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The enigma of return

Can Indian politics work out tactics for pro-incumbency?

Written by Bibekdebroy |
October 24, 2008 1:08:14 am

Elections have been announced in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan. When these governments were elected, they were expected to deliver and, if they haven’t, should suffer from anti-incumbency. However, the expression anti-incumbency needs caveats. Does anti-incumbency or pro-incumbency towards the Centre affect state elections? In our system of multi-party contests and first-past-the-post elections, the link between votes obtained and outcomes becomes complicated. And most important, since electoral identification and non-electoral interface are with MLAs rather than state governments, to what extent can anti-incumbency be neutralised by not nominating sitting MLAs, a Gujarat model, so to speak?

Governments are meant to deliver public goods and provide facilitating environments for growth. But there are several reasons why this delivery isn’t easy to quantify and measure. First, not everything is under the purview or control of state governments. There are historical reasons for good or bad performance, including geographical and infrastructural constraints. How can one ascribe all credit or blame to one particular government that has had a five-year term? There is probably a stronger case if a government has had two terms. Second, there is always a difference between perceptions and tangible improvement in objective economic indicators.

Third, to the extent one uses objective economic indicators, there is a time lag in obtaining data, with the time lag greatest for socio-economic variables. Fourth, a state government may perform well on one indicator, but not that well on another. Therefore, there is a question of trade-offs and weights attached to indicators and voter perception of weights may be completely at variance with what a third party regards as appropriate weights.

Let’s begin with the variable every economist will probably start with, the real rate of growth (state domestic product). The CSO series still ends with 2006-07 and let’s say we begin with 2003-04. For Chhattisgarh, we don’t have data for 2006-07. But for other years, the range of annual growth is between 8.68 per cent and 16.85 per cent. Similarly, for Delhi, the range is between 7.26 per cent and 9.18 per cent (no figures for 2006-07), between 3.62 per cent and 11.42 per cent for Madhya Pradesh, between 3.19 per cent and 7.54 per cent for Mizoram and between minus 2.65 per cent and 28.67 per cent for Rajasthan. For states without sufficiently diversified economies, this volatility in growth rates is understandable. All growth trickles down, however unevenly. If growth is ascribed to incumbent state governments, we have a facilitating environment story in Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Mizoram, but not quite in MP and Rajasthan.

For Chhattisgarh, MP and Rajasthan, the agricultural story is a major one, though not for Delhi and Mizoram. And particularly in MP and Rajasthan, there is a deteriorating story in agriculture, regardless of which variable is used to measure performance. Delhi has always done well on the investment environment (this doesn’t mean investment inflows alone) and this isn’t a very pertinent question for Mizoram. And the investment environment has improved in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, more markedly in the former. But it has deteriorated in MP.

Growth should be reflected in poverty reduction. Unfortunately, poverty ratios date to 2004-05. Delhi has low poverty figures and so does Mizoram. It is plausible that earlier episodes of poverty declines might reinforce a sense of well-being and prosperity. If this is valid, then Rajasthan’s poverty decline between 1993-94 and 2004-05 (leaving out 1999-2000, where there are data comparability problems) has been significant. It’s not that there wasn’t a decline in MP/Chhattisgarh (the states were then combined), but it wasn’t that much. If poverty figures are dated, perhaps one can get some sense of what has happened to prosperity by looking at consumer markets and expenditure and one doesn’t mean so-called elitist items of consumption. Delhi and Mizoram have always done well on this count, and there isn’t much incremental change. Chhattisgarh, MP and Rajasthan have always done relatively badly on this count, and there isn’t much incremental change there either.

Next, one can turn to what are believed to be public goods and services, such as the bijli-pani-sadak agenda of physical infrastructure and social infrastructure in the form of education and health. Consequent on greater urbanisation, both Delhi and Mizoram have relatively better physical infrastructure and, in the case of Delhi, it has improved. Regardless of which indicator, physical infrastructure has improved in Chhattisgarh, MP and Rajasthan, though less so for Rajasthan. Delhi and Mizoram have better educational indicators and they have improved in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, but less so in MP. Health indicators are also good in Delhi and Mizoram. They have improved in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, less so in MP. Finally, on law and order (crimes, courts, police), there is some deterioration in Delhi, Mizoram and Chhattisgarh, but an improvement in MP and Rajasthan.

All this sounds like a complicated picture. But it isn’t. Governments are expected to govern and deliver governance. Governance is an imprecise term that is used indiscriminately, but can be distilled down into providing a conducive environment for growth and delivering public goods.

No state government is ever expected to deliver across a wide range of governance indicators. After all, priorities are different. Witness the contrast between Andhra and MP in earlier years. However, as long as an incumbent state government delivers on some governance indicators, without this resulting in marked deterioration in others, the case for pro-incumbency should rest. By this yardstick, and assuming voting takes place on the basis of such economic indicators, Mizoram becomes a maybe. However, a pro-incumbency case can be made out for Chhattisgarh, Delhi, MP and Rajasthan. To make it more specific, though somewhat more subjective, one should vote in the Chhattisgarh government because of roads and growth; the Delhi government because of transport infrastructure, electricity and growth; the MP government because of social sector and anti-poverty policies and better law and order; and the Rajasthan government because of roads, social sector and anti-poverty policies and better law and order. Governments have been re-elected on far less. Depending on how one interprets the results of Gujarat’s elections, this is the development agenda and it can be further reinforced by the additional Gujarat strategy of not re-nominating present MLAs. No such development agenda is evident in Mizoram.

But such state-level policies can be overtaken by perceptions about the overall general slowdown and concern over issues like inflation, not to speak of terrorism and violence, certainly a major issue in Chhattisgarh. There is also the question of whether an incumbent state government pushes the development agenda as its selling proposition, not to speak of the perverse phenomenon of infighting within parties working against incumbent governments.

The writer is a noted economist

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