congress towards accepting that a deep divide had grown between it and many who should be part of its core constituency — younger voters, female voters, and the urban middle class. Support from these demographics was crucial to the Congress’ election victories in the past decade, but neither the party nor the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has tailored its message to them. Ms Gandhi stressed female safety and empowerment, better communication, and listed measures that she claimed the government had taken to control corruption. She also argued that reformist measures were essential to keep the Indian growth story intact — without mentioning, naturally, that the UPA’s own populism and mismanagement have caused it to falter in the first place.
Any attempt by the Congress to reverse course will only be believable, of course, if the UPA puts concrete policy into place by implanting a change in political agenda. Some recent moves, such as the increase in railway fares and the partial deregulation of diesel prices, do indeed move in the direction of reform. Yet diesel price cannot be called reformist when it happens in the shadow of dangerous dual pricing, which will incentivise corruption, cronyism and violence. Nor do the signals that the coming Budget will include populist and counterproductive taxes on the rich inspire much confidence in the UPA’s ability to correct its messaging to urban India. It is not too late for the government to demonstrate a greater degree of responsibility in its management of India’s finances, and to work on harder administrative reforms than it has considered so far.
The problem with the Congress’ attempt, through Ms Gandhi’s speeches, to articulate its sympathy with the concerns of many voters is that the party lays itself open to fairly obvious charges of hypocrisy. Ms Gandhi, for example, reminded party leaders to not spend ostentatiously on weddings — but only because people would wonder where the money came from. This exhortation is not a replacement for public acceptance that some in the party might be beneficiaries of corruption or cronyism, and that the Congress would work towards cleansing itself. But most egregious was Ms Gandhi’s call to end nepotism from the same stage on which her son was crowned a day earlier. The Congress has some way to go before any change in its stance will be believed.