Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s declaration that her party would pay the train fare of migrants heading home amid the Covid-19 lockdown is part of her philosophy of "economic right, social left" and aimed at putting the Narendra Modi government on the back foot.
The government may counter Sonia’s deft move by saying the Centre would subsidise 85 per cent of the fare and request states to bear the remaining cost of the ticket, but the first-mover advantage has gone to the Congress.
The grand old party may be down and out, but it has intrinsic ties with the poorest of the poor, marginalised and disadvantaged sections of society. In its position papers, the Congress has repeatedly explained that its concept of socialism is neither dogmatic nor indoctrinating. In 1972, under Indira Gandhi, the election manifesto prepared for the assembly polls had read, "Poverty must go. Disparity must diminish. Injustice must end." At the Mumbai AICC session, Jagjivan Ram moved a resolution saying, "Modern man is the inheritor of all that is noble and good in human thought. And thus our democratic socialism is a synthesis of all that is best in the thinking of the East and the West and provides an ideology superior to other sectarian ideologies which are communalistic or communitarian.’
In 2019, Rahul Gandhi’s Nyuntam Aay Yojana (Minimum Income Scheme) or, in short, NYAY, which means ‘justice’, was in keeping with Congress’ economic thinking of "social left and economic right". NYAY lost out to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s muscular politics and hypernationalism. But many in March-April 2019 were admiring the idea of NYAY. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, NYAY’s relevance has become far more potent.
Rahul has remained focussed on his NYAY path. His recent conversation with former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan on the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis was an unconventional yet refreshing approach. Rahul is also set to release his conversation with Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee. As former and perhaps future Congress chief, Rahul is pitching himself as a leader who is not shy of asking questions and seeking help from those who understand matters of global and domestic economy in a clinical fashion.
From 2004 to 2014, Sonia had successfully managed to communicate to the masses, even those who did not read newspapers or watch television, that the Congress’s prime responsibility towards the poor did not stand compromised by Dr Manmohan Singh’s thrust on economic reforms. It was not that Sonia and Manmohan Singh’s economic thinking were not on the same page. Sonia is not a firm believer in a state-controlled economy. In fact, her lengthy, freewheeling discussions with Manmohan prior to 2004 had convinced her that a market-controlled economy, if properly guided, could benefit many, including those who were at the margins of society. Her understanding of the new world order and need for reforms contributed significantly to convincing the great Indian middle class and captains of industry that, under Manmohan Singh, reforms would continue and there would be further liberalisation. As prime minister, Singh, too, made it clear that his government was not Sensex-driven, but functioned in a transparent, pro-industry, pro-entrepreneur manner.
Sonia has made a smooth transition from someone who was dependent on a coterie to one who listenes to her own voice and acts decisively. She was quick to see merit in Karnataka party chief DK Shivakumar’s move to donate Rs 1 crore to the state-run transport service to send the stranded workers to their native place for free. Sonia told party treasurer Ahmed Patel to cut corners and ensure that the otherwise money-starved Congress has enough funds for workers, migrants and those from the unorganised sector traveling back to their homes.
The Congress president then decided to turn more combative. Her statement targeted the Narendra Modi government for arranging free air travel for citizens stranded abroad but failing to show similar compassion for the poor labourers. There are many horrible stories of migrants walking back home, trying to cover over a thousand kilometres and dying of hunger. In Indore, eighteen people were found travelling inside the tank of a concrete mixer truck. Given the magnitude of the crisis, it has a potential of affecting the coming assembly polls in Bihar and some crucial by-elections in Madhya Pradesh.
Given prime minister Narendra Modi’s track record of turning the tables and ability to defuse NYAY, etc, he will, in all probability, bounce back on the issue of migrant labourers’ travel fare. But this round underscores once again why the Gandhis, particularly, Sonia, continues to occupy central space as principal opposition leader in spite of naysayers ( including a healthy chunk of Left, liberals, AAP supporters, media, etc) constantly talking about the "imminent death" of the Congress party. The body is alive and kicking.