For whom the bell tolls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh
If the exit polls are to be believed, then the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by the duo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah just extended their win-loss record to an unprecedented high. And the converse is that Rahul Gandhi, who took over the Congress after replacing his mother at the helm, will receive a very uncomfortable welcome gift on what will only be his third day at the job. Though we will only know for sure only after counting begins on Monday morning; till then the forecast remains what it is: a calculated guess.
While the outcome of the poll battle is yet to be ascertained, one can start attempting to answer the larger question of who is winning the war of electoral politics. Especially since the contest involved the two principal political parties in the country—the BJP, the new pole of Indian politics, and the Congress. And over the next few months, these two parties will line up against each other several times in equally tough do-or-die battles.
For one, the high-decibel battle, more on the campaign trail in Gujarat elections than Himachal Pradesh’s, in the final leg degenerated to a new low in name-calling and accusations, reinforcing the binary discourse in the country (This column has previously flagged this tragic turn of the national dialogue). It will be naive to assume that this bitterness will not spill over to the policy front, as the country readies to embrace the next round of reforms—some of which require the legislative backing of Parliament. Exactly why Rahul Gandhi, the new Congress president, disregarding his party’s role in shepherding the goods and services tax (GST) recklessly dubbed this seminal tax reform a ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’ (after the bandit immortalized in the Bollywood hit Sholay).
For this deterioration in relations, the BJP and Congress have only each other to blame. What started out as an election campaign based on the claims and counterclaims on economic development, especially in Gujarat, eventually degenerated into a forgettable sectarian blame game.
Second, flowing from the above, the much needed discourse on rural distress, revived in the Gujarat election campaign, has been sidelined. Some of the issues facing the Gujarat farmer, like the price risk associated with cotton and groundnut, are universal issues, very similar to those afflicting farmers across the country. Market inspired solutions, like use of commodity derivatives, and better market access, outside of the monopolistic confines of the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee, are some examples of long-term fixes.
These discussions can’t return to centre stage without another round of name calling as both the BJP and the Congress position themselves as the real friends of farmers; in other words, these polemic divisions can potentially bury much-needed solutions to address farmer woes.
This is a pity. Indian farming is what it is despite the lack of public policy support of the kind favouring industry that we have seen in the aftermath of then Congress government hitting the economic reforms accelerator in 1991. More than the fact that one size can’t fit all, public policy has to recognize the complexity of Indian farming as well as the fact that agriculture is in the middle of a fundamental structural reform—with the domination of the foodgrain economy rapidly receding. The long-term policy response also needs to recognize that water constraint is no longer a distant problem.
Third, once again, flowing from the earlier point on the binary discourse, is the threat to democratic institutions. As aspirations take flight and the country continues with its baby steps towards a rules-based regime (GST, the use of Aadhaar to ID beneficiaries of social programmes and the crackdown on infractions in public office are good examples) India needs more democracy rather than less of it; it needs more debate and dialogue among all stakeholders, not less of it.
But if the emerging lessons from the just concluded campaign in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are any indication, then yes, while we will soon know about who won the poll battle, the outlook on the electoral war is, at the least, disconcerting.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.
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