Last week, the Indian Express carried an insightful opinion piece by Badri Narayan, professor in Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, in which he pointed out the return of social politics or politics that is sensitive to social activism. Crediting Prime Minister Narendra Modi for spearheading this shift, Narayan said, “The politics of democracy (has) turned into politics of state and power and thereby, lost its social connect. The fact is politics in its real sense is the politics of doing social work and strengthening values of democracy."

In other words, we are seeing the birth of a new kind of polity; a democracy which will be far more participative. What this is doing is generating social capital—the compact which creates the trust quotient among citizens and between citizens and the government. It provides for social linkages within the country which then provide the basis to pursue larger policy changes. This glue will be critical in determining India’s ability to make the right choices in all the difficult trade-offs it is facing—like say the one between development and environment—in its pursuit of becoming a $5 trillion economy.

In fact, Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist, describes social capital as “the sine qua non of a stable liberal democracy." According to Fukuyama, generation of social capital must lead to cooperation in groups and are therefore related to traditional virtues like honesty, the keeping of commitments, reliable performance of duties and reciprocity.

With the benefit of hindsight, part of the reason as to how Modi inspired Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to yet another audacious win securing a second term for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the process, is social politics. The strategy to provide basic needs like electricity, housing and cooking gas to materially empower the poor, with the benefit of hindsight, was key to BJP winning over the electorate.

The government claims that the number of beneficiaries of these programmes aggregated 230 million; it is a safe guess that a large number of them voted for the BJP. In fact, PM Modi alluded to this in his reply to the President’s address to both houses of Parliament at the beginning of this session. “Earlier the perception among the general populace was that why does the government not deliver on my basic needs; now the thinking is why is the government delivering on basics, after all the people had become accustomed to leading a life without electricity or cooking gas. This is the trust we have earned."

This is why critics who scoff at a campaign like Swachh Bharat should do a rethink. It may appear very lofty and out of reach at the moment, but what it is doing is forcing, albeit very slowly, a mindset reset in the country with respect to the importance of hygiene. The commitment to provide drinking water to all in the next few years should be viewed similarly. It is a social need, which once provided will reinforce the trust quotient between citizens and the government with respect to the delivery of public goods, thereby generating fresh social capital.

Its importance is critical in an economy like India which is still dominated by the informal sector and is yet only taking baby steps towards a rules-based regime defined by institutions. However, creating this social capital is not easy; as of now PM Modi has plucked low-hanging fruit. The biggest challenge, as Narayan points out in his opinion piece, is to ensure inclusivity. At the moment, the fringe saffron groups seem to be thinking otherwise. The big test for the PM will be in managing these contradictions while remaining steadfastly committed to social politics.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.


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