Where’s our Bobby?

India’s politicians debate market but not government. This is especially costly now

Written by Saubhik Chakrabarti | Published:February 27, 2009 2:25 am

As America begins paying serious national attention to another bright young politician from an ethnic minority,the country where his parents were born will watch keenly. What should we watch out for? Stories about Bobby’s politics,not his parents.

There’s an element of “their ethnic boy Barack versus our ethnic boy Bobby” in the Republican strategy. But the real strategy is that for Republicans Jindal looks,as of now,the smartest spokesperson to articulate a fundamental Republican idea — suspicion of big government and suspicion of government as the primary agent of economic revival.

Jindal’s nationally televised speech in America targeted Barack Obama’s rhetorical riffs on “hope”. We (Republicans) find hope in individuals and the president finds hope in government,Jindal said. Now,the Barack versus Bobby worldviews on government can be debated.

Indeed,with or without Wall Street-engendered crises,debates over government have in some ways always been at the heart of American politics. So,even as Washington furiously spends borrowed money to engineer an economic revival,American national politicians are in an intense argument about the effectiveness and form of government. Indian politicians are not,even though government role in economic revival is a critical issue here as well.

This needs to be understood and highlighted. If national politics won’t debate the effectiveness and form of government when the level of government deficit is considered both dangerous and necessary,then India could wander into

another economic shock. The stakes are higher for India now,so the costs will be bigger.

This should be one of the two big economic issues — the other being reviving private sector investment — for those hoping to keep and wrest power in the coming general elections. How much and how should the government spend should be creating bitter political debates between,say,the Congress and the BJP.

Why aren’t we hearing debates like this?

Back of the envelope political-economic history shows that pre-reforms,Indian politics was so dominated by the idea of government that most debates happened at the apolitical margin. Post-reforms,the market gained traction as an idea. Almost 20 years later,Indian politics,at national and state levels,has accepted market as an idea and debates it.

At the national level,those debates about how to position party politics against market determine,for example,the Congress’s coyness on private sector-led economic growth. A Congress-led government can quickly jump in to rescue privately run Satyam amidst crashing capital markets but can’t sell 10 per cent of public sector BHEL in a booming stock market. That also is a reflection of national political debates on market.

This debate is good. It has served India well by allowing many cracks to appear on a 45-year-old political-economic edifice that symbolised the prejudice against economic individualism. There could and should have been more cracks by now (the Congress could have been less coy,the BJP,less confused). But there’s been progress.

Contrast that with post-reforms national political approach to

government.

The government has changed economic rules of the game in quite a few cases. But these were technical (and positive,of course) policy changes. They didn’t involve a real political debate about the effectiveness and the form of the government as a deliverer.

The wonderful right to information law has changed one aspect of government-citizen interface. But that’s a small part of the big gorilla called government. There has been no national political debate about the bureaucracy as a policy agent. Or about the social welfare bang for every government buck spent. (One off,quickly forgotten speeches on these subjects by current and former PMs don’t count as political debate).

Only 15 paise of every rupee spent in public health schemes buys medicines. The rest is establishment cost. This is politically potent in a country where the poor increasingly have to spend on private health care. There’s plenty of apolitical discussion on concerns like this. But national politicians won’t

debate government.

Why? And is it somewhat different at the state level? Analyses of state poll results of this and the last decade show — as a report in this newspaper highlighted — that the proportion of incumbents returning to power has crossed 50 per cent in the last five years and the vote swing against ruling parties has come down.

This data,read with research showing that voters judge state governments on their performance over the whole term,raises the question whether state-level politics is discussing government a little more seriously (and whether the national media may be missing this).

It’s hard to miss the absence of this discussion at the national political level. The anti-incumbency rule still applies at the national level. Since the Congress lost monopoly on national power,all Central ruling parties/ combinations have been defeated in general elections. The two exceptions are outlier cases. The Congress came back in 1984 because of the sympathy wave after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The BJP came back in 1999 because of the Kargil war-engendered patriotic wavelet.

Read this national-level anti-incumbent trend with political

research that shows national governments are judged more on voting time mood and less on whole-term performance.

Does this constitute a sufficient explanation for national politicians not having the incentive for debating the effectiveness and form of government?

Whatever the fuller and/ or better explanation,the lack of our own Bobbies (and Baracks) on the role of government has never been more felt than now.

saubhik.chakrabarti@expressindia.com

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