The widespread rout of the Congress in the just-concluded set of assembly elections will attract a wide variety of explanations. The theories could range from the overwhelming influence of the Narendra Modi factor to the role of chief ministers to a number of local political issues. But if the Congress were to be introspective enough, it would also see the results as a vote against its approach to governance under Rahul Gandhi, an approach that relies heavily on centralised legislation.
The rise of Gandhi in the Congress has seen the party come up with a legislation for every problem. The pronounced shift to the rights-based approach started innocuously enough with the right to information. But it soon moved from the relatively peripheral aspects of governance to the heart of the major issues India faces, including the right to education, and finally food security. Before long, it became the response to every crisis. When the gangrape in Delhi last December grabbed national attention, the government response was couched almost entirely in terms of changing the law.
This rights-and-legislation approach had civil society cheering it along, but there were always questions about how the wider Indian audience would react to it. Few voters have time for the intricate legal debates and their shouting-match versions on television. They are more concerned with how things pan in the parts of their lives that affect them. They have used the elections to send out as forceful a message as possible to the Congress that if the party continues to play around with laws rather than actually changing conditions on the ground, the voters will have none of it.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is not difficult to understand the anger of the voters. In its most benign form, centralised legislation can merely follow what some states have already done. This is particularly true of the food security bill, in the case of which the Congress had to hold back its own state government in Karnataka from providing cheap food until the Central law took shape. And in Chhattisgarh, food security was certainly not something you could beat the state government with.
In other cases, notably the right to education, there was a distinct effort to enforce a centralised set of norms on the education system across the country. Whether these norms are desirable or not is highly debatable. But even if we were to go along with the