The great Indian populism challenge

The great Indian populism challenge
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First Published: Sun, Mar 02 2008. 11 06 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Mar 02 2008. 11 06 PM IST
Dear prime ministerial aspirants,
This weekend must have been a difficult period for all of you, from the NDA (National Democratic Alliance), the Third Front, the BSP (Bahujan Samajwadi Party) and the Left who are aspiring to head the next government at the Centre. You must be grudging finance minister P. Chidambaram’s tacky tactics in using public finances to fund the Congress party’s campaign for the next Lok Sabha polls by offering sops to various sections of the electorate with his populist Budget.
Dear aspirants, lest you despair on your prime ministerial prospects in the wake of the loan waiver googly bowled by the finance minister, here are a few tips on how you can beat the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at its own game.
As political correctness demands, you cannot be seen opposing loan waivers to farmers as a poll-eve gimmick, while it may indeed be just that. Demand more of the same.
For instance, you may demand that the UPA government waive all types of loans (including term loans) taken by all farmers, irrespective of whether they are small or big.
You can argue that all farmers are facing difficult times, and, to support your argument, you can point out that a large number of farmers committing suicides are big farmers. Why then give only partial relief to them while waiving loans extended to marginal, small farmers completely?
The finance minister’s waiver package has failed to address an important vote bank, i.e., artisans, mostly comprising the other backward classes (OBCs), who have been as badly hit as the farmers during the last few years of agrarian crisis.
Artisans in general and weavers in particular are dependent on meagre incomes from traditional occupations and are in dire need of a helping hand from the government. They do not stand to benefit from the largesse of the UPA government. The OBCs constitute a natural voter constituency for many of the regional parties among you and hence your demands and promises will help in consolidating your vote bank. You may promise that you will waive all loans taken by artisans, whenever you are elected to power.
The UPA government has repeatedly declared that it is gender-sensitive. You may, for instance, demand that the UPA government waive all loans extended to self-help groups of women by banks as per the government’s directives.
With the mega loan waiver, the Congress party has attempted to grab the support the large vote bank of farmers. Why don’t you champion the cause of the poor, migrants and the landless, most of whom are Dalits and the traditional constituency of the Congress, so that you do not lose out in populist sweepstakes?
You may promise (and demand) that all types of loans extended to SCs/STs will be waived and all SC/ST families given a compensation package of Rs15,000 per household on the same lines as the loan waiver assistance given to the marginal and small farmers.
You could also promise loans to the landless to buy land and then give them crop loans for cultivation and then, in one sweeping move, waive all loans. Can the UPA beat this?
And since the UPA doesn’t seem to be worried about who will pay for its largesse as long as it can hold on to power, maybe you shouldn’t either—even if the new promises cost much more.
My acquaintances in the banking industry tell me that after the Budget announcement of waiver of farmers’ loans, various sections of rural borrowers are hopeful of receiving similar concessions from the governments in future and are therefore planning to stop making payments.
Some of my friends mockingly asked me if there was any chance of home loans also being waived as the interest rates have mounted over the past three years. Even if you promise them waiver of interest payments, it will endear vast sections of the middle class to your party.
With so many sections of voters such as OBCs and the scheduled castes waiting to share the goodies, there is no reason for you to despair at all.
If the UPA indulges in populism to rake in votes, can you be seen to be found wanting? After all, the antidote to populism is more populism.
Champions of economic reforms, Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram have shown you the “popular” and “correct” path to inclusive economics. Singh, the father of economic reforms, is presiding over a government that has announced a mother of all loan waiver packages ever.
Being in the opposition benches, all that you can do is to promise more when you come to power.
Alternatively, you may resort to familiar tactics of stalling Parliament to highlight all your demands.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at thebottomline@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Mar 02 2008. 11 06 PM IST