The Rahul Avatar

Meghnad Desai

Rahul Gandhi keeps away from day to day politics. He has quite rightly shunned Cabinet and is busy in the Congress grassroots organisation. Yet, he continues to have a very high ‘voltage’ impact in whatever he does. His intervention in the Niyamgiri tribes’ campaign in Orissa against Vedanta is themost recent such high voltage intervention.

The state of the tribal peoplehas been a sorry one in independent India. The most deprivedHindu jatis, the Dalits and the OBCs, have been politicised byMandal. This has led to political party formations which have made these jatis their clients andthe usual patron-client relationshipshave led to some trickle down (Muslims have not gained to the same extent but I’ll leave that aside for the moment). But the tribal people seem to have lost out. There is not even a debate about the Census enumerating tribes, despite there being hundreds of separate tribes on whom we have little information. How many tribal languages do we have and how many will get recognitionas being official

The long campaign which the Naxals have waged in the Dandakaranya area has at last opened the eyes of the Congress at least (where is the BJP?) on this issue. It is obvious that the setting up of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh has not ensured that benefits reacheveryone and not just top office holders and their families. We can do better.

Yet, the welfare of the tribalpeople is not an easy topic to tackle. There is a great temptationto argue that they should be left to live in their pristine state, the ‘NobleSavages’. But freezing thetribal people in ecological slums is not the answer. Eventually their children, if not they, will watch TV someday and ask, ‘where is my mobile, my laptop, my IIT’?.

One response which is the strength of Indian democracy is to politicise the tribal people by encouraging them to play to their electoral strength. If the tribal vote bank can be organised, it will exact its own share of the national dividend. It is a messy process but then the Dalits and OBCs have shown how it can be done. Rahul Gandhi was making a subtle pitch for Congress priority for this nascent vote bank and why not.

Yet, in his rhetoric of the ‘two Indias’—he has spoken to of it in Niyamgiri and elsewhere—there lurks a danger. There has been a tendency lately in the Congress to treat the poor variously defined and measured as a safe vote bank which has to be catered for by way of food subsidies and occasional work. This costs a lot but it is seen as a just tax on India to take care of Bharat. This policy may seem humane but it does nothing to get the poor out of poverty. The MGNREGA is a policy which restricts labour mobility and fobs off the poor with lower pay than they would make if they followed employment opportunities. But then if they stay at home, they vote locally and guess for which party? Hence, the scheme. Food subsidies are another waste of resources which do not help the poor. It would be cheaper to give cash to the poor.

I saw a poignant item on some TV channel, where a drought-hit farmer in Bihar was complaining that the drought made it difficult for him to send his children to school. He showed the right priority. He was worried not about food but about the future of his children. It is education and acquiring skills that will take the poor out of the hell-holes they are stuck in. The poor of Bharat have to join India and not stay on in Bharat, receiving 30 kg of rice or wheat.

It is this switch in the Congress vision which Rahul has to accomplish. For too long the Socialism of Congress has harboured anti-liberalisation ideas along with sentimentality about the poor. That was then. Gen X has to do better than the sloppy anti-poverty policies of the last sixty years. That is something Rahul Gandhi could do. Let him start with Niyamgiri.