Righting the Congress ship with a left turn

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Far & Near column published in the Hindustan Times (26 August, 2017)

For much of the last few decades, political parties in many democracies have been obsessed with fighting over an imagined middle ground. In terms of economic ideology, the gap between Conservatives and Labour in the United Kingdom, BJP and Congress in India, and Republicans and Democrats in the United States narrowed to the point of insignificance. These establishment parties peddled policies that differed from one another at most in degree, but rarely in kind.

Their electorates grew disaffected with this technocratic consensus. After the global recession, forces on the right were quicker to realise that the old politics no longer held sway. The Tea Party movement in America, the use of Hindutva by the BJP, and the Brexit campaign in the UK were all signs of the withering of that centre. Right-wing forces tilted the electoral map in their favour through appeals to emotion and identity.

In the meantime, centre-left parties have struggled. The Democrats in the United States have now arrayed themselves as a party opposed to Donald Trump, trying to galvanise support from the president’s deep unpopularity. But they are still largely powerless and rudderless, without control of either national legislative chamber and increasingly marginalised at the state level (69 out of 99 state legislative chambers are controlled by Republicans; 33 out of 50 governorships are Republican). The Democrats have yet to clarify to themselves or to voters who they are and what they represent.

In India, too, the Congress is searching for new moorings after being trounced repeatedly. Shaken by BJP successes, some Congress members from north India have encouraged the party leadership to inch towards Hindutva. I’m glad that idea has been rejected by many within the party, including (in the interest of full disclosure) my father who dismissed this vision of Congress as “BJP Lite.”

But a tougher question bedevils the Congress and many other centre-left parties. When framing an economic agenda, should they stick to the centrism that has been the norm since liberalisation in the early 1990s, the stance of Tony Blair’s New Labour and Bill Clinton’s Democrats? Or should the party take up a more robustly redistributive platform, focusing on tackling inequality?

In the global context of centre-left redefinitions, the latter path seems more popular. Take, for example, the Labour Party in the UK. Repeated defeats in the wake of the global recession allowed the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn, a frumpy unabashed leftist. Though dismissed by the establishment and pilloried in the press, his uncompromisingly left-wing manifesto guided Labour to a much stronger finish in June’s general election than anybody thought possible. Labour won in both diverse, urban areas and in whiter, rural and post-industrial parts of the country. Voters, especially young voters, were attracted to Corbyn’s clarity and ideological consistency, a trait that was seen as setting him apart from other politicians.

According to an April poll, the most popular politician in the United States is Bernie Sanders. Nearly 60% of Americans have a favourable view of the self-proclaimed “democratic socialist.” Though Sanders failed to beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, he and his economic platform emerged from the debacle of the presidential election unscathed. Many Democrats at both local and national levels have taken up Sanders’ key proposals – including universal healthcare, higher minimum wages, and free college tuition – and are pushing the party further to the left.

At the same time, external pressures are forcing the Democrats to take left-wing positions more seriously. With no memory of the Cold War era, young people are far more sceptical of “trickle-down” capitalist economics. A 2016 Harvard poll showed that 51% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 “do not support capitalism.” The old socialist symbol of the rose has uncannily proliferated across Twitter and other social networks. That virtual enthusiasm has found a concrete outlet. In the last year, dues-paying membership in the previously fringe Democratic Socialists of America has tripled.

India is neither the US nor the UK, and the Congress doesn’t need to take its marching orders from trends elsewhere. But it seems clear now that fighting the BJP at the level of identity is not working; the lofty rhetoric of pluralism can’t compete with Hindutva. Shifting away from culture to economy by taking a principled left turn may help right the ship.

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