Is the Congress moving to the right?

Congress rally Image copyright AFP
Image caption The rally was called to shore up support for economic reforms

Is India's Congress party moving to the right after being avowedly centre-left for most of its chequered life?

Over the weekend, the Grand Old Party staged a massive rally in Delhi to shore up support and defend its controversial recent economic reforms, including the decision to open the retail sector to global supermarket chains.

The ringing endorsement came from the troika of PM Manmohan Singh, party chief Sonia Gandhi and party leader and heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi. Mr Singh said those opposing moves to open the retail sector to foreign firms were "misleading the people".

It's a marked departure for a party which has been sheepish about its commitment to economic reforms.

In its halcyon days, when the Congress dominated the political landscape, Indira Gandhi nationalised private banks, insurance, coal mines and the oil industry, restricted investments by large companies, tightened controls on imports and exports and regulated foreign investment. Garibi hatao (Banish poverty) was her favourite slogan. But joblessness grew, growth crawled and the poor got poorer. In recent years, the National Advisory Council, a left-leaning think-tank led by her daughter-in-law and party chief Sonia Gandhi has pushed the government for more welfare and distributive measures.

Many argue that the Congress has never really shed its inhibitions about embracing reforms. Pushed to the wall by a deteriorating economy and a balance of payments crisis, it unleashed economic reforms in the early 1990s under the stewardship of the late prime minister Narasimha Rao and then finance minister Manmohan Singh. More recently, battling allegations of corruption and inaction and battered by an unforgiving media, the government pushed through a slew of reforms, including allowing foreign supermarkets into India.

So does Sunday's rally mark the coming out of the closet for the party?

It's early days yet, but many believe it is a signal by the party which is prepared to back reforms and take on critics at home and abroad who have accused the government of dithering. It's another matter, says political scientist Zoya Hasan, writer of a definitive book on the Congress, whether this will bring any political dividends. "Holding a mass rally in favour of foreign direct investment did not look like a good idea. The issue has very little resonance with most people," she says.

Many of the stellar achievements of the two-term Congress government - the landmark right-to-information law, the jobs guarantee scheme, the right-to-education law - happened during its first term, when the Communist parties were its main allies and the Sonia Gandhi-led NAC was at its proactive best. (The Communists later withdrew support for the government over the civilian nuclear deal with the US.) Analysts like Dr Hasan believe that the absence of the Communists and a weaker NAC has led to the government taking a "right turn" in its second term.

What is clear is that the Congress has gone from the defensive to the offensive and hopes to regain the momentum in the run-up to general elections in 2014. But it is too early to say whether it has changed colours.