Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president and CEO of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, wrote an opinion piece titled “While we were silent" in July.

It was tweeted, re-tweeted, distributed and discussed by many on the right side of the debate.

Many were jubilant that such a scathing indictment of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime had come from a non-partisan scholar. However, his piece, “Once upon a food bill", written in August did not receive the same treatment. That is a pity because its message is crucial to the long-term success of the right. That piece throws down the gauntlet to the right. One paragraph, in particular, deserves to be read, re-read and reflected upon carefully:

“The problem with much of the right-of-centre economic discourse in India is threefold. First, it does not have much of a sense of history. Has any modern society evolved without robust welfare protection? … Second, the right was caught in its own bad faith. On one hand, it wanted to critique entitlements and rights per se, on the other hand, it wanted to embrace direct cash transfers as an alternative. So in the end its arguments against redistribution ended up sounding more like lawyerly bad faith than a principled position… The right has not managed to link its purely economic arguments with an effective moral framework. Third, there was a spectacularly self-defeating political language that smacked of elitism... It is cute to call the bill a vote security bill... But what are we saying in saying this? That politicians responding to what they think voters will go for is a bad thing? ... If the left can be accused of sometimes doing the poor harm in the name of speaking for them, the right can match it by its subtle show of contempt for the ordinary voter. The right will need to change its game considerably."

If these were the opening remarks in a debating contest on the competence of centre-right economists in India, the team that is defending those economists stands no chance.

The debate is over before it had begun. Convincing the public that populism is neither in their interest nor in the interests of their future generations is hard. By definition, successful people are only a few. There is limited space at the top of the pyramid. The vast majority of us not only support underdogs in sporting contests but also like to think of ourselves as underdogs in some if not in most situations. Underdogs believe that they have a right to entitlement. It is just that the entitlements are different for the poor and for the rest. So, it is a universal phenomenon. That is why most European nations find it difficult to shrink the welfare state (work-life balance, unemployment compensation, pensions, job security, etc.), let alone dismantle it.

A Singaporean of Indian origin accosted me at a Siva temple a week ago and asked me with hostility if I was happy that the government of India had raised the retail prices of petrol and diesel, hurting the poor, as I had suggested in my interview to the Tamil language TV channel in Singapore. In two minutes, I had to tell him that I did not ask the government in India to hurt the poor but to make sure that the rich were not subsidized and that the poor could be assisted in other ways to make their ends meet. Making the case for liberal economics is hard and that is why at least two reformers had switched sides.

India’s current finance minister, when he was in the Tamil Maanila Congress, used to write a column in Thuglak, a Tamil political fortnightly, explaining market economics to Tamil readers. He ceased making the case for liberal economics long ago. Another reformer took the nom de plume Kautilya and used to educate the readers of the periodical India Today on liberal economics and pro-market policymaking. Now, in the UPA government, he helped shut down mining with his environment laws and now he threatens to stop the future of manufacturing in India with his land acquisition law.

Readers who watched Kamal Haasan’s Anbe Sivam in Tamil nearly 15 years ago would not have forgotten easily the street play that depicts capitalists as rapacious and willing to sell out the workers’ interests to unscrupulous foreigners. It was crude propaganda but very effective. Apparently, a new book by Sendhil Mullainathan (and his co-author) shows that when we are faced with scarcity we make quick but short-sighted decisions. Politicians create that scarcity so that poor voters accept populist giveaways unmindful of long-term consequences. Hence, the challenge for the centre-right is to come up with a script, screenplay and dialogues for a street play showing the poor Indian as to why and how the food security law will not solve her nutrition scarcity even as it removes food from the plates of her children and grandchildren. If they can rise to the challenge, then the future of India will be bright.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is the co-founder of Aavishkaar Venture Fund and Takshashila Institution. Comments are welcome at baretalk@livemint.com.

To read V. Anantha Nageswaran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/baretalk-

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