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Hopes of progress in shambles

Struggling to come to terms with the NDA’s election debacle, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee complained, "I was beaten by a pawn". There is a lesson here for all those who ignore the endgame in politics: the pawn, in chess, can under certain circumstances, become the Queen, the most powerful player on the board. To be caught off guard by a pawn is, indeed, an unforgivable – and often fatal – lapse, and speaks either of bad play, or utter defencelessness. Given the enormous confidence of the BJP and its partners at that stage, ‘utter defencelessness’ cannot, now, be an appeal. Bad play, bad leadership and an enormous blind spot were certainly to blame, and the truth is, by the time the General Elections were announced, the then Government had already been forced into what, to take the chess analogy further, is referred to as zugzwang, a situation in which any move that a player makes can only weaken his position.

All Governments are, virtually from the moment of their installation, vulnerable to the zugzwang, to the extent that they lose contact with the realities of the ground. Most Indian governments in recent history have, in fact, been out of touch with these realities – and hence the general political lament over the ‘incumbency factor’.

There is regrettable and early evidence that the successor Government is susceptible to the same vulnerabilities. "It’s the economy, stupid!" has for some time now been the dominant catchphrase to explain various aspects of the national crisis, as of national successes, as well as of various electoral events. There is certain truth in the aphorism, but like all simple explanations, it does not exhaust the truth, and contains its own dangers. One such danger was exposed when the NDA was punished for focusing overwhelmingly on a small and no doubt dynamic part of the economy, to the enormous neglect of the greater whole, and for mistaking the Sensex to be an index, not only of economic, but of national well-being.

A second danger now looms large, as the entire political discourse becomes overwhelmingly wedded to the budget – this would be understandable and acceptable if it was just the natural focus that attends the presentation of a budget. The difficulty is that the focus tends to persist and dominates the policy and media discourse at all times. This, in some measure, repeats the predecessor regime’s error in an obsession with economics to the exclusion of all other policy. Economics often underlies, but cannot supplant politics; nor does economic policy exhaust the enterprise of governance.

Within the current context, a purely budgetary orientation tends to focus on allocations and expenditure, to the exclusion of implementation and quantifiable successes in altering the quality of life or securing targeted developmental ends. It ignores, moreover, the near complete collapse of the Government’s extension and administrative machinery in wide areas of many States; even as it ignores the refusal of most State Governments to accept economic discipline and accountability. Even today, State Governments from parties allied to the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), including some that preside over near bankruptcy, are committed to unsustainable and reckless populism – as in the commitment to provide free electricity to farmers – that have demonstrably failed, and are vigorously opposed by constituents of the Alliance, elsewhere.

The focus on the hitherto neglected rural sector – while it is to be appreciated in intent – also reflects the inadequacy of the budgetary paradigm. For one thing, the previous Government had, shortly before the elections, announced a programme of roads to connect all villages, which would have had significant and direct impact on the opportunities that could open up for isolated rural populations. This crucial programme of rural infrastructure development now appears to be quite dead. On the other hand, a very substantial allocation has been made for the revival and recharging of traditional rural water bodies and tanks – a classic example of a ‘paper project’ which will have little real impact. By and large, these monies will be wasted through enormous ‘leakages’ – civil and irrigation works are the most lucrative projects for the corrupt contractor-bureaucrat lobby – and little measurable impact on the quality of life and rural infrastructure. While individual initiatives in this direction have proven beneficial in some limited geographical areas, an allocation for this purpose should have been preceded by a serious technical evaluation of the possibilities of efficient implementation and the projected costs and benefits at a national scale. The success of a handful of micro projects is not sufficient grounds to design a model for national policy. Such projects certainly have little possibility of success in areas like Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Western UP, where experiments of this nature have been tried in the past.

Similarly, a well-intentioned two per cent Education Cess to support primary education has been imposed at a time when the education ministry is saying that it cannot ‘absorb’ – that is, effectively utilize – this volume of funding, and when many States are refusing or returning money for the building of primary schools. Again, without a radical transformation in the basic philosophy and paradigm of education, the productive utilisation of these funds will remain suspect.

Again, making liberal allocations for the Northeast and to States like Bihar, which have a minimal outreach infrastructure and highly inefficient, if not irresponsible, governance, is like throwing the money down the drain.

The unfortunate truth is, political failures will – as in the past – ambush the economy and lay it waste, unless a clear vision and process of reform is articulated and implemented. There is, today, no coherent thinking on any of the major issues of conflict in the country; the bureaucracy is bloated, wasteful, and often corrupt; the justice system is in tatters; the spheres of effective policing shrink by the day; and there is an increasing tendency to adapt to the stresses of insecurity, rather than to address the challenges of security and effective rule of law.

To these compounding crises can be added India’s tragic and abiding obsession with caste, communal, ethnic and linguistic schisms, and their continuous and unprincipled exploitation within the institutional processes of a modern democracy. Despite the very significant achievements reflected in the recent economic survey, the truth is that even a thriving economy cannot survive the sweep of lawlessness, and violence at the roots of our polity threatens the entire structure. With the movement of caste-sectarian vote bank leaders moving to the political centrestage at Delhi, the polarization of the political discourse – possibly led by the red herring of reservations in the private sector – appears more probable. If this is the trajectory our politics is to follow, all hopes of progress and the Indian dream of ‘Great Power’ status will fall into the dung heap of history.

(Published in The Pioneer, July 10, 2004)





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