Thursday, April 2, 2009

A 'Minimum Programme' for all parties?

Defining the CMP 'necessities' that any government must provide could clean up elections

Shyam Ponappa / New Delhi April 2, 2009

Yearning for better politics and governance, we sometimes see reports of positive developments. Are they for real, or is it all chimerical? Recent improvements cited include:

  • Voters being savvy enough to demand not only basic necessities (roti, kapda, makaan) but also the infrastructure required for sustainability (bijli, sadak, paani).
  • The fading away of topical issues like cricket, prices, the Indo-US nuclear agreement.
  • The re-election of incumbents attributed to good governance: Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit, Orissa CM Naveen Patnaik and, somewhat more controversially despite the endorsement by India Inc, Gujarat CM Narendra Modi.
  • Citizens’ groups striving for ethics in the political process. More calls against corruption and criminality in politics, more professionals entering politics, eg, ABN AMRO’s Country Head for India, in Mumbai. But she and another professional, a doctor sponsored by a citizens’-group-turned-political-party (the Professionals Party of India), will probably split the vote, improving the odds for the Congress.

But what else do we see? A tide of populism that threatens to engulf everything. ‘Rice politics’ is a convenient tag for these strategies, although their reach extends to food grains, saris, housing, TV sets, mobile phones, computers, cash, liquor… This practice began in 1967 in Tamil Nadu, when the DMK swept to power on the promise of cheap rice (and opposition to Hindi). This was followed in Andhra Pradesh by the TDP in 1983 and 1994. The Congress tried to counter the TDP’s blandishments in Andhra Pradesh on both occasions, to no avail. Then came the successes in the mid-1990s by the Janata Dal in Karnataka, the late Biju Patnaik in Orissa, and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. More recently, the BJP was successful in Karnataka, MP and Chattisgarh. The DMK added TV sets to ‘roti-kapda-makaan’ in 2006. Now, the Congress and BJP are trying to outdo each other with electioneering sops.

Meanwhile in Andhra Pradesh, the TDP offers TV and cable, cash transfers and health insurance, to the Congress’s subsidised rice. The irony is that the TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu lost the last election after repudiating such populism and championing reforms, while the Congress won with the promise of free electricity. The Congress manifesto promises expanding the NREGS, taking broadband to the villages and extending reservations to the private sector, while the BJP offers computers with Internet connections...

Many excellent initiatives — food for people who need the support, broadband, TV — are reduced to manipulative blandishments for winning elections. Can this venality be stopped?

Responsible governance: Can a leaf from Russia and China…

It is instructive to see how Russia and China are dealing with entrenched problems of governance under economic pressure.

In November 2008, when Russia’s economy was heading into a contraction phase with a burgeoning deficit, PM Vladimir Putin and his team led by Deputy PM Igor Shuvalov and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin took drastic steps. Facing up to a contracting economy, they drew up a realistic budget, with limited subsidies. The result: a dramatic rise in the stock market (50 per cent in two months), and in the value of its currency.*

China, too, shows signs of riding out the economic storm with all that sound planning can muster, aided by a trade surplus. This is despite the pressures of collapsed exports resulting in huge numbers of displaced migrant workers. China’s handling of civil liberties may have few admirers, but there’s no denying how well it capitalised on the low inflation of the last several years to build up its infrastructure. It is expanding its international investments not just in commodities but in enterprises, taking advantage of depressed prices, while realigning its economy to create more of a domestic market. As Martin Feldstein of Harvard said, it looks like China will get its act together sooner than others.

…bring a touch of realism to India?

If we could get realistic about what we might hope for, what should we do?

The first requirement is the rule of law. This is a tough one: the simple and impartial upholding of the law, whether regarding women in pubs or in secular company, or inflammatory, communal activity (bigotry, whether based on gender, religion, caste, region) in electioneering or social discourse, and brigandage. If this change could be brought about after decades of laxity, it would provide the basis for much else. Without it, other major changes are unlikely.

Second, any government should have to provide necessities to citizens who are economically deprived, with responsible budgets. In effect, a Common Minimum Programme all governments must accept. However, without fiscal responsibility, this cure would be worse than the disease. Simultaneously, these items should be proscribed from electioneering, enforced by the Election Commission, the courts, and those responsible for law and order including the police.

Defining and prioritising ‘necessities’

What are ‘necessities’? There is likely to be agreement on food and certain essentials, but we need an effective distribution system as well. The Justice D P Wadhwa Committee appointed by the Supreme Court reportedly recommended last week scrapping the PDS, and instituting a computerised, ID-linked distribution system. Executed competently as an end-to-end system, this would result in greater end-user benefits at much lower cost.

Starting with that, the need is for agreement on what else to include in subsidised programmes as a ‘common denominator’, and thereby on a proscribed list as gratification for votes (leading — oh happy day — to the debarring for 5-10 years of candidates violating it?). Surely, no one could sensibly argue against upholding law and order, or having a responsible, graduated subsidy system for those who are economically deprived. In this way, the manipulative use of subsidised rice/wheat can be stopped. The question is what else could be on this list and thereby excluded from electioneering. Financial responsibility imputes a cap: could items like TV sets, computers and Internet access be included? And in what priority, against other possible items?

We still lack the leadership to initiate these changes. Could concerned/outraged citizens act collectively to demand the enforcement of these principles in electioneering — all the activists and advocacy groups against corruption, for the RTI, for responsible government?

* ‘Pleasant Surprise From Russia’:

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