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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 45, November 1, 2014

Odds after the Maharashtra, Haryana elections: Turning Towards Inclusive Well-being

Sunday 2 November 2014, by Uttam Sen

On the face of it, the BJP’s ascendancy in Maha-rashtra and Haryana mirrors an extraordinarily unipolar political fabric. The condition has to be viewed in the background both of the political and economic uncertainty which preceded the installation of the government at the Centre, and the undoubtedly decisive image Narendra Modi subsequently presented. The government’s credibility has been subsequently enhanced by a drop in global crude prices which has automatically kept food inflation in check.

There are several other ways of interpreting the situation, including as a leaf out of the Congress’ book at its most robust when its overarching umbrella speciously screened unity in diversity under self-sustaining regional satraps. The process of folding up contrarily began with Central organisational patronage assuming the nature of the proverbial banyan tree whose shade prevents the growth of lesser plants. There are other determinants like the first-past-the-post system of deciding electoral winners and the tactical concentration of political faithful in winnable constituencies that qualify electoral dominance.

Neither the sudden soaring nor the plummeting of political fortunes, or their serial reversals, is consequently unfamiliar to us. Over and above, the long-term interests and outlooks of Non-Resident Indians, Indian corporates and the feudal order (reportedly “under recons-truction” in Gujarat) are not identical. Their harnessing together has undoubtedly been a major achievement. But deep pockets and the animal spirits unleashed by the prospects of national power would have forged bonds just as much as created astonishing efficiency. Some unencumbered quarters have seen the light in Modi’s social engineering. They hope that at least two other vital social components, a particular community and the poor, can be drawn into his future alchemy. (They appeared to jell at the pinnacle of Congress rule!) Be that as it may, in the present scheme of things the moot question is: how long will they remain compatible?

With what degree of discretion the BJP-ruled or headed States will function is not yet certain either. The BJP admittedly has an eye on a Rajya Sabha majority, but Modi had reiterated his faith in the constitutional imperative of federal power-sharing, soon after assuming office. As in the Congress’ hey-day, in Modi the party has a larger-than-life supremo. Yet that is where the crux lies.

There is some irony in every foregoing point being as interrelated as double-edged. The drop in crude prices also signals an approaching recession. India will not escape the inverse rigours of an ensuing drop in global trade and national GDPs. It will be up to what the Centre and States can do both separately and in unison regardless of political affiliation.

As in some foreign policy initiatives, where for the moment, the BJP Government appears to have mostly bettered rather than departed from tradition, service to the poor is maintained as a pivotal principle in its overall “dharmic” attitude. It maintains the pro-business, pro-globalisation stance, but finds no dichotomy between wealth creation and entitlements for the poor. The point of departure is with “empty” theoretical entitlements: the BJP’s vision is that creation of jobs, enhancement of human capital, skills and so on are more to the point. There will be no cavil if this materialises in the successful delivery of food, housing, education, health and basic infrastructure to the periphery in the suburbs, small towns and villages, though it begs the question which came first, the chicken or the egg. Even short of that, it is common knowledge that when it is not outright poverty, the countryside is hopelessly unmanned in administration and services. If they are remedied it will mark a major step forward. Widening the organised sector will lead to the realisation of revenue for administration.

As it is, a spontaneous institutional process has resulted in investigation and likely arraignment of the culpable tribe of crony capitalists. The message itself is loaded. It should reduce the hidden commitments thwarting rational utili-sation and distribution of natural resources. Deserving medium and small businesses should be able to come into the picture and widen the area of operations and reach many more people than earlier. Neglected regions will also gain, when they are the points of origin of natural resources as, for instance, the East, in revenues from coal blocks. On gas pricing, clarity has not been acquired across the board and the jury is still out on an honest price. But it bears remem-bering that the US’ wholehearted commitment to shale oil discovery and production promises to make it totally energy sufficient.

The Executive (Government) or the “Agent” of the “Principal”, the people, would have to make very sure that it is doing the right thing; the narrative of a premier watchdog agency like the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General provides the assurance that the appropriate institutional and professional machinery to ensure fallback equitability and justice is in place. Another important measure, namely, rationalisation of diesel prices, could well have the overall effect of benefiting the economy and the poor rather than the “creamy layer” which gained most from a subsidy that was not meant for it.

To be sure there is a certain disbelief in the minds of people to whom the alteration of government at the Centre and more in the states is like an extended interregnum. Voting patterns do not always suggest as big a transformation in their preferences as the outcomes would indicate. But more importantly, there is no reason for excessive anxiety if institutional rectitude is maintained. Its perceived violation was certainly of the essence in the exit of the last Executive.

Yet, the Congress is down but not out and there are regional parties which show potential in the face of unitary trends. Admittedly, the BJP’s well-thought-out election strategy has been executed with matching efficiency. But by its very nature it has underlined counter-preferences. The Congress and Left political cognoscenti have been so acutely attentive to constitutional detail and its spirit that their avowed support to small agriculture, labour, regulated business and pluralism gave everybody a chance. Latter-day attributes like the primacy of the market and its accompani-ments are not the defining elements because they have been present for some time. But the BJP’s ability to plug the loopholes has enabled it to make inroads, for example, when the streetwise seized the moment in political authority and apparently nothing was happening for the poor and the vulnerable, it promised immediate universal welfare as an ingredient of the demographic dividend. The country is scheduled to move from agriculture to industry. But these are not the circumstances in their totality. Beyond political and economic stability, the modus operandi of the socio-economic makeover, the need for which is accepted by both sides, is in question and will have to be settled by end-results.

On a very objective basis, the BJP will have to demonstrate its viability not only in a resourceful State like Gujarat but all over the country, or quietly heed a time-tested system of ideas. It could be reaping the whirlwind if and when the public mood begins to cave in to dormant pressure and lose ground to those who are alive to the perils. The space given to an honest politician like Prithviraj Chavan in Maharashtra or the relatively free rein to Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, as affirmation of personal integrity and the ability to conduct clean and efficient governance on their own terms respectively, could be pointers to a revival in the party most articulate about them.

India’s grand old party could not quite live up to set pieces on the interaction of social and economic factors that were also meant to holistically accommodate various groups and temper geo-political sticking points. On the other hand, Narendra Modi’s boldness in taking out disagreeable by-products from the larger synthesis, like votebank politics or a seemingly torpid formula on Pakistan, the latter in particular, will have to stand the test of time. He is no wishful thinker, but assuming knowledge of the past and secure in his hour of triumph, he could occasionally resort to bipartisanship and keep others in the loop in a polity which is diverse at the best of times.

If some of his foreign policy darings were to be transposed to the domestic realm, a compre-hensively enabling exercise like the MGNREGA could be made to look less like a red rag to its detractors. The warp and woof of subcontinental structures is intricate, and the knowledgeable tell us that it is sometimes inextricably entwined even between its nation-states. The threads that run across the tapestry can be adjusted by insiders even if it perplexes us among the laity. The benefit of informed opinion and seasoned understanding across parties could be exploited in the national interest to find a way out of the current stand-off with Pakistan, even if it entails considerable separation of wheat from the chaff. Modi’s stature has grown because of his manifest display of pragmatism transcending political constraints. Constructive interplay on the communal question, if and when it genuinely arises, should complete the cycle of abundant caution, not to mention the successful application of well-taken principle!

Harmony despite countervailing movements is vital. The world as a whole is in search of meaningful synchronisation, despite red herrings, and India’s contribution by putting its house in order could be considerable. Ethno-religious strife and governance driven by unmodified markets are increasingly perceived to be correlated. Abruptness rather than change per se is the problem. A touch of continuity is important also because it represents systems of entitlement and exchange that cannot be easily translated into the modern nexus, but are cost-effectively durable if nurtured! There are advocates of their inventive, if qualified, retention in the most enlightened circles (that is, when the accent is on reasonable temporal practice rather than obscurantism). Even a common market fulcrum would have to radiate spokes that are dissimilar, and is probably the case today. We have in addition had a taste of the admixture in successful politics.

We could one day adjust to a structure in which the value of creative and effective leadership and authority is recognised on its own at the Centre alongside co-existence of economic and political heterogeneity in the states. A sedulously nurtured national market and political identity could subsist with the variations that are to be found among them.

The absorbing feature just now is whether the ruling dispensation will give due regard to praxis and some of its inevitable consequences. The son of the soil would be sufficiently grounded to retain the standards (values) that have informed us, with necessary innovations.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.