OPINION | Budget, Vadra and Surjewala: Why February 1 Was a Bad Day for Rahul Gandhi and Company
The BJP outdid the Congress in offering golden carrots to the electorate, Robert Vadra sought anticipatory bail and prominent party 'face' Randeep Singh Surjewala reeled from his abject defeat in the Jind bypoll.
File photo of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi. (PTI)
Budget 2019 gave the BJP a leg-up and knocked the Congress off-balance. A boot-faced Rahul Gandhi focussed on the BJP's Achille's Heel — the farm sector — but didn't quite manage to put his best foot forward (even as wordsmith Shashi Tharoor put his foot in his mouth). The markets kicked upwards and even the unemployment imbroglio didn't mitigate the feel-good factor.
In sum, the BJP leveraged its ruling party status to immediately fatten household budgets and disprove the maxim that you can't please all of the people all the time. The Congress, being out of power, could only mouth promises and protests.
On the whole, February 1, 2019, was a bad day for Rahul & Co. The BJP outdid the Congress in offering golden carrots to the electorate, Congress jamaai Robert Vadra sought anticipatory bail as the Enforcement Directorate seemed to close in on him and prominent party 'face' Randeep Singh Surjewala reeled from his abject defeat in the Jind bypoll.
The silver lining is that the Congress can bounce back, if it cleverly plays on the job-loss cover-up, injects credibility into its poll promises and most of all, if the upbeat mood engendered by the budget proves temporary.
For the moment, the middle-class is enchanted, having received substantive concessions for the lower-end and no taxation increases for the upper. More to the point, there is hope of further taxpayer-friendly measures, fuelled by broad hints from the Prime Minister and Finance Minister. As the Congress has demonstrated in the past, populist economics is an effective vote-catcher.
As for direct income support to farmers, experts have joined Rahul Gandhi in condemning the effort as 'too little too late'. Voters, however, may operate on a something-is-better-than-nothing principle, particularly if the first tranche of Rs 2,000 pops into their accounts next month. Here again, the carrot approach has been applied. The interim budget is only a 'trailer', the PM said, holding out the promise of more goodies for farmers in future.
Team Rahul must come up with an effective counter. By putting numbers and specifics to Rahul's basic income guarantee, they can enhance its credibility. Otherwise, voters may prefer a bird in hand to two in the bush.
The Congress must think out of the box on the farm front. It could, for example, examine the feasibility of a Telangana-style per-acre allocation which subsumes the fertilizer subsidy and reduces input costs. It could also propose that super-rich 'gentleman farmers' be brought into the tax net, to cross-subsidise their small and marginal brethren. Whether it has the bandwidth for such bold moves is the question.
Further, dubbing budget concessions as unauthorised rather than unconventional is not a good idea. In 2018, Chidambaram slammed the BJP for running out of ideas. In 2019, he slammed them for coming up with new ideas in what should have been an interim budget. The 'sour grapes' message will do the Congress no good vis-à-vis middle-class beneficiaries.
Second, Rahul may be at his pugnacious best but a more nuanced approach is called for, especially after the misguided attempt to deploy Goa CM Manohar Parrikar in his anti-Rafael campaign rebounded on him. At the same time, muzzling social media mavens like Tharoor, whose “sangam mein sab nange hain” tweet on Friday is along the lines of Mani Shankar Aiyar's 'chaiwala' and 'neech' remarks, is desirable.
Third, the Congress may be on a high after the recent assembly elections, but arrogance is avoidable. In ordinary circumstances, the Congress could have shrugged off the Jind loss, with a 'you win some, you lose some'. But this was Surjewala, a member of Team Rahul, fighting on his home turf and sure of victory. (To be fair, the Jats — Surjewala's community — were divided, whereas the Punjabis consolidated in favour of their clansman, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar.) Surjewala's loss reflects on his boss and sends the message that the BJP may not be as badly off in Haryana as it seemed.
Also, with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra now in the fray, it is advisable for her husband to keep a low profile. His bail move may be read as being driven by a fear of political vendetta, but political opponents may see it as a sign of vulnerability. It must be spun out carefully in the media.
In sum, the Congress must combine bold ideas with cautious moves in the months to come.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)
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