Debating India


’Development Is Sexy’

Paromita SHASTRI, Suveen K. SINHA, Darshan DESAI, Savitri CHOWDHURY

Monday 26 April 2004, by CHOUDHARY *Savitri , DESAI*Darshan, SHASTRI*Paromita , SINHA*Suveen K.

As elections issues go, no party can forego economic growth now. Is it an idea whose time has come? Or will it be back to populism, post-poll?

Some 20 km away from UP’s majestic Vidhan Sabha, on the road to IIM, Lucknow, which churns out the highest number of management grads changing corporations at home and abroad, is a long row of jhuggis housing 500-600 people. Mostly Dalits and/or Muslims, they started out seven years ago from districts like Sitapur or even from around Kanpur in search of a better livelihood. They still haven’t been able to reach the city that’s nurtured Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, the BJP’s vikas purush, for 15 years.

Most of them also don’t have the ticket to vote. "Twice they came and took Rs 10 from us but no ration card yet.

"Two trends are clear: the BJP knows development is better than mosque as a poll plank; Congress wants reforms back."

Behenji, aap dila do card, hum aapko vote de denge (Sister, you get us the card, we’ll give you our votes)," says 30-going-on-50 Hasina. Her husband works in a city shop for 10 hours a day and Rs 900 a month. No attendance, no pay. But even on leave days, there’s five mouths to feed.

In comparison, Ehsaan Ahmed is rich. He drives a private car, wears a clean checked lungi and puts oil on his hair. Pockets Rs 2,400 or so at month-end. And he’s wisely left his family in the village where he has a vote. Last assembly elections, he rooted for Mulayam. But "nobody bothers about us anyway. And there are no jobs to be had. If we work for others, we’ll have nothing to eat. It’s good that we are doing something on our own," he observes wryly. Noor Mohammed interrupts. "We are a big voting block over here. How can the politicians ignore us? There has been a lot of work in Lucknow, fine, but what have we got?" Some bodies, on the same evening, crushed by deprivation, hope and the overwhelming need for a Rs-40 sari.

Here in India’s rural belts, the shine is visible only in the campaign convoys. The PM has just cleared a 79-km highway between Meerut and Muzaffarnagar but neither he nor the local governments in the past six years have been able to improve UP’s per capita income, the third lowest in India. With one-sixth of India’s population (or three times that of the UK) and more than that of the poor, UP sends 80 members to Parliament. Agriculture in the state that produces the most foodgrains is a story of low productivity, landless labourers, marginal farmers and widespread poverty. And industrial reforms have remained on the fringes with Delhi. Little wonder then the government pays Rs 900 crore interest charges on internal debt every year.

In UP then, the vox populi is development, development and development. BSP in the state doesn’t stand for ex-CM Mayawati’s party anymore, but bijli, sadak, pani. Power, roads, water. Development, in other words. It echoes all over the country, in states prosperous and poor. Some 58 years of waiting for basic minimum needs has worn off the toughest apathy and the longest patience. The voters are now demanding: forget politics, forget religion, give us what we need everyday-jobs, power, water, roads, health.

It’s an awareness that’s, on the surface, been triggered by the ruling coalition’s India Shining campaign. Cut to Rajasthan. "Janta paripakva ho gai hai (the public has matured). The villages are more aware than in towns and cities," says BJP MLA Kali Charan Saraf, who represents Jaipur’s Johri Bazar constituency. So a party seeks votes on performance and bombards voters with concrete evidence. The BJP’s extremely competent media cell has unearthed figures of all hues to relate even to the most unconnected voter. Says Subro Dutta of BJP’s media cell, and stationed in Lucknow: "Mandir is just an emotive issue. We go and tell the people, 11 km of new road is constructed every day now compared to 1.5 km during Congress." The rural and semi-urban voters do understand the issues broadly. "For instance, they may not bother with the GDP growth figure, but do appreciate the rising foreign exchange reserves as opposed to the pledging of gold in the early ’90s," says the Rajasthan prachar pramukh of RSS.

Bereft of the only positive poll plank, the Congress has responded with an even more reformist manifesto: no investment controls, no interference with education, plenty of jobs (see interview). As a result, in a historical first, India’s parliamentary elections are finally being fought on what they always should have been: economic growth and inclusive development.

Has growth really become, as IIML professor Subrato Chakravorty describes it, "sexy"? That economic gain, however achieved, is not a bad thing after all? Says Manmohan Singh, finance minister from 1991-96 and the father of reforms by any definition: "I wish it were true. The BJP is only harping on its statistical agenda. The economy is just a sideshow. Ordinary people, on the other hand, have always been interested in economic problems."

Singh, who failed in his only attempt to enter the Lok Sabha five years ago due to the apathy of the rich South Delhi voter, feels there is no great shine effect on any sector of the economy except in telecom and roads that could be attributed to the government that’s on its way out. But he agrees that people are more aware of the issues.

Agrees Subir Gokarn, chief economist, crisil: "Economic issues have always been part of the agenda. I’d say this is a return to trend after a long time. After Indira’s Garibi Hatao, non-economic issues had taken centrestage. But in the last 20 years, the average outlook of politicians has changed dramatically. The 40-plus politicians have learnt to focus on achievements, not state power as facilitator."

In many ways, Garibi Hatao in 1971 was the last economic slogan India had. It was also, as ICRA economic advisor Saumitra Chaudhuri points out incisively, an indictment of the failure of Nehru’s unquestioned leadership for a decade-and-a-half. The failure of the planning system was fast disillusioning the people causing an eruption of populist politics. The Emergency, the first Janata coalition and then its rejection were followed by the assassinations, culminating in a period that saw the first stirrings of change. In ’96, the Congress failed to see the results of reforms in an economy stagnating due to indecision. Says Bhaskar Vajpeyi, dean at IIML: "It was difficult for the Congress to attach itself from the heart to the reforms in the late ’90s. The results were still unknown. Since the BJP was the party of businessmen, so liberalisation, if not globalisation, was in their mind."

It is in this context that the words of Kalyan Singh, UP BJP chief and ex-CM, become pertinent".

"Our five years," he smirks, "have achieved much more than 45 years of Congress rule. Comprehensive development comes only after good governance and political stability. For the first time, incumbency is an asset, not a liability for the party. There is actually a pro-incumbency factor."

So, it’s only at the eleventh hour-some might say, too late-that the Congress has woken up to reclaim territory that could have been rightfully theirs. Says Bibek Debroy, director, RGF: "Economic development and governance should be the poll plank. But despite the hype, during the central elections and the last state polls, I do not think this has yet happened. But two trends are clear. One, the BJP has figured out that development is a better plank than mosques. Two, the Congress has reappropriated ownership of reforms."

Agrees Omkar Goswami of CERG Advisory, formerly CII’s chief economist: "After the general consensus that the Congress lost MP on the development count, this realisation was inevitable. And high time too." But it’s not working for the party in Gujarat because of lack of performance. For a major chunk of rural voters, development and feelgood are meaningless if they don’t mean adequate power and drinking/irrigation water.The BJP gains by mentioning its role in getting the Sardar Sarovar Project through, but the Congress has not been able to conjure up an effective reply beyond that they also fought for the dam.

Not only that, the BJP, as national media coordinator Prabhat Jha agrees, has taken almost of Congress’ slogans-swadeshi, khadi, namak at 25 paise, and more-and made them its own. It had an e-connect with the voter earlier too, says Chakravarty,: the emotion (of a dead Rajiv, Kargil or mandir) now replaced by the economy. The NDA’s greatest success was to make the largely ignorant electorate correlate its gains with one or the other reform initiative, to make him/her understand that some of the irrefutable factors in their lives are actually controllable by themselves, and often through economic levers.

Says Chaudhuri: "Eventually, the view that it’s better for the Congress to take credit for what is its legitimate due gained ground. Helped no doubt by the silence of the oracle. How did it happen? I guess because people were saying what the Congress feared to say. That the ’shining’ of today is real and began with the reforms that Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh gave this grateful nation."

Does this mean that good economics has finally driven out bad politics? The Indian polity is still too much in a state of flux to throw up a definite answer.And widespread poverty will still make sure that caste-based issues or topics that whip up passion will keep entertaining the electorate. Says Debroy: "When it comes to delivery after polls, populism will come back. As the MP experience shows, cows rather than humans will develop."

In Gujarat, even during deputy PM L.K. Advani’s Bharat uday yatra, the crowds thinned away as he held forth on development and the Congress’ failures. Bharatamma and Narasimhamma, in Possanapalli village near Sangareddy, say they’ve heard about Chandrababu Naidu but who is he? In summer, work is harder to find for these agriculture labourers, so they travel to town to get at least one meal a day. "Frankly, I don’t know these economic things myself. We talk generally about the good work done by the BJP and Vajpayee," says Shankar, the BJP’s Narsapur zilla parishad secretary in Andhra’s Medak district.

Pity the Congress, yes, but then who knew six years ago that a 79-year-old bachelor poet with a great sense of humour, bad knees and cherubic charm would have such great success in binding together Indian economics and nationhood?


By Paromita Shastri in Lucknow & Delhi with Suveen K. Sinha in Jaipur, Darshan Desai in Gandhinagar and Savitri Chowdhury in Medak.

in Outlook India, Monday, April 26, 2004.

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