Do voters really reward politicians for reforms and good governance? - The New Indian Express

Do voters really reward politicians for reforms and good governance?

Published: 24th November 2013 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 21st January 2014 01:11 PM

It is an old aphorism. Those who seek to govern must not wish/desire to be loved. In India’s democracy, it would seem those who do govern must not expect to be rewarded with votes.

In a couple of weeks, once the results of the five states Assembly polls roll out, living rooms will be subjected to a manufactured thesis—that voters rewarded reforms and good governance. The pop psychology defining the thesis of “bijli sadak paani” will be peddled across living rooms. The genesis of the theory is yet unclear, but this lazy thesis will be repeated per convenience by winners and theorists.

The truth is far and further from such a lazy conclusion. Look at the history of evidence. Let us look at the Centre first. Atal Bihari Vajpayee first came to power in 1998 and was re-elected in 1999. His regime boosted investment in power generation, restructured debt-ridden state electricity boards. It invested in road connectivity by investing in a national highways programme and introducing India to rural roads scheme idea. It also promoted and evangelised the idea of inter-linking rivers to address the water crisis. In effect it delivered big ideas in the bijli, sadak, paani genre of reforms.

It didn’t pay. Vajpayee’s regime was way ahead of the curve and also pushed fiscal consolidation, brought down interest rates, introduced a food security programme (35kg/month food grains at `2/3) for the poorest of the poor, pushed the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for improving enrolment in primary education, restructured banks, PSUs and promoted tele-connectivity. In 2004, his government was voted out —first by allies and then by voters.

Take Narasimha Rao. The latter-day Chanakya was anointed PM in 1991. His regime dismantled licence raj, pushed first generation reforms, introduced disinvestment, opened up trade, enabled the software revolution, boosted the nuclear and space programmes, restructured defence research, pulled India out of the ghetto of diplomacy, engaged with the powerful Big Five and engineered the look east policy. In 1996, the Rao dispensation (and the Congress) was voted out. Everything the polyglot articulated and acted upon was lost in translation. And the man who shepherded India out of its worst political and economic crisis was booted out.

It could be argued that Rao paid for corruption and the Congress for the demolition of Babri Masjid. While the Congress paid heavily losing over 110 seats, the BJP gained 40 seats. It is often argued that Vajpayee paid for the Gujarat riots of 2002. Interestingly though, Narendra Modi won the Assembly polls and both National Conference and TDP, who walked out of NDA, lost the polls.

Significantly, Modi who has built his reputation on governance and growth hasn’t exactly been rewarded. The tally of the BJP in Gujarat in 2012 was lower than the 127 in 2002 and in 2007. Where is the peace and growth dividend? This raises two questions: where are the pro-reforms voters when they are needed and why should politicians break ranks and push for change and disruption at all?

Indeed, the list of two and three-term chief ministers is a stark validation that voters scarcely vote for big change. Look at the Raghuram Rajan Report. Odisha and Bihar, in that order, are the least developed states. In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik has been CM since 2000, for over 5,000 days. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar has been in power since 2005 (and was preceded by Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi from 1990 to 2005). Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are third and fourth on the list of least developed states—both governments are in their second term. Assam with the fourth lowest per capita income has voted for the Congress and Tarun Gogoi thrice since 2001.

In stark contrast, states high on the prosperity race or development index see governments being frequently voted out. Look at Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, and Kerala where regimes have been voted in and out. Tamil Nadu hasn’t repeated a regime since 1988. Ditto with Kerala where the Left and the Congress have been voted out term after term. Look at Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati definitely had the law and order situation in control and had some bright ideas—like the Ganga Expressway. Historically, leaders who pushed for change have always found themselves short-changed by voters! From Ramakrishna Hegde who decentralised in Karnataka to A K Antony who reined in recalcitrant state government employees in Kerala, chief ministers have paid the price for good governance.

It isn’t just about wholesale backwardness. The Standing Committee of Parliament which looked at the implementation of MGNREGS reveals that as against the promise of 100 days, the scheme could deliver an average of only 44 days per year across seven years. States like Bihar and West Bengal with substantial joblessness are among the worst performers (averaging between 14 and 38 days per year). Worse in a country of poor people, the poorest states—Bihar, UP, MP, Rajasthan—fail to utilise allocations.

Yes, there are legacy issues, aggravating factors. Backwardness is not just about history or geography. It is also about economics and the politics of governance. Voters don’t seem to punish poor performers enough.

Perhaps it is about choice. Perhaps it is about the choices voters make. As Franklin D Roosevelt once said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely.” 

(Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change. He can be reached at shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com)

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