The results of the assembly elections are out. The winners should stand by their promises. The right to vote, as many surveys and studies have shown, is something precious. The average Indian does not forgive those who make promises and then forget them. One of the institutions I was associated with did a small sample study on the things that the poor value the most. Some economic reformers want the PDS to be abolished and a direct benefits transfer system introduced. The poorest Indian values his ration card and voter ID the most. “The elected representatives have to come to us, even though that might be once in five years,” many said. This gives people a sense of power. The power of the ration card is also obvious.
There is no doubt that reforms are part of the long-term solution but providing employment and affordable food is the imminent necessity. So the winners of the assembly elections better perform on that score. The Niti Aayog has counselled against loan waivers and has instead called for a high growth rate and widespread agricultural and rural growth. We said the same thing. Like the Niti Aayog we don’t have resource allocation powers; the finance ministry — as well as its former official in the Central Bank — has consistently ignored good professional advice.
The year 2019 might see the return of coalition politics. With it, federal institutions of the past could revive, but under different names. The swing away from a single, dominant party has begun and we could see a more pluralistic politics. Another underlying force could be increased collaboration between government and private organisations, including cooperatives and industry bodies.
The richness of Indian political institutions ensures that the system will play an important role in the development of new ones. A few years ago, everybody was making fun of farmers’ producer companies as a substitute to cooperatives and NGO-run self-help groups. But these companies are now very common, not only among those who organise the poor but also with the corporate sector that is trying to establish links with rural producers. There is also the experience of rural groups intervening in the political and agricultural domains. Conventional political parties find it difficult to relate with them. These parties have strong student wings and have forged links with trade unions. But they are caught unawares when individuals come together to form small groups, and march to the arenas of action. My friend, the late Sanat Mehta, once took me to a meeting where a thousand tractors driven by farmers landed up. The farmers had reached Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar from the area we call the Chuwal — the land of 44 villages between Gujarat and Saurashtra, which K M Munshi wrote about in his novel, Patan ni Prabhuta. Nobody knew how to react to them. Lalji Desai, now a political leader, led the march and Sanat Mehta spoke. He asked me to speak and I told them not to oppose industry but tell the sarkar at the highest level, as well as the corporate sector, that land and water in Chuwal should remain with the farmers. They won.
We do not really know how the new institutions will develop in a country where people have been known to dream of the unthinkable. We know that the initiative for developing these institutions will come from the people. They will develop their own strategies for cooperation as well as opposition, as they go along. They will use modern technology— that is not just handsets. They will be reflective and yet focussed. You and I will be there for a part of the journey. Remember the Alagh Law of Progress — the next generation is smarter than mine. If that was not true, we would still be living in a world without a wheel. Enjoy reading the tea leaves.