In the aftermath of the Second World War the choices facing British voters were stark. On the one hand was war hero Winston Churchill leading the Conservative Party, who essentially wanted a gradual return to Old Britain with laissez faire capitalism and continuing colonisation. On the other hand was the Labour Party, which promised a radical overhaul of the social structure of Britain, in particular by launching the National Health Service (arguably the most popular institution in Britain today), introducing minimum wages and nationalising major industries. Labour won the election handsomely, and while we may debate over the government’s legacy, it is hard not to admire the clarity of choices the opposing sides provided the voters.
Yet in India, after a decade of the rising tide that lifted very few boats, the opposite is well and true. The release of the BJP’s election manifesto only served to further clarify a trend that has been evident in Indian politics for a while – that there is no real choice. With a handful of minor differences, both the main political parties operate within the same horizon of thought – with similar ends, and, as the manifestoes make it extremely clear, with largely the same policies.
Take for instance the views presented by the BJP and the Congress on welfare and economy – two areas that matter the most. The Congress wants to double-down on the National Health Mission, while the BJP wishes to achieve something largely the same through its New Health Policy (which, for all its vagueness, may well end up being a simple rehash of NHRM should the BJP come to power). The BJP has not rejected either the MNREGA or the Food Security Bill – two hallmark bills of the UPA. Their only real addition to the MNREGA is that it ought to be aligned with productive agricultural enterprises, which is something easier said than done. Similarly the BJP is whole-heartedly wedded to the Food Security Bill. Narendra Modi’s complaint against the bill was not about affordability or practicality, as most intelligent critiques of the bill have been, but about the abrupt decrease in rations for BPL-card holders.
On the economic front, it is admirable that both parties have woken up to the chronic weaknesses in Indian manufacturing. However, the solutions for both are limited to deregulation and infrastructure building. Both advocate construction of manufacturing corridors, and hastening of “ease of doing business” measures – like removing controls and unnecessary licenses. And, unfortunately, both remain oblivious to the need of a focused industrial policy with an actively engaged government, and the use of selective protectionist policies – practices responsible for powering the East Asian miracle economies.
The opposition’s manifesto also fails to offer any real critique of the political philosophy that has powered the UPA regime for the last 10 years. In a heap of inconsiderate and cheap portmanteau words (“rurban”), the BJP’s manifesto, like the Congress’, endorses capitalist modernity as the final goal and fortunately – since its Hindutva days – has reconciled itself to the plurality and diversity of India. The one-line token to the Ram Mandir on the second last page is probably a half-hearted attempt to scrap up any possible Hindutva votes in the Hindi belt of the country.
Therefore, given that the challenging BJP is set to deliver largely the same objectives that the Congress seeks, the only possible difference could be in the quality of governance. Legend has it Narendra Modi is an efficient and round-the-clock administrator.
While this may or may not be a media spin, a key point to note here is that much of day-to-day governance occurs at the state level. It is the chief minister that regulates the many district collectors, the police and other administrative offices, and decides the amount of power and funds that local government bodies like municipalities and panchayats receive. Thus, however good Modi may be at the Centre, it is unlikely to benefit the aam aadmi, if his chief minister is incapable.
The Shadow of 1991
Why is our political discourse so unvaried and dry, producing two large parties with little diversity in opinion or outlook? The 1991 reforms, or rather the economic growth that the reforms are believed to have powered since, have cast a long shadow over political debate in India. The apparent success of the free market, even though most of the growth has occurred in industries very susceptible to credit booms – like construction, finance, real estate and service, has very successfully been able to purge any real competition in the market of ideas. India had a ‘socialistic’ phase till 1991, a grave error of our well-intentioned founding leaders; Manmohan Singh liberalised the economy and unleashed the market’s animal spirits- and now India is set to become the superpower. That is the universally agreed narrative in our political circles when it comes to economics.
The unintended consequence of this narrative is how any state action, of any kind, has become a taboo. Most financial weeklies, when criticising the BJP manifesto, focused on how it failed to talk about disinvestment, cash transfers and the need for less welfare.
Concomitantly, these reforms have produced an elite and a middle class that, for reasons ranging from ideological disposition to general perception or naked self-interest, vigorously defend the existing order. Given their disproportionate influence in the public discourse, as Amartya Sen elegantly shows in his most recent book, they are unlikely to care very much whether the majority is falling far behind.
What should we be talking about?
Yet, the diversity and plurality of India has never allowed our public imagination to be reduced to any one narrative. There are certainly more ideas and themes that deserve nation-wide attention.
For one, a more proactive state playing an even more prominent role in the affairs of the economy could be a starter. As I demonstrate in my last column, free markets on their own rarely lead to sustained periods of growth and prosperity. They need state institutions to fashion and give direction to their energies for the benefit of the entire society. Every successfully industrialised nation, from the United States and Germany to Korea and Japan, has modernised thanks to state protection and subsidies.
However, whether capitalist modernity ought to be accepted so uncritically at all needs to be debated as well. Immediate industrialisation may lead to huge profits for industrialists and their cronies, but this may not automatically lead to a rise in living standards for all. The poverty and squalor of cities may well turn out to be far worse than the idyllic and cashless emptiness of the countryside. Even England faced horrid living standards for a long time during the Industrial Revolution until things started to look up.
Similarly, there are plenty of sections within Indian society that have repeatedly rejected versions of modernity imposed on them by the Indian state. Local panchayats of tribal communities in the mineral belt of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha are virulently opposed to any intrusion of corporations asking for mines and minerals because they consider their forests sacred.
India has had a long tradition of thinkers – from Chanakya to Mahatma Gandhi – who have challenged existing public discourse and revolutionised our way of thinking. Gandhi refused to acknowledge the Western modernity of lawyers and trains as something innately superior, whereas Ram Manohar Lohia derided both capitalism and communism as exponents of the “Big Machine”, and thought industrialisation would need to be modified according to India’s local needs and nuances.
Yet, in the days of “World is Flat” memes, can we think of another purpose to life than an obsessive fixation with ever-rising growth rates and the next version of a smart phone?
Akshat Khandelwal tweets at @akshat_khan.