Populism v/s good economics, the real electoral debate
Ashok Gehlot is one of those leaders who is not blessed with a booming voice and neither does he have much passion to cover-up for such a falling, therefore his speeches are singularly unimpressive. When he addressed a gathering of a couple of thousand people informally at the circuit house, there was not even as much as a murmur of approval from the crowd. It was a short speech, given that this was not exactly a public meeting but instead a Durbar of the CM for listening to the grievances of the common man, or in this case the common woman, as they outnumbered their male counterparts by almost 8 to 2.
It was quite impressive that such a large crowd had gathered to attend CM’s durbar this late in his term of office and what was even more intriguing was that the women far outnumbered their men. Election season is usually a time to make new promises and not to mend current anomalies, therefore it was surprising to see so many people gathering to get grievance redressal. It would take all day for the CM to personally hear each individual’s case and many women were already getting restless, so one was left wondering how time would be managed.
After meeting about 20 or 30 people in the front rows, the meeting was abruptly ended, leaving one even more bewildered. Then a strange pattern started unfolding, all the men walked out of the compound and the women started queuing up neatly in a semi-circular arc – the resultant queue was almost 200 meters long. Three men, purported to be officials of the CMO (as per a local news reporter), set up an impromptu desk at the head of the queue. If you thought this was some kind of a drop box or a complaint register for the remaining janata, you would be in for much surprise.
The officials simply distributed 100 Rupee bills to each of the women, who collected the money and quietly left the place with happy faces. This entire exercise took all of 30 minutes to conclude and has been repeated across the state, am told. The ethical or legal sanctity of such an exercise notwithstanding, what is of considerable interest is its impact on electoral dynamics.
Six months ago, when ground reports from Rajasthan started pouring in, there was a general feeling that the Congress government in the state led by Ashok Gehlot was headed for a rout in the upcoming assembly elections. Wherever Vasundara Raje traveled, she received an almost overwhelming response from the crowd and in contrast, Gehlot’s rallies or public speeches were nothing but pale imitations. The momentum was clearly with the BJP and the Congress party was playing catch-up.
To be sure, even today, the Rani of Dholpur is far more popular than the incumbent CM. Yet, what is undeniable is that the singularly unimpressive Ashok Gehlot is back in the race. BJP might still go on to win Rajasthan, but as a student of electoral politics, I must simply salute Mr. Gehlot and the Congress party for their valiant rearguard battle in a hopelessly impossible environment.
Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent to the Congress legacy, had famously rued here in Jaipur last year that despite all the deficiencies, come election time, somehow Congress manages to achieve an impossible victory. In reality, the reason behind Congress’ stupendous electoral success in India over the decades can be attributed to their innate ability to cater to the basal fears of the least common denominator of voters.
Just like Congress appeals to the minority voters’ basic instinct of preservation in a Hindu majority nation, so also they appeal to the basic everyday fears of tiding over the present day problems amongst the poorer sections of our society. Congress triumphs because human nature is such that basic instincts cover up for larger deficiencies of systemic failures.
Four years of mal-governance is difficult to gloss over in a single election campaign, but full marks must be reserved for the Congress party for the sheer efforts that they are putting. We took a straw poll of some 18 women who had received the 100 Rs largesse from Gehlot’s men that day in order to understand the mood of the voters. The good news for the BJP is that more than 50% of them were still willing to vote for Raje rather than Congress, despite the immediate impact of doles.
The bad news for the BJP was that I suspect almost 80% of those women would have voted for the party some six months ago which means a dangerous “reversal of trend” for the BJP. Behind this weaning away of almost 20 to 30% of BJP votes by the Congress party is a 3000 Cr Rs exercise that must be deconstructed, analyzed threadbare and finally, internalized by the BJP.
Today, Rajasthan is a dole-scheme heaven and a rights-based economic laboratory of India. Almost everything is provided by the state government at almost free of cost – food, dress, employment, medicines and even housing in many cases. Yet what has really caught on with the masses in the last few months is the direct cash transfers by the state in one form or the other. This is where the Congress scores in its innovativeness and BJP stumbles upon its own vanity.
Take the case of Karnataka for instance; a year before polls, the previous BJP government should have gone all out to woo the voters by providing everything under the Sun for free to the voting class and thereby shunning all pretense of fiscal prudence, instead BJP went into Karnataka polls in the hope that people will vote for their ideology!
Ideology is a luxury that an empty stomach cannot afford. Neither can an empty stomach be expected to prevail upon the Bhagwati v/s Sen debate. But empty stomachs reflect electoral realities. We can talk about long term dependencies and fiscal prudence and macro-economic numbers and the falling rupee et al with coy smugness using our Twitter handles, but all of that is meaningless unless it can solve the immediate problems of a poor woman. “This 100 Rs means I can buy enough milk to last for 3 days for both my kids” said a woman with utter disregard for Jagadish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya on that Friday afternoon near Jaipur! In the real world, existential problems are in present tense and economic theories are in future tense and that is the real problem with the electoral realities of good economics.
People often cite the Tamil Nadu example of DMK’s failure as the best defense against populist economics not winning elections, but they are almost always wrong. Tamil Nadu is not only a Dravidian heartland but also the heaven of populism in public governance since the time of MGR. In TN it is the competitive populism of Amma v/s Kalaignar which is at play and therefore voters are spoilt for choice, so DMK’s loss cannot be construed as failure of populism. A better example from south India was YSR’s victory in 2009 in AP, which was almost wholly achieved on the edifice of populism.
Does this mean that we will always be condemned to be a socialist nation of dole schemes by squandering all our opportunities to emerge as an economic power of consequence? Not really. There was, in fact, a historic opportunity until last week to make good economics electorally viable, but the Indian right squandered it. Of all the people, the one light of hope for Indian right was the one who abandoned this one great opportunity.
Our extreme ideological positions on Narendra Modi with hardly any scope for a viable middle-ground has made our debates poorer. Such is the sad state of affairs that the one major mistake that Modi committed last week was missed by both his detractors as well as Modi lovers. In the cacophony of pro and anti Namo voices, one really important debate was given almost a total miss.
Food Security Bill was a godsend to change the tide of socialism in India. This was one opportunity wherein popular opinion could be built against the implementation of an exercise of disastrous economic profligacy.
There was one man who could have built public opinion against FSB, for he alone has the moral authority to talk to India today without being ridiculed. Modi could have converted FSB into an anti-farmer measure (which it will eventually be, if implemented in letter and spirit), Modi could have educated the masses that FSB will add nothing to their plates in the short and medium terms but would unnecessarily add expenditure to the exchequer, Modi could have questioned the humungous wastage in sarkari anaaj godaams, Modi could have told the poor that FSB will only mean increased corruption by middlemen. There were a hundred reasons to oppose FSB and a thousand ways to build public opinion against FSB, but instead what he chose was to oppose the structural deficiencies in implementing the Food Bill to benefit the maximum number of recipients!
It is this unwillingness to take on populism which will hurt the efforts of the right in the long run. In reality FSB is not even a populist measure and will fetch near zero votes for the Congress. In fact, Congress party has got it wrong for once, FSB is not a game changer idea, DBT was. Instead of concentrating on Direct Cash Transfer, which would have resulted in tremendous electoral benefits, Congress has wrongly hitched on to the FSB bandwagon. It is liquidity in the hands of end beneficiaries to spend it the way they want to that makes the voters happy, not an extra kilo of rice or wheat and this is what we are witnessing in Rajasthan.
In fact, the reason why NREGA was such a wild electoral success in 2009 was that it purported to give money directly to the end beneficiaries. Congress has unlearnt its own success lessons in 2013. Thus, this was the best possible socialist idea that Narendra Modi could have taken on with no electoral side-effects. In fact, he had a great opportunity to convert an electorally neutral agenda into an electorally negative issue, but he has squandered it. Imagine, if he were able to fire the imagination of farmers across India against the proposed food bill – it had the potential to create a new age agrarian revolt of mammoth proportions. Maybe Narendra Bhai needs better set of advisers.
Image Courtesy – Jaipur.co