DisFact #16: BJP and Congress converging?; Macroeconomic health; ECI accountability

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Today: BJP and Congress are telling different stories about India. But are they materially different when it comes to actual policies?

Updates: This is a new section where I will share the latest on topics I have already covered.

  • State of macroeconomy (Mint’s macroeconomic tracker)

  • Holding the Election Commission of India Accountable


BJP and Congress are telling different stories. But they are converging.

2019 is an election year: political rhetoric will reach its height and economic policy is likely to take a backseat. A Hindustan Times column captures the stories that the two national parties are telling us about today’s India. The narratives revolve around three aspects: quality of life; corruption; and identity, democracy and institutions.

1. Quality of life

  • BJP story: Modi government “fixed India’s welfare architecture”. It provided housing to rural Indians, built toilets, increased access to electricity, distributed LPG gas cylinders, expanded the construction of rural roads—and so on.

  • Congress story: The government has destroyed the economy. Young people can’t find jobs. Farmers are struggling under the pain of agrarian distress. Demonetisation was a disaster jolted growth and destroyed jobs; poor implementation of a poorly designed GST added to the crisis.

2. Corruption

  • BJP story: They claim that “Central-level corruption has reduced drastically”; “No big scam has been institutionally proven in this period”; “PM, in particular, represents an image of integrity”.

  • Congress story: Rahul Gandhi’s continuous attack on Rafale is “meant to portray Modi as embedded with corporate interests”; demonetisation is a scam; “Vijay Mallya’s exit from India as the proof of government’s collusion”; “Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi bank fraud serve as absolute proof of how this is a government complicit with corruption.”

3. Identity, democracy and institutions.

  • BJP story: Revival of nationalism. “Minority appeasement has ended. Citizens are treated equally. Hindus are no longer ashamed to be Hindus.”

  • Congress story: India’s nationalism project “has come to be increasingly associated with Hindu majoritarianism. It has become synonymous with marginalisation and public disdain for minorities. There is impunity for mob violence, especially when directed at minorities.”

The two stories are absolutely different. The result of the 2019 election will tell us the story that resonates with most Indians—or maybe there is a different story which analysts are missing at the moment.

I have little interest in the predictions game (“who will win 2019?”); more so in understanding how politics impacts everyday lives of ordinary citizens.

Will 2019 outcome make any real difference to Indian political economy?

From current trends, no: at least not in any significant way. Sure, in theory, BJP and Congress lie on the opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. But how that translates into actual policy outcomes is less clear to me.

Look at three recent events:

1. Surveillance and privacy: Both parties are complicit in expanding state surveillance without legal basis. I had explained this in the previous DisFact issue.

2. Sabarimala temple politics: Despite the Supreme Court order allowing the entry of women in the Sabarimala temple, both the Congress and the BJP are opposing the Kerala government in the implementation of the court order.

(Update: Two women entered the Sabarimala temple on Wednesday. I explained the controversy here)

3. Farm loan waivers: Are loan waivers the right policy response to agrarian distress? Doesn’t matter: Eight state governments have given farm loan waivers worth ₹1.9 trillion since April last year. It began with Modi’s promise of debt relief to farmers ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections in February 2017; and most recently, Congress made similar promises ahead of the recently concluded assembly elections in five states.

What does this mean? Parties are converging

In a timely essay, Pramit Bhattacharya, Mint’s data journalism editor, argued that “both parties have moved closer to each other...even as their rhetoric suggests the opposite.”

BJP moving towards Congress: The left-ward shift on economic policy

Left-ward shift meaning increasing role of the government and less of markets. Bhattacharya says that the BJP “effectively copied the Congress stylebook in its governance style, renaming and revamping the welfare schemes of the Congress era and then adding some of its own.”

Economist Vivek Dehejia made a similar observation in a Mint column last year.

Phrases that Modi used in the election campaign, such as “maximum governance, minimum government” and “the government has no business being in business”, suggested a tilt towards both pro-business and pro-market policies. Yet, as we now know, if we did not know it then, there has been much greater continuity in governance from the previous government to the current government than such rhetoric would suggest.

Thus, Modi famously derided the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), suggesting it would be a monument to the failure of the Indian National Congress and Sonia Gandhi. Yet, after coming to power, the Modi government doubled down on MGNREGA and other Congress-era welfare schemes rather than getting rid of them, as one might have expected from a putative advocate of minimum government. Such examples abound in the Modi government’s record.

Congress moving towards BJP: The right-ward shift on social policy

Despite the Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas rhetoric, BJP “made it amply clear that it did not have much time for the question of minority rights, and suggested that such issues were highlighted by the Congress only to appease its Muslim ‘vote bank’.”

This forced the Congress to “adopt a pronounced pro-Hindu stance in an attempt to lurch towards the new median,” Bhattacharya wrote.

This is evident not only in Gandhi’s increased demonstration of religiosity but also in the changing composition of the key Congress decision-making bodies—which have seen a sharp decline in Muslim representation since 2014.

The Congress’s new strategy on social policy is also reflected in its silence on the Ram mandir issue. The party’s strategists seem to harbour the hope that the lack of any response on the party’s part will diminish the polarizing potential of this issue.

Looking ahead

This is just one explanation, and it comes with its caveats. For instance, ideological differences between the parties impact government priorities.

As we head towards the general election, political analysis in this newsletter will map out such similarities and differences. It will be less about day-to-day political action—alliances, allegations, arithmetic—and more on issues, policies and political trends that reflect the future course of India.

Comments, critique, suggestions are always welcome!


Updates

State of macroeconomy

In the 12th issue of DisFact, I had introduced Mint’s monthly macroeconomic tracker that looks at 16 high-frequency indicators to assess the health of the Indian economy. The latest report is out.

Red/Green: An indicator is marked red if it’s performing worse than the five-year trend and green otherwise. Counting the number of reds and greens is a good heuristic to understand the bigger picture.

India’s economic health appears slightly better than it did three months ago: The tracker shows that “seven indicators are in the green as of November, compared to five indicators, three months ago”.

But if you change the frame of reference to the beginning of the previous year, it’s not as good. 12 indicators were in the green at that time.

You can read the full story here to explore what’s happening across key sectors.

In other news: New investments in India plunge to 14-year-low

Dashing hopes of a quick economic turnaround, investments in the just-ended December quarter fell to a 14-year-low, fresh data from the project-tracking database of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) shows.

Indian companies announced new projects worth ₹1 trillion in the December quarter, 53% lower than what was announced in September quarter, and 55% lower than the year-ago period. (Mint)


“Holding the Election Commission Accountable”

In the 9th issue of DisFact, I had explained two important stories concerning the Election Commission of India. First, regarding the allegations of voter deletion in Telangana. Second, the clash in Mizoram regarding voting rights for several thousand Bru refugees. (Click here to read the details and background)

In a column for the Economic and Political Weekly, Alok Prasanna Kumar, a senior resident fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, has the latest on this.

Concerns:

One, in Telangana, where a significantly large number of voters were unable to exercise their franchise due to the ECI’s botched attempts to clean up the electoral rolls using software.

Two, in Mizoram, where the ECI bowed to public pressure to replace a state election officer for taking proactive measures to help the marginalised Bru community cast their votes in the upcoming election. (EPW)

Prasanna argues that while these are very different kinds of failures, “they are two instances of the fundamental absence of mechanisms to hold the ECI meaningfully accountable for its actions.”

The 2018 assembly elections have shown that the ECI can, without perhaps intending to, end up harming an individual’s rights to participate in free and fair elections. What the two instances discussed above show is the hard problem of ensuring accountability of the ECI. On the one hand, there is a need to ensure that the ECI is responsive to the needs of the electors. Yet, in a country with so many divides on religion, language, and ethnicity, among others, simply heeding majoritarian demands is a recipe for disaster.

The ECI has admitted that it made a mistake in the large-scale deletions of voters in the electoral rolls (Lasania 2018). While that is a necessary and welcome first step, it is by no means enough to address the concerns of the voters by providing redress to those who were unable to exercise their franchise due to the ECI’s failures. (EPW)

Read the column here


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