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Friday, February 21, 2014

Elections, Electorate and Political System: Will India Ever Mature?

“America is in a defining moment. This is the wealthiest nation in history. Yet many Americans feel that the dream so many generations fought for is slowly slipping away,” said Barack Obama, the Democratic Presidential candidate for 2008, in an article he has recently written for the Wall Street Journal. He continues: “President Bush outlined a limited agreement with lenders to ensure that some families don’t face higher mortgage payments they can’t afford. That’s why…I have outlined a program to help make it easier for middle-class families, not speculators, to renegotiate or refinance their mortgages… It’s going to take a new kind of leadership to strengthen our middle-class and make sure America’s economic future is secure—leadership that can challenge the special interests, bring Republicans and Democrats together, and rally this nation around a common purpose. And that is exactly the kind of leadership I intend to offer as president of the United States.” 

That is the reaction of Obama to the US subprime loan mess that has rocked the global financial markets besides adversely impacting the lives of commoners, proposing to not only contain its aftermath but also prevent such recurrences. Contrast this with what we have witnessed during the recently concluded election campaign in Gujarat, and one would be left aghast.

India, after the launch of economic reforms aiming at ‘market-driven development’ has encountered a new paradigm: the resultant growth has widened the inter-regional and intra-regional inequalities. This new-found growth has only made the difference between ‘growth’, economic growth sans equity, and ‘development’, growth with equity—as witnessed in the country prior to the launching of economic reforms—more glaring. The income/consumption inequality as measured by Gini index increased to 30.5% in 2004 from 27.7% in 1994, the period from which our growth started accelerating. Simultaneously, agriculture—the mainstay of livelihood for 60% of the population—has been marginalized. This new twist in political economy, as the Prime Minister once observed, posed a new challenge: “If those who are better off do not act in a more socially responsible manner, our growth process may be at risk, our polity may become anarchic and our society may get further divided. We cannot afford these luxuries.”

That is not all. There is disturbing evidence that today the poor in the country gets little or no share of the cake that information technology and other related services generate. The less endowed are thus deeply distressed with the diminishing value of their lot. Looking at the progress of the neo-rich, those who are left out of the benefits of ‘growth’ that the reforms have brought, perceive them as the perpetrators of their poverty. This breeds ill-will and resentment among the excluded. It obviously disturbs the harmony between these two groups. And, as has already been witnessed, this discomfiture between the two groups could transform into hatred, and may tend to breed extremist groups. And this revolt cannot be set right through routine stereotypes. It must be encountered frontally with all the might that is at the disposal of the whole society through innovative measures. In the ultimate analysis, it is the governance of nation that is accountable for setting the nation on the right course. Which is why the electorate and the politicians have a greater responsibility towards nurturing a spirit of accommodation among its citizens for aiming at ‘inclusive growth’.

As against these economic issues, let us examine what has happened in the recently concluded poll campaign in the Gujarat elections. This time round, Modi, the present Chief Minister of Gujarat, was reported to have focused his campaign more on ‘economic development’. Reports indicated that his initial campaign revolved around what his government did: robust infrastructure built for making Gujarat a hub of manufacturing sector, backed by a strong inflow of foreign investment, and the enforced accountability among the public sector that have all cumulatively resulted in a growth rate of 11% during last year.

Looking at the BJP campaign, one naturally expected that the other contender for power—the Congress Party—to focus on core economic issues of the state, such as education, healthcare and inclusive development. But, to one’s dismay, it slipped into the trap of usual stereotypes that are, of course, known to work always, though, more often than not, negatively. The end result is: the whole campaign slipped into the known rhetoric. In the process, the campaign lost sight of the real issues that are bothering the electorate, particularly those belonging to the lower strata: economic welfare. We thus failed in setting off an open discussion that could have generated a well-reasoned intervention strategy for handling the economic issues challenging the state. And such public discussions and interactive reasoning are the very essence of democracy.

That is, perhaps, the glaring difference between the leadership displayed by the American political class as reflected in Obama’s writing and that of India as revealed by the recent poll campaign in Gujarat. That leaves the man in the street wondering: “When will we have a mature political system that works for its citizens’ welfare?”

January, 2008


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