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Once upon a food bill

Congress has a story around the welfare state. What’s BJP’s response?

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
August 28, 2013 2:58:29 am

Congress has a story around the welfare state. What’s BJP’s response?

The passage of the food security bill in the Lok Sabha is a political victory for the UPA. Its passage reveals much about the character of Indian politics. The bill will not ensure a favourable electoral outcome for the UPA. That is still an open question and will depend on lots of things. But it is a political victory in three respects: it reasserted the fact that the Congress,for good or for ill,can still get things done; it exposed the BJP’s spectacular ineptness; and it showed the ideological incapacity of those looking for an economic framework beyond the Congress.

Whatever one thinks of the bill,the fact that the UPA could get Parliament to debate and pass a bill of this magnitude is something of an achievement. Parliament has been in perpetual logjam. The government’s word carried no weight and credibility. At one stroke,both of these impressions have been dispelled. Whether the UPA appealed to the good conscience of legislators or arm-twisted them is beside the point. The BJP’s trump card was to say that the government is dysfunctional in a major way and has no authority. That trump card is gone.

The BJP’s political ungainliness was revealed at every turn. The illusion that the party has an alternative economic vision for the poor has been dispelled. If anything,this passage underscores how much more economic consensus than contestation there is in Indian politics. It has punctured,for the moment,Narendra Modi’s leadership claims in a very subtle way. He cannot even seem to keep his own party together on a single message. By contrast,Sonia Gandhi’s unchallenged authority came across very powerfully. It is a pity that she has used it seldom and not always for the right cause. But there is no doubt who is in charge. It is a fact that she remains a greater political asset to the UPA than anyone else. Despite some wonderful interventions,it was the BJP that looked leaderless and confused. It gives the impression of a party that now has no core convictions and therefore works at cross purposes. It even voted against the clause in the bill that would have given some flexibility on direct benefit transfer. One powerful objection to the bill was its implications for federalism. But a so-called coalition of chief ministers and ex-chief ministers could not take a stand that matched their rhetoric. Sharad Pawar,who had cogent objections about the implications of the bill for agriculture,went along. In politics,standing for what you promised counts for a lot,and on this one the Congress scored.

The Congress has something of a narrative around the welfare state. It can run the story that,at least in formal terms,it has secured the basics: guaranteed employment,housing,food and education. It is trying to keep one part of the social contract. Its problem is that it faltered on the other part: creating the conditions for deeper participation and sustained growth in the economy. And no matter what high decibel critics might say,it is a welfare story whose appeal is hard to resist. The problem with much of the right-of-centre economic discourse in India is three-fold. First,it does not have much of a sense of history. Has any modern society evolved without robust welfare protection? It is not an accident that even so-called rightwing politicians,from Bismarck to Churchill and Nixon,have supported an efficient and humane basic income guaranteed by the state. Second,the right was caught in its own bad faith. On one hand,it wanted to critique entitlements and rights per se,on the other hand,it wanted to embrace direct cash transfers as an alternative. So in the end its arguments against redistribution ended up sounding more like lawyerly bad faith than a principled position. There are some things that may not matter for pure intellectual argument. But for building public credibility they do. The fact of the matter is “right”-of-centre economists,for various reasons,tend to fritter away their public credibility rather swiftly. This is not just because the left is intellectually better organised; it is because the right has not managed to link its purely economic arguments with an effective moral framework. Third,there was a spectacularly self-defeating political language that smacked of elitism. And the BJP walked right into the trap. It is cute to call the bill a vote security bill. It is easy to reduce it,as every newspaper will,to a pure calculus of votes. But what are we saying in saying this? That politicians responding to what they think voters will go for is a bad thing? Implicitly,this sends the message that we either think voters are stupid or we don’t care for democracy. Arguments would dignify the voter more if they concentrated on the substance. If the left can be accused of sometimes doing the poor harm in the name of speaking for them,the right can match it by its subtle show of contempt for the ordinary voter. The right will need to change its game considerably.

Where do we go from here? The bill was a missed opportunity in that it did not bring clarity on some vexed issues,particularly our contorted targeting strategy. It will,in practice,neither be as revolutionary as its supporters contend nor as catastrophic as its critics claim. I think one change that caught those who debated the bill off guard was the fact that,in some areas,there have been genuine improvements in the state,often pioneered by BJP state governments. The right’s position on many of these issues stems from defeatism about the state’s capacity: that the state can never deliver. This again is an own goal for two reasons: as improvements in the PDS were beginning to show,this is not always the case,and defeatism about the state is a recipe for paralysis. If the bill is a reality,rather than rue its existence,we now need to work on getting the most out of it.

But if the UPA has any sense,it will use this sliver of authority it has garnered,and leverage it for both more robust administrative action and other reforms that matter for long-term growth. The undoubted surge for Narendra Modi made the BJP act as if it had won the race. The Congress must not confuse momentary authority with victory: its backlog of perfidies ensures that it still has a steep hill to climb.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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