If you follow the ongoing acrimonious debate between the civil society movement led by Anna Hazare and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) over tackling corruption in public office, there is one thing that is obvious: a disconnect. This is not an exception, but rather a pattern. Throw in subsistence issues such as inflation and employment, this disconnect between the UPA and swathes of the country, beyond those backing Hazare, is even more apparent.
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It narrows down to perception. Why are people unhappy with their lot today? Surely, large sections of India’s middle and upper class are better off than they were, say, even 10 years ago; another matter that this is part of the reason why the poor are worse off—what economists call inequality.
The economy, barring some unexpected shocks, is just a couple of years away from being valued at a record $2 trillion. Think about the creature comforts that we take for granted in our metros. Delhi would be a good example. We didn’t have a Metro train 10 years ago; didn’t have the millions of cars (and multiple models) to transport us; didn’t have cellphones so affordable; didn’t have so many eating out places or social waterholes. One can simply go on about such examples of material gains. Yet, scratch the surface and there is latent anger against the government.
On the other hand, the government, especially if you go by the righteous indignation with which some of the spin doctors of the UPA have been espousing their cause on electronic networks, feels the raging classes of India are being ungrateful. It is obviously a case of half empty or half full. What then explains this difference in perception?
Taking a cue from the iconic one-liner from Bill Clinton during his first run for US presidency, “It’s aspirations, stupid”. (For the uninitiated, Clinton had turned the entire campaign on its head by his argument: It’s the economy, stupid) Whether it is the poor, middle class or the upper class in India, aspirations are on fire. It is just that they mean different things for each class of society.
Blame it on liberalization, but it is a fact. The benefits from the stupendous run of the Indian economy in the last 10 years, thanks to the gradual liberalization, first initiated in the 1980s as part of the first structural loan programme from the International Monetary Fund, seem to have reached only a section of the country. Further, the populace is far more vulnerable today to economic shocks than before.
Initially, it was a rhetorical claim made by the naysayers, who opposed liberalization as it would alter status quo. But increasingly, secondary data reveals that this claim is unfortunately true.
Take poverty for instance. While official data is yet to come in, there are sufficient indications of deterioration. A study quoted by deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia in the Economic and Political Weekly magazine dated 21-27 May and titled “Prospects and policy challenges in the Twelfth Plan”, shows that poverty levels fell from 37% in 2004-05 to 29% in 2007-08 and then dramatically reversed sharply to rise to 32% in 2009-10—the immediate aftermath of the global meltdown in 2008.
Similarly, the failure of the government to contain inflation over a prolonged period of nearly two years is economically disenfranchising the people; obviously those at the bottom of the pyramid are worst off. The seemingly insatiable demand for the social safety net under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is a proxy indicator of this phenomenon.
And finally, economic data released on Friday by the National Sample Survey Office of the ministry of statistics revealed that there was little or no addition to employment in the first phase of the UPA administration—when average growth of the economy topped 8%, the employment generation in the five-year period ended 2009-10 was two million.
This is opposed to the 62 million jobs created between 1999-2000 and 2004-05. Seems counter-intuitive, given the anecdotal evidence of what we see around us in urban India. That is what makes the revelation scarier. In other words, for all of us who got gainful employment, someone out there lost a job—no prizes for guessing who suffered the most.
In the final analysis, it is clear that on the one hand, aspirations have been stoked, on the other, there are obstructions in their realization. In this, corruption in public office is the most visible deterrent. The policy inaction of the UPA in the last two years has only compounded the problem.
So are we surprised at the collective anger among the public, which occasionally articulates by ranging itself behind activists such as Hazare? The UPA should hear the message and not shoot the messenger.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
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