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 Congress hierarchy and take these norms as being ideal, the effort to impose legislation on an unwilling educational system smacks of arrogance. And whatever else voters may or may not do, they invariably punish arrogance.
To make matters worse, the Congress misread what is arguably one of the major emerging Indian social crises, that of gender relations. Across the country, decades of adverse child sex ratios have led to a gender imbalance. As the generations that are the result of this imbalance reach adolescence, there is a serious mismatch where the number of boys is far greater than the number of girls in the same age group. This imbalance, together with a number of other factors, has contributed to a situation where violence is acquiring an increasingly prominent place in gender relations.
A largely legislative response to this gender crisis is, to say the least, inadequate. The change in law has not made women feel substantially safer in Delhi. If this is the best that a government can do, there is sufficient reason for public disapproval. And when state leaders from the same party are allegedly associated with rape and murder in Rajasthan, the public disgust with inefficiency turns into moral outrage.
In addition to its insensitivity to conditions on the ground, the rights-and-legislation approach has another debilitating political weakness: it places the Central government as the target of any failure. As Gandhi travels across the country talking about the laws his Central government has passed to guarantee a variety of rights, people understand it as a statement that it is the responsibility of the Centre to ensure these rights. Any failure to get the benefit of these rights is then attributed to the corruption of the Central government — and corrupt parties deserve to be thrown out.
The instinctive reaction of the Congress to such a failure is to tar others with the same brush, and it is not particularly difficult to exchange corruption charges in today’s political environment. But what the people have voted against is not corruption alone, but also the idea that a centralised group in Delhi can determine what the people should consider to be their rights, and then enforce them. The voters have told Rahul Gandhi in the strongest possible terms that if he really believes in the rights-based approach, he should at least let the people decide what their rights should be.
The writer is a professor at the School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.