(Jayachandran/Mint)
(Jayachandran/Mint)

The Mint Manifesto: The 10-point agenda for Lok Sabha Elections 2019

We present a millennial perspective that politicians ignore at their own risk

No spectre need loom over the country for citizens with common concerns to publish a manifesto, an agenda for action that might capture the popular will better than other options on offer.

The 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which many consider crucial to India’s future, are reason enough to venture such a grand—and fallible—set of proposals. This cannot be done without a glance at the ideals we began with, if only to see what aspects of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s “tryst with destiny", his party’s pledge, are yet to be redeemed “in full measure".

A Chunaav Ghoshna Patra of the Congress for the 1957 polls, available at Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Museum, expounded on the aim of a “New India", a “modern country that will relieve those in pain and assure everyone an equal chance to progress", calling it a “courageous" project guided by socialist and democratic principles. The Patra promised to wipe out poverty, illiteracy, disease and inequality, and laid out details of a central plan for industrialization as well.

The “mixed economy" of the era, with the state as its director-in-chief, had significant corporate backing. This is evident in the “Bombay Plan" of 1944 advocated by top industrialists G.D. Birla and J.R.D. Tata, among others, a cohesive action plan from which India’s first three five-year plans took inspiration. It called upon the government to focus on food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, basic education and agrarian reforms, invest in both consumer goods and heavy industries, and set specific targets to be achieved. It didn’t just advise the centre on how to raise the funds for this, it also proposed central control of economic affairs, even if it meant “individual liberty and freedom of enterprise will suffer a temporary eclipse". Business ended up in the state’s penumbra for rather too long and policies grew more and more statist under a socialist spell of the late 1960s.

It took an opening up of India’s closed economy two decades later for a far more favourable remix of the system to emerge and grant India another chance to get on with fulfilling promises.

There has been a rapid escalation of people’s aspirations since then, especially among millennials, stoked in recent years by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party and expressed in a widespread clamour for jobs. For the sake of stability, this demand must be addressed within a policy framework that adheres to constitutional values and goes by a vision that maximizes every individual’s chance to make the most of his or her life.

The big enabler of opportunities here would have to be rapid economic expansion, for which further reforms are needed that reduce the state’s role in the allocation of resources, usher in the benefits of competition and give market forces greater agency. Action on this front could revive private investment, which has been in a prolonged slump.

While our so-called “factor markets" of land, labour and capital all need efficiency, a clear case for instant attention would be the banking sector, which remains too heavily shackled by the state for the most optimal outcomes to be squeezed out of every rupee in existence. Likewise, the farm sector needs a maze of restrictions lifted—on the access of farmers to markets, for example—even as public investment is given a boost.

Meanwhile, India should do away with government discretion on taxes, which need to settle into a simple structure that’s easy to judge the rationale of. How taxpayer money is optimally deployed will always be under fierce debate, but infrastructure and urban renewal clearly deserve large allotments.

Long-gestation projects could be funded by public money as well as long-term loans—eased by a few regulatory tweaks—from insurance pools and pension funds. Arguably, the principal focus of public expenditure should be on a reversal of India’s long neglect of quality healthcare and basic education. Such services must be available to all citizens, bar none.

An entire panoply of welfare schemes, meanwhile, could be put to scrutiny so that wasteful expenses can be clipped and finance freed for income transfers to everyone except the country’s richest 25% or so.

All this should be done without tipping the fiscal deficit dangerously out of whack. Clamps on the extent to which a regime can spend beyond its means are equally crucial to our quest for growth, given the broad need to keep the burden of inflation low and predictable.

The autonomy of public institutions is especially important in this context (and many others), for there are few other ways to restrain a government from its worst temptations.

On governance in general, an urgent to-do list ought to include a push for effective federalism and a revision of procurement procedures for both speed and transparency, apart from the closing of various other avenues for corruption.

No less vital is a coherent combination of incentives and bans to help save the planet from man-made ecological disasters. Heightened public awareness would have to aid the fight against such abstract threats. For this, the relevance of how young minds are shaped cannot be overstated: rote learning must yield to an education system that stimulates thought and equips students with the sort of skills they’d need for a digital future of artificial intelligence.

Online privacy is a major millennial concern, too, as is fake news. It’s about time all users of the internet got legal ownership of their own information, no matter where it’s stored, with the freedom to do what they please with it. Gender equality, even-handed justice and equal application of the rule of law, of course, are non-negotiable.

More than seven decades since 1947, our record on these must-haves of democracy remains woefully patchy. A key test is whether every citizen senses an equal chance of a better life. A lot needs to be done for that to be affirmed as an essential truth of being Indian.

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