The defeat of TRIUMPH
Do the election results say anything about the future of democracy, secularism and development in the country? The shocking truth is that trickle-down has no empirical foundation whatsoever
ASEEM SHRIVASTAVA DELHI
WHO WON THESE elections? It is easier to say who lost them. It is always easier to say that.
Because if one keeps one's gaze fastened, not on the goings-on in court politics, but views the results instead as indicative of the mood of the voting public, nobody has, in fact, ever won an Indian election - unless one interprets a vote based on hope as a positive verdict, something which has happened many times. Most voters never really trust any party, knowing all of them in advance to be corrupt to one degree or another. The question is whether someone also does a bit of work. It takes very little, as the Nitish phenomenon in Bihar indicates.
Every election in India is actually a vote for dal-roti. Even when people vote for a candidate of their caste or community, they do so in the anticipation that someone of their own biradari is more likely to come good for them on the essentials than someone from another group. "Stability" and "terrorism" are as far from the concerns of most voters, especially, in rural areas, as it's possible to imagine. Often our media mistakes middle class anxieties for being that of the people themselves. Since ordinary working people have little access to media, one rarely gets to find out directly that they are, above all, most concerned about rising prices, their livelihood and physical survival - whether or not the parties make an issue of it.
If we set aside the hype in the corporate media, even the Congress this time has been only tentatively endorsed (their voting percentages have risen only 2 per cent nationally since 2004, and is still under 30 per cent of the polled votes: in other words, only 130 million people voted for UPA, nationally). The result is grounded in reasonable hopes, based on their lukewarm successes - NREGS, somewhat better support prices for farmers, more mid-day meals for school children, loan waiver for the peasantry. These were well-timed in that they took effect during the past few years of their tenure. Rahul Gandhi's move to get NREGS extended to all the 600 districts of the country paid off. The RTI Act and the Forest Rights Act are significant pieces of legislation with potentially important consequences, but they have not been allowed to have the full intended effect so far. Time will tell how serious the Congress is about them.
The bar had been set so low by the fascist NDA government under Vajpayee that the UPA did not have to do very much to come back to office. The people of this country have got used to asking for all too little and receiving even less. The NREGS is not a revolutionary scheme. But, given how widely and routinely the poor have been marginalised in this country over the years, especially, since the economic reforms began, even Rs 50 or Rs 100 in a day counts for so much.
If they had implemented NREGS in 2004 itself, rather than in 2006, Congress would have possibly sailed back into office with a comfortable majority, possibly with over 300 seats. Congress is always the default party in the Indian political landscape. People are forced to settle for it when all else fails. It is a known devil after all. And, it is undergoing a minor revival with the arrival of the next generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family on the horizon.
While it would be perilous to believe that the Sangh Parivar is a thing of the past, it is safe to consign the official Left to the dustbin of Indian political history. The West Bengal assembly polls in 2011 will probably seal their fate. How did the CPM ever expect to be forgiven for their foolish treacheries in Singur and Nandigram, the sites where their masks fell off? It should be a scandal that they spent under a fifth of the allocated funds on NREGS in West Bengal, not to forget the short-shrifting of Muslims that is documented in the Sachar Committee report. It has shown itself, above all, to be a party obsessed with preserving its power. The people are mere vehicles for their flawed political vision.
To be sure, the Left played a key role at the Centre between 2004 and 2008 by slowing down the pace of corporate reforms. To take only the most obvious example, if capital account convertibility had been allowed (as has been recommended more than once by an important committee appointed by the RBI), India's external accounts would have been in tatters in the present recession. Even with plenty of policy-protection the rupee took a major beating when institutional funds were withdrawn so suddenly after the collapse of Lehmann Brothers in September 2008.
But it's one thing to serve a useful function as a foil or an opposition in Parliament, quite another to do the right thing when you sit atop the executive branch. Given the consistency with which Indian political parties take morally correct positions at the Centre and in the states, whenever they find themselves in the opposition, one could in fact make a serious case for all parties to be in opposition all the time. Keep them inches from power, but don't ever give it to them, if you want them to behave!
THE LONGER VIEW: How might we interpret the election results from a somewhat long-term perspective? Do they say anything about the future of democracy, secularism and development in the country?
Let us begin with the last topic. For starters, we may now take it as a given that our policy makers draw an "equal-to" sign between the terms growth and development, even though most text books in development economics make a clear distinction between them. Make-believe trickle-down illusions are at work here. The shocking truth is that trickle-down has no empirical foundation whatsoever.
Research done recently at Britain's New Economics Foundation (reported in the Scientific American) has unearthed a striking statistic. For every $100 added to the world economy during the 1980s, only around $2.20 made its way into the hands of those families who lived below the World Bank's absolute poverty line. During the 1990s, that share fell to a mere $0.60. In other words, to achieve a single dollar of poverty reduction in the 1990s took as much as $166 of extra global production and consumption! (One must rightfully ask who received the other $165.)
This, of course, had crushing environmental consequences (such as acceleration of climate change), most of which have had to be borne by those who contributed least to it: the poor.
The rich are easily deceived by their own numbers about the condition of the poor - because they themselves don't stand to lose from such misrepresentation. Plenty of data from India - on malnutrition, poverty, unemployment, loss of traditional livelihoods and displacement can be adduced - in support of the view that trickle-down growth under globalisation has not only failed India, it has actually meant a further impoverishment and disenfranchisement of the vast majority of our people.
It appears that the rich have been successful at enriching themselves rapidly under the pretext of reducing poverty. Moreover, thanks to the "second economic depression" underway in the world economy today, investment by the wealthy corporate classes has come to a virtual standstill now. (They have looked to impoverished rural India to provide the market during this recession!)
If the logic for greater inequality that so many economists are wont to provide is that it generates jobs by creating strong incentives for investment in the economy when financial resources are concentrated in the hands of entrepreneurs (who can save a greater proportion of their incomes), one has to ask today: "Where is that investment"? Why isn't it forthcoming despite the boundless wealth that has been transferred to the already affluent classes?
Even in better times, decent jobs are the last thing that one may expect from automating, capital-intensive industrialisation. Our elite spokesmen are quite simply wrong about their exaggerated hopes of employment from industry and things like SEZs.
DEMOCRACY'S POLICY ELITE: The truth is that the kind of growth that the media is so fond of celebrating has little to do with the fortunes of ordinary people in the country. In fact, given the massive displacement and loss of livelihoods (in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, among other areas) brought about in the countryside on account of the self-same growth, and the rising layoffs in the industrial and service economy during the ongoing recession, it should be clear that the sort of growth India has had during the past half-decade has no doubt made the rich far richer, but has actually worsened the condition of the people.
This is evidenced in such phenomenon as farmer suicides (roughly one every half an hour in the country for the past 12 years), suicides by diamond workers (two every week in Gujarat over the months since the onset of the recession), sharply rising unemployment in the small scale sector, as for instance, among weaving communities in places like eastern UP and Andhra Pradesh, peoples' movements against land acquisition, displacement and loss of livelihoods in virtually every part of the country, and massive forced migration from the countryside to the cities.
This is not to mention the growing water crisis in rural and urban India alike, and such things as the dramatic rise in the price of critical items like food, medicines, education and housing, thanks to privatisation, "free" trade and the withdrawal of public services. For rural India, jal, jungle, zameen matters much more than bijli, sadak, paani. Ecological concerns (wedded to basic livelihood), rather than the standard development promises, will matter more and more in the future.
If the Congress still finds itself in office, it is because their record of partial achievement, as recounted earlier, is still yards ahead of their predecessors. We live in a period of political exhaustion.
The more disturbing political fact is that the goal of the policy elites running the country's economy is to insulate it from the uncertainties of democratic politics, much like what has been achieved in the US over the decades. In this, they are beginning to succeed. In other words, the growth and "development" regime must remain stable, regardless of the vision and mandate of the elected representatives, or of the impact the policies are making on the bulk of the people. It does not matter to them that even globalisation is falling on its face during the ongoing global economic crisis, unprecedented in history.
We may note in passing that India will be having a prime minister who has never won an election in the country for the second time running. If the finance minister's post is also filled by an unelected official, both the PM and the FM will have the blessings of the IMF and the World Bank, and one may well ask whether we are not living with terrible illusions about our national sovereignty, especially, when we also put next to this the unprincipled geo-political alliance we have struck with the US since the days when Bush Jr. was in Washington. When some of the most powerful office-holders in the country are actually technically unaccountable to people, one is led to ask in whose interest the country is being run.
This is no paranoiac concern. India has become a project of global finance over the past few decades, as the bank-fund conditionalities have rolled out. The fall is being taken by the most vulnerable socio-economic groups in the country. And, so far there isn't a political force to represent them in the portals of power.
COMMUNAL CARD AND DEMOCRACY: What is the future of secularism in India? One thing the election results make clear is that communalism is not politically rewarding at this moment of history (for instance, Ashok Sahu, the BJP's candidate from Kandhamal, lost the election), though it is premature to disregard it altogether (Varun Gandhi won). People are simply fed up with red herring pseudo-issues like the Ayodhya temple.
It is also felt quite widely that the politics of hate is not the best way to tackle terrorism and the tension building up across the borders. If it was, BJP should have won convincingly at least in the cities, especially after the Mumbai terror attack. It did not. The Sangh Parivar has to face up to as serious a bankruptcy of vision as the official Left in the country.
And finally, what of democracy itself? Is it really as vibrant as it is painted to be?
Truly speaking, democracy is a lot more than just polling votes in elections - which is in many ways only the 'finish-line' of a democratic polity. There was astonishingly little debate on the main issues of concern before the polls. Everyone in the political parties, the media and the business elite assumed that "development" is beyond discussion. But is it?
Not even a token reckoning with hard facts was in evidence. Judging from the election "debates" one would never know that there is a serious recession in progress, that farmers and laid-off workers continue to kill themselves, that there is a massive water crisis virtually everywhere, that healthcare is now unaffordable for most people, that the nation's agriculture is under grave threat from the effects of climate change, that we are living at the edge of an ecological precipice, thanks to the predatory growth machine that has been in overdrive for several years.
It is a disturbing sign that the country's various elites are too insecure to discuss openly the key public issues in the country. It appears that the goodies of growth have bribed the powerful rich minorities into a cowardly silence on all that's important for ordinary people. The refusal to bear any obligation towards the working people of this country - who grow our food, clean our homes and streets, bring the coal and iron ore up from the mines, man the shops where we get our supplies - will cost us dear in the long run.
The PM is right when he points out that growing extremism is the greatest threat to "national security". But there is hardly any attempt at seeking the true causes of its success - because it would implicate state policies.
Never has money played a bigger part in an Indian election. As many as 300 members of the new Lok Sabha are reportedly crorepatis. Are such people in any position to debate and take decisions for the hundreds of millions who do not make even an iota of this wealth in their entire working lives of 50 years or more?
Yes, it's true that the Congress-led UPA won the election to the Lok Sabha. But, not every victory is a triumph.