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October 2, 2020

The Indian National Congress: Celebrating Rao and Shifting to the Right?

On 24th July, the Indian National Congress, India’s oldest political party known for its largely left-centre policy alignment through its 60 plus years in power, chose to do something which was not only unexpected but also possibly indicative of where the party wants to go in a political scenario where it largely seems to have lost its way. With the announcement of the centenary year celebrations of the late P. V. Narasimha Rao, the public of India may be witnessing a historic moment where the Overton window may, for better or worse, be making a conclusive shift to the right; thereby giving way to the creation of a new centre-right identity for the Grand Old Party.
Named after American public policy expert Joseph P. Norton, the Overton Window can be thought of as a bracket which encapsulates all the political and policy ideas that mainstream society accepts as relevant and legitimate. This causes parties and political parties that enjoy large mainstream public support to focus their policy, ideas and discourse on ideas that exist within the contours of the Overton Window.
Rao at the Helm
The 9th Prime Minister’s tenure proved, in more ways than one, very consequential for the nation and quite different from the traditional affinity the INC had earlier shown to leftist ideology. From a conservative protectionary economy, which sought to shelter domestic businesses from the global competition; Rao’s policy of economic liberalization saw India’s economy opening itself to privatization, which led to the death of government monopolization in several industries. Many hailed liberalization as a saviour of the Indian economy; others view it as a part of PV’s agenda to further the capitalist agenda without any social responsibility. The debate ensues till date. However, this transition of views on the Indian economy in favour of the free market was most definitely uncharacteristic of the Indian National Congress and in many ways, a U-turn from the Licence Raj advocated by the thoroughly socialist approach the INC had adopted prior to Rao. While many consider the liberalization as a move which was forced by the lofty demands international financial bodies, there is little doubt that Rao is viewed by most as the engineer of the liberalization.
On the social front, the usually headstrong P.V. Rao’s discernible inaction and silence on the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a starkly different approach from his predecessors who espoused left-leaning values of secularism and policies such as affirmative action. In fact, Rao had assumed power in an era when the upper caste Hindus felt disenfranchised with the rule of the ostensibly ‘minority and reservation friendly’ Congress party, which was clearly corroborated by the huge traction the anti-Mandal agitations enjoyed. In the wake of such discontent, Rao, the man at the helm of the affairs, hailed from a well-known conservative Brahmin family and his Ayodhya stance, was according to many, a soft nod to assure the high caste Hindu majority.
The INC Post-Rao
Post his tenure as the Prime Minister, the Indian National Congress’ treatment of the leader has been little but dismissive. His legacy was one that the party tried to distance itself from quite actively. When charges of corruption were levelled against him, the INC instead of supporting him, offered little to no support; charges he was eventually acquitted of. For a party which had extended support to coalition leaders like A. Raja during the 2G scam fiasco, this move was not only uncharacteristic but also an explicit indication that Narasimha’s legacy was not one with which the Congress wanted to associate itself with. It is well documented, that upon his death, Rao was not allowed cremation in New Delhi where his family wanted him to be cremated; an honour which was given even to the likes of Sanjay Gandhi who during his life, held no public office. Accompanied by this, is the fact that very few statues, airports and places public importance have been named after the former premier despite the Congress enjoying power in the centre post his death in 2004.
The Announcement
In many ways, the announcement made by the INC is an attempt to reclaim Rao’s legacy; a legacy it had painstakingly sought to distance itself from in the past. While, there are claims that such a celebration is so that parties like the BJP are not able to appropriate the successes of the Rao regime, as it did with Bhagat Singh; there may be more at play than just that.
Rahul Gandhi, who was the Congress’ Prime Ministerial candidate in the 2019 general elections, was seen frequenting temples throughout India during his party’s various state electoral campaigns. The Congress which had always made it a point to maintain its secular image in accordance to its Nehruvian ideology is slowly shedding that image. The resolution passed by the Congress in one of its plenary meetings before the 2019 elections, indicated the party’s intention to shift towards the centre-right stance on the economy. Of course, their manifesto was not devoid of the welfare-state narrative and poverty alleviation; however, in developing countries, manifestos are seldom devoid of these rhetorics. Even the BJP which is an ostensible rightist party ran these narratives in their manifestos.
In a political scenario, where ideas of nationalism and Hindutva are being capitalized by the BJP and have resulted in two decisive losses to the Indian National Congress in consecutive elections, the celebration of Rao is more than just appropriating the successes of past figures. The Indian National Congress finds itself at a point where it needs itself a Rao-like-figure yet again, who can pull them out of their dismal showings at the centre and appease the majoritarian Hindu ego. The celebration of Rao is a subtle nod to the Congress’ strategy to capture a niche in the voting market; to cater to the Hindu who wants a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya but also one who is not thrilled upon hearing about the discriminatory implications of the CAA. Whether this strategy will pay off is a question that only time will answer but one thing is for sure, the Overton Window has shifted to the right. At the moment, the ideological battle is between the centre and the right; the left is dead.




Aditya Pattanayak is 3rd year law student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, lucknow.




Adhipatya Singh is 3rd year law student at Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, lucknow.

In Content Picture Credit: The Hans India


1 Comment

  1. Abhinav Dixit says:

    Good analysis!

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