Contest of ideas or contest of context: Where are the solutions? - The New Indian Express

Contest of ideas or contest of context: Where are the solutions?

Published: 17th November 2013 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 21st January 2014 01:11 PM

The single biggest problem in communication, George Bernard Shaw once said, is the illusion that it has taken place.  You could say that about the ongoing poll campaign across five states. Election campaigns are meant to be a contest of ideas, solutions. In the five state polls, it is less about the issues affecting the electors and more about personal afflictions. The campaign is less a contest of ideas and more a contest of the context of contenders.

To get a perspective, consider the landscape of the states going for polls. A total of 114 million voters are expected to elect governments in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. These states represent a microcosm of the political economy and the issues affecting it—from the disruptive distortion of development in the Northeast to the inequality of opportunities and outcomes. Of the five states, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have always been mentioned in ‘Bimaru States’ debates. The three states are also on the freshly minted list of “least developed states” in the Raghuram Rajan Committee Report.

Consider the issues. Last week, India was informed that consumer price inflation was 10 per cent and food price inflation was 18 per cent. In 12 of past 18 months, food price inflation has been over 10 per cent and has been averaging 18-plus per cent for the past three months. And this is best represented in the rise in the prices of onions, tomato and milk. The BJP has been rightly and justifiably critical of the UPA on inflation. Does it have an alternate model? We don’t know. Does Congress have any ideas other than buying it expensive and selling it cheap? We don’t know. Food price inflation is really about general inflation, but more importantly it is about supply side management. State governments can play a part. You can invest in production, yield, distribution and processing. Or you can, like Mamata Banerjee, ban movement of, say, potatoes from producing states to other states. It is an area for state governments to show off. It was an opportunity for the Congress and BJP to woo voters with new ideas. Neither did so.

Delhi—with a high per capita and an urbanised electorate—faces a unique challenge of identity. It is called a state, but is essentially a principality with negligible powers. Many of the problems it faces are aggravated by the Indian construct of a multiplicity of agencies. Sheila Dikshit referred to it in the passing, but the BJP is yet to call for details or challenge it or indeed ask why it hasn’t been done for 15 years. Delhi represents—for the Congress and BJP—an opportunity to test the mood of an outraged urban middle class and float ideas for the future. Instead, the two national parties are riveted in a contest of vacuous rhetoric along with the newly formed AAP.

Chhattisgarh, similarly, afforded an arena for the two national parties to pitch their thoughts and ideas on issues of personal and income security. Leader after leader from the Congress has criticised the approach of the Raman Singh-ruled regime in tackling the Maoist threat. Certainly the attack on the Congress leadership reflects the audacity of Maoists. But it is a bit rich for the Congress to claim the higher moral ground. There is little clarity at the Centre—and within the party—on how to tackle Maoism despite Manmohan Singh describing it as the single biggest internal security threat. The BJP, similarly, has been critical of the Congress’ approach on Maoism and on terror. But there is no sign of competing models to choose from.

Take the issue of entitlements. Typically there is little to choose from both the Congress and BJP when it comes to crony socialism. Through the debate in Parliament on the Congress-sponsored Food Security Act, member after member from the BJP espoused the Chhattisgarh model as the best. The BJP could have argued and proved its case on the ground with the state as a case study and the Congress could have debated why the FSB is better than the universal model of Chhattisgarh. Instead, the debate was debased with campaign of calumny marked by personal references and uncharitable inferences.

You would expect that in the run-up to the hyper-competitive 2014 polls, the national political parties would test market ideas, solutions, programmes and branding. Indeed, in each of the five states going to polls, the two national parties are in direct contest without being distracted by the third and fourth or fifth front parties. This was an opportune moment for poll strategists—both in the BJP and Congress—to come out blazing with ideas. The debate could have been about NaMo Model versus RaGa Model. Neither was visible. The discourse should have been about agendas, about the devolution of power and the DNA of the approach to development. Instead, the debate has been largely about the DNA of politicians.

Partisan politics is by definition about arguments. But all arguments must conceive solutions. Or else it is just theatre. This demands statesmanship. That precious quality called statesmanship is conspicuous by its absence in India’s political landscape. It is often said, half in jest, that a statesman is essentially a dead politician. India’s politics desperately needs statesmen, but is sadly inundated with mere politicians.

Shankkar Aiyar is the author of  Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change

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