The Congress Party’s swerve towards populism, as exemplified its ‘aam admi’ campaign and a flurry of schemes such as the 100-day employment guarantee scheme paradoxically owe its origin to the BJP’s own failures, Goeffrey Pyatt, the in-charge at the US embassy in Delhi pointed out in 2006.
Pyatt was quick to spot the decisive move on the part of the Congress towards populism and focusing on the rural poor at Conclave of Congress chief ministers in Nainital in late 2006 — halfway through the UPA’s first 5-year term.
“The Nainital conclave was the fourth since 2001, and, as in similar such meetings, the party examined policy options. This year Sonia Gandhi and PM Singh asserted that agriculture and the rural population of India must be a top party priority.
“This rural emphasis also reiterated the Party’s determination not to repeat the BJP’s mistake when it ran an unsuccessful 2004 “”India Shining”” election campaign, which appeared to be urban based and to ignore many rural concerns,” Pyatt said, catching a trend that was soon to blossom into a full-blown electoral strategy in 2009 and a governing philosophy afterwards.
The second UPA government has been roundly criticised for spending “money like water” on extremely leaky, but populist programs like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA). The five year old scheme has gone to Rs 40,100 crore of annual spending, making it one of the biggest welfare programs in the world.
According to official statistics, around 5 crore people (20%-25% of Indian households) are provided work every year under the scheme, though critics have long maintained that most of the money is siphoned off by Panchayat officials and functionaries through fake ‘job cards.’
Pyatt was too sharp to miss the comparison with Indira Gandhi’s own populist campaigns and (wrongly) suspected her daughter in law would not follow through either.
“Congress revived the “”garibi hatao”” (eliminate poverty) campaign of Indira Gandhi after the conclusion of the Nainital conclave [of 2006.]
“Indira used this slogan effectively in 1970 to decimate her opponents and win a landslide in the 1971 general election. Having served its purpose, the slogan quickly disappeared, and today 350 million Indians continue to live in absolute poverty,” he noted wryly.
“The political cognoscenti have determined that such gimmicks cannot be recycled and that it will likely disappear without a trace,” he added.