Many a slip

Sep 10 2013, 02:25 IST
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SummaryThe real story in the new bills will be the institutional one.

The real story in the new bills will be the institutional one.

Who says big changes are not possible in India? The last session of Parliament was, arguably, one of the most consequential sessions in its history. The enormity of the bills passed is truly staggering: food security, land acquisition, street vendors’ rights, pensions, manual scavenging. There are two puzzles. The first is the newfound consensus across political parties. How did the opposition suddenly decide to be statesman-like? Did fear of Modi actually make the BJP’s parliamentary leadership suddenly find its statesman-like niche? The second puzzle is this. Such far-reaching legislative accomplishments should have been greeted with triumph. But in one narrative, quite popular in the press, the politicians, driven by a combination of cognitive disability and venal electoral calculations, have decided to stymie India’s growth prospects forever. The only thing worse than Parliament not functioning is Parliament functioning. The triumph of democratic consensus is overshadowed by the cloud of economic foreboding.

But could the gap between what politicians think is workable and what India’s elites think is good be that stark? Especially when the electoral gains from these bills are uncertain? And does not the puzzle only get deeper when you remember that we thought politicians were in the pockets of these elites? Is Indian business that powerless? There are three possibilities. The first is that the gap is as wide as it looks. Accepting this proposition has the uncomfortable implication of accepting the idea that representative democracy is close to being an unmitigated economic disaster in India. Some do come close to thinking that, but maybe we should not write off a democratic consensus that easily.

A second possibility is that the gap is not actually that stark. There is genuine anger at government for failures on corruption and the abdication of basic functions. We are now projecting that anger on everything. This anger can be politically productive as a pressure tactic. But it can also cloud fine distinctions. In calmer moments, we could be persuaded that while legislators may make mistakes, they are not intentionally paving only roads to economic hell. They are smart and are doing a complicated balancing act. They will preserve their rents, but compatible with that is doing things you may disagree with, but which are not patently irrational. In the case of the land acquisition bill, for example, what rankles with industry is not

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