Politicians resort to selling hope rather than progress for a reason | Mint

Politicians resort to selling hope rather than progress for a reason

In 1951, our Total Fertility Rate stood at 5.77, meaning that on average 100 women had 577 children, which was well above the replacement level of 100 women on average having 210 children.
In 1951, our Total Fertility Rate stood at 5.77, meaning that on average 100 women had 577 children, which was well above the replacement level of 100 women on average having 210 children.

Summary

  • Genuine national gains like a stable population can take decades to achieve while hopeful targets such as GDP crossing some figure or the other are politically expedient.

On 19 November, a few hours before India was supposed to play Australia in this year’s cricket World Cup final, a screenshot suggesting that India’s gross domestic product (GDP) had crossed $4 trillion went viral. GDP is an estimate of the economic size of a country in a particular period. Soon, this screenshot was all over social media. Mixed with the belief that India would beat Australia in the match, it made for a marketable nationalistic message. Of course, by the end of the day, India had lost the cricket final.

Nonetheless, by then it had travelled far and wide, thanks to politicians, corporate boss-men and you and I actively sharing it on social media. Few users bothered to find out whether Indian GDP had actually crossed $4 trillion.

As per the World Economic Outlook published by the International Monetary Fund, Indian GDP in current prices is expected to touch $4.1 trillion in 2024. Now, if we look at World Bank data, Indian GDP (in constant 2015 US dollars) in 2022 stood at $2.95 trillion. So, there is still some time before India reaches a $4 trillion GDP in constant terms adjusted for inflation.

Of course, mass market messaging and nuance really don’t go together. But this raises a bigger question: Why are we—politicians, corporates and everybody else—so obsessed with India’s GDP crossing $4 trillion, $5 trillion, $10 trillion, $30 trillion and so on? These are figures which India will eventually cross at some point of time. Moreover, why is there so little talk about the genuine progress that has been made?

Let’s take two very important data points: the country’s infant mortality rate (IMR) and total fertility rate (TRF). IMR is the number of deaths of children under one year of age, expressed per 1,000 live births. Data from the United Nations Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation suggests that India’s IMR in 2021 stood at around 25. In 1953, it was at 181. So, between then and now, the IMR has fallen at the rate of 2.8% per year on average. While there is scope for further improvement, it is clear that fewer children are dying in India before attaining the age of one than used to be the case earlier.

Now, let’s look at the TFR, which is the average number of children that are born to a woman over her lifetime. Data from World Populations Prospects 2022, published by the UN, suggests that India’s TFR in 2021 stood at 2.03, implying that on average 100 women had 203 children. In 1951, our TFR stood at 5.77, meaning that on average 100 women had 577 children, which was well above the replacement level of 100 women on average having 210 children. Over a period of time, a TFR at the replacement level of 2.1 keeps the population stable.

So, over a span of seven decades, India’s TFR has fallen from 5.77 to 2.03, and this is largely without government coercion. This implies that average incomes have gone up and that women on the whole are more educated now than before—two factors that significantly push couples to have fewer children. Women having fewer kids has led to slower population growth as well, although this change has come at a very slow pace over the decades, with the country’s TFR falling annually by very little (1.5% per year on average).

What this tells us is that genuine progress demands changes at the societal level and that these take time. As Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund write in Factfulness: “Many things (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly."

A slow change over an extended period of time can really add up to a lot, even though it might go unnoticed from one year to another, making it difficult for politicians to talk about it in order to market themselves to voters and for voters to get excited about it. As Morgan Housel writes in Same As Ever: Timeless Lessons on Risk, Opportunity and Living a Good Life: “People don’t remember the world when they were born. They remember the last few months, when progress is always invisible."

Also, societal-level changes that lead to overall social and economic progress take decades to play out, whereas politicians need to get themselves re-elected every few years. Which is why it is probably difficult for them to sell genuine progress, forcing them to sell hope in its place: The hope of the Indian economy crossing $4 trillion, $5 trillion, $10 trillion and $30 trillion, for example. Or run campaigns like “garibi hatao" (remove poverty), “India shining" and “Acche din aane waale hain"—happy days are about to come, which was supposedly inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 US presidential campaign song, Happy Days are Here Again.

Now Roosevelt wasn’t the only American presidential candidate who sold hope. Ronald Reagan’s slogan for his 1980 presidential campaign was, “Let’s make America great again." This slogan was copied in the 2016 campaign for the White House by Donald Trump as “Make America Great Again."

Of course, the advantage of selling the hope of a country’s GDP crossing a certain figure measured in trillions of dollars is that politicians can keep upping the figure once that number has been crossed, provided that voters remain excited about it.

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