Elections 2009: A clear but flawed verdict
by Virendra Parekh on 19 May 2009 6 Comments

There are certain aspects of the mandate which are deeply worrying and reflect poorly on the quality of Indian democracy. They show India’s political process and its much acclaimed voter in an unedifying light.

It was totally unexpected. Not only the losers, but even the winners were surprised by the outcome of the general elections. Falsifying dire prognoses of a fragmented verdict leading to political instability with worrying implications for the country’s economy and security, people have given a clear verdict for continuity of pro-reform economic policies under a relatively stable government not vulnerable to Leftist blackmail.

The first message of the verdict is that blackmailers have been booted out. The plethora of regional parties, myriad independent candidates, and rebels, who were dreaming of making it big by auctioning their support to the highest bidder in the post-poll scenario, have been sent packing. Results have made a bonfire of their vain ambitions and dirty dreams. This applies, among others, to the Leftist parties which had enjoyed power without responsibility for long years and were looking forward to enjoying another similar stint. The decimation of the Left is the best part of the people’s verdict.

There were too many aspirants for the prime minister’s job, most of them hoping to emerge as consensus candidate by leveraging the support of their small group. Most made no secret of their ambition. It is entirely possible that the unedifying spectacle of pigmies vying for the top job with scant regard for national interest caused revulsion among the people who showed them their place.

Another message is that performers will be rewarded irrespective of party affiliations. Sheila Dixit in Delhi managed to dodge the once-dreaded anti-incumbency factor once again. Nitish Kumar emerged tallest in Bihar on the strength of the new hope he has given to the people of that hapless state. Navin Patanik’s gamble of going it alone in Orissa paid off handsomely as his work and clean image did the talking for him. Yediyurappa’s Karnataka sent the largest number of BJP MPs to the Lok Sabha. Narendra Modi in Gujarat and Shivraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh gave a good account of themselves, though more was expected from both.

The third message follows from the above: people want a better life and expect the government to help them attain it. They have no patience with politics of caste or religion or outdated ideologies whose leitmotif was the fomenting of dissent and social divisions. In this, the Indian electorate —largest in the world— is showing signs of commendable maturity.

Much to worry about

But certain other aspects of the mandate are deeply worrying and reflect poorly on the quality of Indian democracy. They show India’s political process and its much acclaimed voter in an unflattering light. 

Thus, Congress can logically argue that corruption is no longer an issue, that subverting investigative agencies and misleading courts to favour your friends (or blackmailers) is OK. Islamic terrorism may be a burning issue all over the civilized world. But not in the Indian elections. America remembers 9/11 after nine years. We have managed to forget 26/11 in less than six months. What a mature, peace-loving people we are!

And people do not mind dynastic rule. Only in a flawed democracy like India can dynastic rule be promoted in the name of youth power. No one even looks at young performers in non-Congress parties who have come up on their own without the benefit of pedigree. It is Rahul baba and his dynastic brigade all the way!

The Indo-US nuclear deal was a great sellout of the country’s strategic and economic interests. It was carried out with an amazing mix of stealth, brazenness and venality. Sadly, something as perfidious as that deal scarcely found any mention in the election debate.

Anyone raising these issues would now be promptly dismissed as a rabble-rouser and hate-monger. We can be sure that Afzal Guru will not be hanged till this government is in power and Kasab may be made into a pitiable victim deserving the sympathy of human rights organizations.

Nationalism is fast becoming a dirty word, a code word for boring rantings on distant unimportant matters. In this ethos, if you are worried about threats to Indian civilisation (proliferation of madrassa-s, conversions through force, fraud and allurement, for example), you must belong to the lunatic fringe that hallucinates non-existent apparitions. 

Democratic process is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Democracy exists for the nation, nation does not exist as a playground for democracy. If a political process obliterates issues like corruption, national security, republicanism (as opposed to dynastic rule) from public debate, it bodes ill for the future. It can be argued that people will wake up if and when serious trouble arises, but by then it may be too late.            

Soaring expectations

With the Congress party winning about 200 seats on its own and the pre-poll UPA coming close to 260, hopes that the new government will be both stable and govern effectively have soared. Reflecting this, the stock market opened about 1300 points higher on Monday, soon touched the 14,000 mark and trading had to be suspended for the day.

Going forward, what can we expect? The immediate agenda will be dominated by economic issues. Here the first priority will be to formulate a full budget. Dr. Manmohan Singh’s budget in 1991 contained a powerful agenda of economic liberalization and changed the whole tone and tenor of economic policy. The forthcoming budget for 2009-10 could be similarly converted into a strong statement of the government’s policy and resolve on economic issues.

With this objective in mind, the budget may contain a resolve to contain the Central government’s deficit to 5.5 percent of the GDP in the current year. It may unveil a plan to introduce the much-awaited Goods and Service Tax (GST). The budget may also contain the end of administered price regime for petroleum products and market-related pricing for petrol, diesel, kerosene and cooking gas, probably with some well-targetted subsidy for the last two. 

Economic reforms, long stalled by an intransigent Left, would get a boost. Disinvestment of minority stakes in public sector enterprises can be expected straight away. We may expect another stimulus package to revive domestic demand, though its size and structure cannot be foreseen now. Exporters could expect additional sops. There will be renewed attempts to attract foreign capital, both portfolio and direct investment. We may see an increase in the FDI ceiling in insurance from 26 percent to 49 percent and in aviation from 40 percent to 49 percent. There is a possibility that 100 percent FDI may be permitted in multi-brand retail.

Another area where we can expect some action is the quick clearance of finance-ready public-private infrastructure projects. The current mess about road building contracts and bidding will take time to sort out. Meanwhile, the government could green signal to a project like the Mumbai-Delhi freight corridor to cheer up infrastructure investors. Finally, a great deal of legislation involving vital economic issues has been pending. Its passage could be expedited to the considerable benefit of the economy.

Infrastructure and social transformation

However, it has been shown time and again that economic reforms alone cannot get a government re-elected. For economic reforms to be meaningful they must make a perceptible difference to the lives of ordinary people. This is possible only when economic liberalization is accompanied by creation of physical infrastructure and a thorough overhaul of educational, judicial and police systems.

A state government that promises and delivers drinking water, all-weather road, electricity, school up to secondary level and a functioning dispensary in every village could be assured of strong grass root support.

But much more needs to be done to bring about a social transformation that can change the lives of the people for better on a lasting basis. Thus, we have today a vast network of government-run schools in rural areas, useless owing to unaccountability of teachers. Lack of basic apparatus and teacher absenteeism means that most children cannot write simple sentences or solve simple sums after six years of schooling. Teacher accountability can be improved by devolving power to panchayats, which should be empowered to discipline errant teachers.

It was sad that rising crime graph, jihadi terrorism, Maoist depredations in interior areas and a sense of resigned helplessness never became issues in the recent elections. It is not that people have no worries on security of their lives and property, but no party—BJP, Congress or their allies—has any credible record to blame others. The weaknesses involved are systemic and partisan politics cannot address them. 

Judicial reforms overdue

India needs a massive expansion of police, judges and jails. We need laws like POTA to tackle crimes which are inspired by religious ideologies with political objectives and target random sections of society to create terror, rather than by individual greed or personal enmity. We also need to overhaul judicial procedures to ensure that criminals do not misuse it to dodge justice endlessly.

Above, we need a police force that investigates crimes and prosecutes criminals without fear or favour. This is not possible today because the police force is hopelessly politicized, from top to bottom. Just remember CBI’s flip-flops on Bofors, Mayawati and Mulayam Singh.

We need an independent Public Prosecutor aided by an investigative agency answerable to the court. The public prosecutor should be as independent as the Election Commission, which could ensure that criminal investigation and prosecution is objective and not captured by any political lobby.

This may sound self-evident, but the educational, judicial and administrative reforms outlined here may be of no interest to our political parties. They are used to a politics of patronage wherein they can dispense favours in return for hard cash and political support. Anything which reduces people’s dependence on politicians and political parties would be regarded as a losing proposition by them.

In the immediate context, however, we may say that by giving the Congress a clear mandate to govern effectively, people have denied it any room for alibis or excuses for failure. It must deliver.

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