Socialist Rahul !
Rahul Gandhi may be inexperienced in the art of mesmerising audiences…… but he is the newest flag captain of a powerful line of socialist thinking
Every election produces its crop of smart Alec in political parties. One of them in the BJP, which always has a surfeit of them, has compared Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi with Rip Van Winkle, the fictional American Dutchman who slept through the twenty years that included America’s independence, to wake into a changed world with the portrait of George lll at the local inn replaced by George Washington’s. Smart Alec’s quip draws from the fact that Rahul is allegedly living in the world of his grandmother Indira Gandhi, and, like her, he is making poverty alleviation the main plank of his election speeches. He says big roads and ports and railways are welcome but he’d make sure that their benefits travel all the way down to the poor labourers who build them. He asks the poor to dream big, like thinking of his son flying in the plane that he now only watches gliding across the sky. The opposition strategists are saying this is rehash of Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao lines, aimed at the Great Unwashed who can’t see the line separating grand promises from what is on the ground.
Rahul’s speeches are certainly not the best of his attainments. They are often rambling, and have metaphors that tend to go off a tangent. But, with his increasing public exposure, what is indeed visible is his consistent focus on the Congress party’s unvarying socialist ideology. In this context, I’d emphasise the word “socialism”. It was Indira Gandhi who got the word inserted into the preamble to the Indian Constitution. When she promised to eradicate poverty, she had action to match her words, like nationalization of banks, coal mines and insurance and a massive expansion of the public sector. But that was more than four decades ago. The poor of that era are no longer so poor, and there is a vibrant private sector of the economy to match, if not outgrow, the public sector. But socialism is a creed. It is a philosophy of governance. It does not become outdated from grandmother to grandson. Be it in the
US or Europe,
socialist thinking is accepted in the West as a non-negotiable principle of
governance. That’s the reason why the NHS in Britain
or Social Welfare in the
has survived periodic changes in governments. Even Margaret Thatcher, venerable
icon in the church of capitalism, did not aim at dismantling NHS. Moreover, she
expanded the reach of US ’s
state-funded schools. Britain
Between Rahul Gandhi’s pro-poor stance, and that of his grandmother, there are similarities as well as differences. Indira’s socialism was of an aggressive kind. It had to demolish the legacies of colonialism, like banks that financed only their owners, and coal mines that exploited labour. But neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul promoted aggressive socialism. None of the four pillars on which Sonia Gandhi’s Congress presidency rests—Right to Information Act, MGNREGA, amended land acquisition law and Food Security Act—aims at dismantling any existing institution. The underlying philosophy of such legislation is not populist, nor even socialist in its classical sense; it is closer to the modern European form of socialism which is generally about redistribution of wealth and creation of a welfare state.
Rahul Gandhi may be inexperienced in the art of mesmerising audiences with the choicest invectives aimed at the political opponent, but there is no doubt he is the newest flag captain of a powerful line of socialist thinking that has marked the Indian political system after Independence. It left its mark on the Constitution itself, despite the word “socialism” not being there in the beginning, as I have explained earlier. But its wide popular support is evident from the fact that the Congress has remained in power in all but 10 years since the first general election in 1952. Nor was socialism challenged in the six years of NDA rule under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His party, the BJP, in fact calls itself a believer in socialism, of some kind.
Rahul, in his speeches, is reassuring his people that the Congress under his stewardship will neither move away from its historic brand-identity nor leap backward in time when, to be a socialist, it was necessary to slay the demon of private enterprise. When he talks of “dream”, he is not selling a fantasy; instead, all he is doing is to urge people to demand that their dreams, or desires, are realized. Some time back, when he described poverty as “a state of mind”, there were outcries of protest from BJP trolls in the social media. They should think again. Is poverty entirely measurable in calorific terms, or in terms of daily income expressed in a constant currency? Certainly not, for that would make the search for an equitable society quite meaningless once everyone has been fed up to the required calorie mark. Even after everyone is adequately fed, as in the Western world, socialism survives as there is need for redistribution of wealth.
Rather than worrying about Rahul’s speeches, smart Alec should now pay attention to the threat to
socialist tradition implicit in the New BJP. Its ‘thinking brigade’ now argues
that the welfare legislations of the past ten years were a disaster, though
their party, wary of losing the votes of Joe Public, dared not oppose any of
these four legislations. It shows that BJP’s support to the Food Security Bill,
for example, was not from its heart. It obviously raises reasonable fear about
what will be the future of welfare in a nation under its rule. India