India Needs a Real Opposition

The Congress Party should remake itself as a center-left alternative.

Rahul's return has sparked hopes in Congress.

Photographer:Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Since its drubbing in national elections nearly one year ago, India's opposition Congress Party has seemed almost lifeless. That finally appeared to change over the weekend, when presumptive Congress leader Rahul Gandhi swooped back into New Delhi after a mysterious 56-day long sabbatical abroad. At a rally on Sunday and a speech in Parliament on Monday, the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for much of its modern history pilloried Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government over its attempt to amend a controversial land-acquisition law.

QuickTake India's Aspirations

Like all democracies, India is best served by an agile opposition which can keep the government honest and present voters with a credible alternative. But the diffident Gandhi, who until now has shown very little appetite for the rough-and-tumble of Indian politics, is unlikely to convince anyone other than party sycophants that he can compete with Modi for fiery charisma. What Congress needs more than a macho leader is a coherent policy agenda -- not the one voters rejected in 2014, but a vibrant alternative that seeks to transform India's oldest political organization into a true, 21st-century center-left party.

Gandhi's two speeches gave no hint of such a program. While he may have finally shown the urge for a scrap -- deriding Modi’s right-wing government as a “Suited-Booted” administration catering to rich industrialists -- he didn’t have anything new to offer India’s farmers, who make up some 50 percent of the population. If all that rural Indians wanted was to preserve the Land Acquisition Act passed by a Congress-led government in 2013, they wouldn't have voted for Modi in such large numbers. Even the charge that Modi favors industry is hardly new; Rahul deployed it repeatedly while campaigning in 2014, to little discernible effect.

Congress clearly hasn't absorbed the cardinal lesson from the party's 2014 defeat: Even the poorest Indians no longer believe that an economic program based primarily on handouts will lead to greater prosperity. Modi won because he persuaded voters that he had a better plan. Gandhi needs one of his own.

He has to start by resisting the urge to defend some idealized rural India against the encroachment of industry and urbanization. Agriculture simply cannot support half of India’s workforce while contributing only 15 percent of GDP; many farmers would gladly give up their back-breaking work for good jobs and better services in towns and cities, if they were available. They understand that the future for their children doesn't lie on the land.

As center-left parties in Europe have, Congress also needs to acknowledge the fact that market economies are the best means of generating prosperity, despite their flaws. That doesn't mean parroting Modi's slogans about growth. Gandhi could come out strongly against monopolies and oligopolies, while supporting a rules-based, competitive capitalist system. This may be a tough sell, given his party's past record of cronyism. But never having been in government himself, he can at least promise to begin with a clean slate.

Gandhi can also legitimately champion a larger role for the state than Modi -- who himself isn't looking to launch a Thatcherite revolution -- might do. Whereas Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party has focused on leveraging state capacity to upgrade roads, ports and railways, Congress could offer an attractive agenda for upgrading India's social infrastructure, too.

The party might, for instance, develop a plan for universal health insurance, where both state and citizens contribute to premiums. (The government could pay a larger share for the poorest Indians.) Nothing prevents Congress from promoting creative ways to improve education and worker skills. It's clear government schools haven't delivered ideal learning outcomes. So why not commit the state to financing education but letting the private sector deliver it, using vouchers at the school level and student loans for university?

Instead of clinging to a bad law, Gandhi could improve the lives of farmers more by canvassing for massive public investment in irrigation; Indian peasants are still far too dependent on rains. Congress could also promise public investment in storage and cold chains, as well as universal crop insurance.

If he's to revive his party, Gandhi needs to do more than agitate as if he were one of India's many social activists. He needs to build a program of constructive economic policy alternatives that Modi has chosen not to pursue, for whatever reason. That's what a true opposition leader would do.

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