Opinion | Of parliamentary transitions and policy continuity in India

The pressure on new governments to do new things and jettison the old can damage the country’s development process

We are in the midst of a six-week-long process of choosing members of the 17th Lok Sabha. Whichever party wins, the voter’s choice, in terms of person or party, is not as important as what every voter tries to achieve through electoral participation, which is betterment of their lives and circumstances. Long-term neglect of water tables is coming home to roost this summer. This will lead not just to farmer distress, narrowly defined. It will lead to widespread distress in both rural and urban India.

It is difficult in our system to interpret a vote either in favour or against an incumbent ruling party. A cacophony of voices breaks out attributing victory or defeat, as the case may be, to this or that dominant reason. There is a package of policies and ideological leanings each formation presents to the voter, making it very difficult to pick out the particular strands that dominated their decision-making just by observing voting patterns, though some very skilled empirical political scientists attempt to do that.

A ruling party that has won by listening to voters, or at least voters in the constituencies they won, will know what voters want, but it will understandably not make this information public. It gets partially revealed in the policies retained and new policies introduced. The whole process, of course, gets muddied by other considerations, including the need for a new regime to differentiate itself from the previous one, if there is a change.

Policy is frequently underpinned by laws previously enacted and, unless these laws are actually overturned, they remain in force. What a new government in power can do, of course, is to affect the fiscal outlay going to any pre-existing scheme. At the last transition in 2014, the new government was accused of having retained the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) after having attacked it during its electoral campaign, but that was a good example of backtracking in response to voter feedback.

The pressure on new governments to do new things and jettison the old can be very damaging. It is a pressure stoked by the media looking for sparkle and radically new pills for the age-old economic diseases that continue to haunt us, but the old cures may sometimes still be the best. MGNREGS has proved its worth because it is the only anti-poverty scheme among the many floated over the years that is self-targeting. A lot of very good economic research since 2005 establishes that it works well as a safety net for rural households. And by virtue of being self-targeting, it shapes itself automatically to year-to-year fluctuations in rural distress, provided the fiscal mechanism responds and provides extra allocations mid-year.

The contribution made by the MGNREGS in taking the edge off the distress caused by demonetization was identified in an excellent piece of analysis in Part II of the Economic Survey 2016-17. Given the swirling discussion on the issue of jobs today, MGNREGS is the only solution in place which realistically offers the income floor needed without bringing in the terrible business of external targeting, with the attendant issue of having to identify cut-offs.

The problem, of course, with pre-existing schemes like MGNREGS is political ownership. But there is an opportunity right there arising from the great cross-sectional variation in the functioning of the scheme. Timely payment of wages is key to MGNREGS fulfilling the purpose for which it was enacted, and any new government can focus on making that piece work better and rightfully take the political credit for it. There are political ownership possibilities in improving delivery and functioning that could be hugely rewarding electorally, even for a scheme floated by a previous government.

The incumbent government at the centre attempted political differentiation by focusing on asset creation under MGNREGS, which was a good way to go, but difficult to enforce in a scheme designed to respond to the demand for work. The current water crisis offers a huge opportunity to use the scheme for watershed contouring and restoration of small and large water bodies that have been systematically destroyed over the years.

Under Indian circumstances, it is understandable though deeply unfortunate that candidates with a criminal record can carry appeal by virtue of their proven capability to flout laws, for they could thereby hack their way through the system and deliver. Deliver what? Deliver whatever voters want, which in itself may be perfectly legal and justifiable. In the rural employment example given above, it might be an issue of getting job cards issued or work sites in the constituency. Or it might be a school or hospital or electricity. Whatever the need, voters might quite reasonably, from their perspective, want to choose a representative who can help them jump queues, or replace rules with discretion, or stand up to the power of others trying to subvert the system in the same way and triumphing over them.

The incentive to subvert and bypass due process and rules is overwhelmingly present in our system, as the processes themselves do not work unless prodded.

Indira Rajaraman is an economist

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