Column: Indias choice

Written by Nirvikar Singh | Updated: Mar 18 2014, 07:28am hrs
The choice facing Indias voters in the upcoming parliamentary election is not an ideal one. The reason is that the two largest parties offer bundles of characteristics that leave much to be desired. On the one hand, the BJP seems to offer a firmer commitment to economic reform, but this inextricably comes with an ideology of what it means to be Indian that must be uncomfortable for many members of Indias minority groups. This bundling is particularly sharp in the case of the BJPs current leader, but it is an issue that always lurks in the background, whoever the leader is. On the other hand, the Congress has no ideology to speak of, though its populism has been consistent with a particular view of equality in society, one that has some pluses. Ideas of economic reform seem to be less firmly integrated into the broader party membership, although some prominent members indeed lean toward reforms as part of a pragmatic approach to economic policymaking. Unfortunately, the Congress claim to being committed to the equality of its citizens is weakened by its own past record in various regional conflicts.

Perhaps the majority of Indias ordinary citizens care less about ideology and more about day-to-day good governance, which includes some possibility of material betterment, but also the absence of regular harassment and extortion (as opposed to the violence against specific groups that government sometimes permits or even encourages). Here, too, the BJP scores better, though not as well as the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has greater honesty in governance as a central tenet. Unfortunately, this desirable characteristic of AAP seems to be combined with a muddled approach to economic policymaking, including some extreme manifestations of populism.

Hence, wherever one turns, a reasonable mix of economic policy competence, commitment to equal treatment of citizens, and honesty is not to be found. At the regional level, the patterns are repeated in different combinations of corruption, nepotism, group favouritism, and lack of understanding of economics. And yet, there are state leaders and parties that seem to offer more attractive bundles of characteristics than either of the two largest parties. Voters at the state level gradually seem to have figured out that it is possible to have good governance, and to re-elect politicians who provide something that at least partially fits that description. In some states, there is enough head-to-head competition that parties have to compete on the dimension of providing good governance.

Given the choices faced by Indias voters, perhaps the best outcome is one where regional parties gain the upper hand, and have a chance of creating a coalition government. Past experience with coalition governments is that they have been unstable, and subject to extortion from pivotal members of the coalition. One difference now as compared to these past experiences is that regional parties have chalked up greater experience of governing. Secondly, the level of scrutiny is greater, and perhaps the possibilities for kleptocracy are therefore somewhat lower. A structural reform is also needed, to reduce the discretionary power and control over resources that central ministries currently enjoy. This discretion has increased in the last decade, and the process of creating more rule-bound, transparent and independent regulatory bodies at the national level has slowed down or halted. It is arguable that a coalition government of balanced regional interests might allow that process to revive. Such a coalition might also support a greater allocation of untied funds to the states. In a new structural equilibrium, with greater decentralisation of resources, state politicians might focus on state level governance, rather than squabbling over who gets to be prime minister.

The quality of economic policymaking and control of corruption are somewhat more uncertain in the case of a coalition of regional parties at the centre, versus a BJP-led government, but the shadow of an ideology that denies the right of many citizens of India to self-identify as different in important aspects of their lives makes it, in my opinion, a risk worth taking. If anything, it is possible that regional interests can, over time, coalesce into a more national party that eschews both

Hindutva and loyalty to a single family as ingredients of cohesion. Cross-regional cohesion will require a different kind of glue, and that may come from class interests, with rich and poor at opposite ends of the spectrum, and a fluid, shifting, but growing middle class holding the balance. Right now, the middle class has little that is good to choose from in those who might govern them.

It is possible that my pathway to better quality political parties and governance is mere wishful thinking. However, I think it is worth making the choice I have suggested, to break the current political dynamic. If I am right, India can move towards a more inclusive social and economic vision, without sacrificing growth, and without dynasties. I do not think that a desire for economic progress should lead to sacrificing an ideal of being Indian that respects differences in identity.

The author is professor of Economics, University of California, Santa Cruz