Governments ain’t workin’, Sops are the way to do it Money for nothin’ and the Votes for free Apologies to Dire Straits fans, Mark Knopfler and Sting The campaign in the polls for five states, the so-called semi-finals, reflects a dark spectre—the bankruptcy of politics. No, this is not about the quality of the campaign—that simply represents the stunting of reason and the rise of demagoguery. What is worse is that the political class has normalised cynicism, delinked the obligation to resolve/transform from the appeal for votes and mandate to rule.
There is high-decibel outrage about the deficiencies of governance, the genesis of persistence and the genealogy of political responsibility and a deafening silence on solutions. The stark reality is that every party is insuring its electoral fortunes by parading sops as the solution for every failure.
In the seminal tome, The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich August von Hayek wrote: “Our freedom of choice in a competitive society rests on the fact that, if one person refuses to satisfy our wishes, we can turn to another.” What does the voter do when the choice is between bad, worse, and ugly? Choice is rendered Hobsonian, is stranded between political oligarchies peddling taxpayer-funded patronage instead of presenting competitive alternative solutions.
Sop politics or band-aid economics is visible across sectors. For instance, this week, hundreds of farmers left their fields to converge in Delhi to demand relief and a better deal for them and their families. The truth is agriculture employs the largest share of the workforce. Nearly 60 per cent of Indians are dependent on the agri economy and live on less than 15 per cent of the national income.
Agriculture is like any other business and requires forward and backward linkages. Farming needs affordable finance and reliable inputs, that is seeds, fertilisers, water or power. Farming also needs access to markets to recover costs and earn an income, but the largest private-sector enterprise in the economy is shackled. What is produced depends on geography and what they can sell to whom at what price depends on the politics of economic policies.
The market for onions, sugar and pulses symbolises the state of affairs—when the prices rise, export is banned and import allowed, and when prices fall the farmer is failed by poor storage and an imperfect procurement system exploited by middlemen. The sector needs a recast in terms of trade.
What is the solution proffered by the political class? Higher procurement prices cadged by middlemen, and episodic loan waivers. The political class is also enamoured by the income support scheme of the Telangana kind where twice every year, farmers are paid a certain amount. M S Swaminathan, one of the pioneers of the green revolution, put it succinctly. ”It is sad that farmers who are life-givers are forced to take their own life. Instead of short-term measures like loan write-off, it is high time to look at economic well-being of farmers and measure our agricultural progress by their net income per hectare.”
Consider the employment issue. The toolbox ranges from inducting new castes in job quotas to pushing for quotas in the private sector. The promise of shifting the workforce from farm to factories has run out the calendar. Job creation is hampered by public policy. Every factor of production—land, labour, capital and technology—is corralled by archaic conditions that deter rather than drive employment. Electoral economics dictated the creation of the rural employment guarantee act—the allocation for this year is Rs 55,000 crore. The draft for a new approach to labour laws is said to be ready but is yet to be adopted.
The issue of hunger is about lack of skills and tools that can be leveraged to access income opportunities. Parties are alive to the need for education, particularly of the girl child, but scant attention is paid to the condition of schools without water/electricity, missing teachers and the quality of education, or the need to redesign education programmes. Health care demands investment in primary health and preventive measures—like reducing pollution, improving sanitation and availability of water. State governments prefer status quo and keep posts vacant as parties believe health insurance is the answer.
The history of political economies reveals that there is only so much that sops can achieve in the absence of a road map of solutions. As the cliché goes, there is no such thing as a temporary government scheme. Spend on subsidies has gone up from Rs 1.29 lakh crore to Rs 2.29 lakh crore, gross borrowings have shot up from Rs 2.33 lakh crore to Rs 6 lakh crore, interest paid on borrowings has shot up from Rs 1.92 lakh crore to Rs 5.30 lakh crore in the last ten years.
Politics may be about the survival of the fittest, but democracy demands that political parties design programmes for the revival of the weakest. So the argument is not against entitlement but for empowerment.
The dependence on sops as solution is a stark reflection of the insolvency of politics. The trend suggests the central theme in 2019, as in the 2018 election season, will be more about the competing magnitude of sops and less a contest of competing ideas. You could say the parade of sops is an invitation to political serfdom.
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India