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Why India is turning to populism

Not being an expert in etymology,I do not know how the word ‘populism’ originated. However,keen observers of and participants....

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni |
April 5, 2009 12:55:04 am

Not being an expert in etymology,I do not know how the word ‘populism’ originated. However,keen observers of and participants in the discourse on India’s political economy know that ‘populism’ has travelled an interesting journey in our country. From being reviled as ‘bad economics’ since the advent of liberalisation in the early 1990s by a section of the intelligentsia that had embraced the credo ‘West is Best’,it has now been honourably enshrined as an indispensable part of ‘good politics’ by mainstream political parties.

Populism can be understood as popular pro-people,especially pro-poor,governmental measures with direct benefits to individual citizens or families unmediated or less mediated by market forces. However,it did not find favour with the high priests of free-marketism,who insisted that liberalisation and globalisation as defined by American capitalism were a model to be adopted by the rest of the world. Known as the Washington Consensus,its votaries frowned upon populist measures. Like socialism,populism too came to be equated with outdated thinking. What was hailed as ‘Manmohanomics’ in India was not free of this intellectual arrogance either,although it must be said to the credit of Dr Manmohan Singh that the reforms he introduced as finance minister freed the Indian economy from many shackles of the licence-permit-quota raj.

Now that the Washington Consensus is dead in Washington itself,benign populism is back with a bang. Look at the election manifestos of the BJP and Congress. The Congress promised 25 kg of rice or wheat a month at Rs 3 per kg to families living below the poverty line. The BJP has gone several steps further. It has promised 35 kg of rice or wheat a month at Rs 2 kg to all BPL families. The scheme was first mooted in the early 1980s by the late N.T. Rama Rao,the superstar of Telugu cinema who became the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. It has taken 25 long years for it to travel from provincial politics to national politics. At the very least,this proves that national political parties are not the sole repositories of knowledge about good governance. In a diverse country like India,regional parties,headed by responsible leaders,can contribute a good deal to the emergence of a pro-people governance paradigm.

A comparison between the manifestos of the Congress and BJP clearly shows that the latter has given a far broader populist thrust to its governance agenda. It has made specific promises to almost every section of society—kisans (farm loans at 4 per cent interest rate),jawans (complete exemption from income tax plus one rank,one pension for ex-servicemen),income tax payers (exemption limit raised from Rs. 1.2 lakh to Rs. 3 lakh),students (education loans at 4 per cent interest rate),and senior citizens (IT benefits to be made available at 60 years,instead of 65 years as is the practice now). Women’s economic empowerment has received special focus: Ladli Laxmi Yojana to reduce school dropout among girl children; a universal financial inclusion scheme to make every BPL woman have a bank account with an initial governmental deposit of Rs. 1,500; and a promise to double the abysmally low wages of 28 lakh Anganwadi workers and helpers,who are the backbone of the Integrated Child Development Scheme.

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Why did the BJP give its manifesto such a strong populist focus? The reason is simple: learning from past mistakes. After the party’s unexpected defeat in the 2004 parliamentary elections,a committee was set up to study the reasons for electoral defeat. I was a member of the committee. Based on the feedback from a large cross-section of the party’s grassroots workers,the committee identified several factors. Amongst them was the paradoxical response that,although all sections of the people appreciated the long-term benefits that would accrue from the Vajpayee government’s thrust on infrastructure development,the poor and the middle classes felt that it did not promise anything specific for their benefit. This finding was truly an eye-opener for me.

When the poor go out to cast their vote,it is perfectly understandable if they ask themselves: “What’s in it for us?” Don’t businessmen and professionals do the same? The difference is that,whereas the rich get from the system all that they want even without voting,the poor,who vote almost as if it’s their religious duty,get very little in return. Thus,it is the aam matdaata (common voter) in India’s increasingly maturing democracy who is forcing political parties to learn what good politics is and,by implication,what good economics is. While pressure for pro-poor economics is building from below,there is also growing responsiveness at the top. Today there are many people in the BJP,Congress and other parties who realise that it is the moral and Constitutional obligation of our governance system to first bring immediate succour to the poor.

Having said this,I must hasten to add that populist promises by themselves are no proof of the maturity of a political party. By and large,our voters are becoming astute enough to judge parties and their leaders on the basis of their performance and not promises alone. Performance depends on parties’ and leaders’ commitment to the canons of good governance.

Three different political formations are making a bid for power in the coming Lok Sabha elections—BJP-led NDA,Congress whose UPA arrangement has collapsed,and an amorphous Third Front. Parties in all the three formations have made populist promises. It is now up to the voters to give a decisive mandate to that configuration which is most committed to the requirements of good economics,good politics and good governance.

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