Stock Taking the Election


In every election political parties and leaders promise betterment of aam aadmi’s life. On the contradictory it worsens. This general election is not going to be different. Although there a pot full of poll promises it is going to be empty ones. We need new energy and vision for rejuvenating the nation.

Risabh Bhandari writes in the Times of India, 11 May 2009,

The general election for the 15th Lok Sabha unfolded with a customary hullabaloo expected of it. Sloganeering politicians, quixotic campaigns and maverick pronouncements have all contributed to a burlesque extravaganza intended to enthuse or even entertain the electorate. Meanwhile, psephologists and astrologers alike speculate feverishly over the results. Yet irrespective of the next administration’s shape, there’s no escaping the enormous challenges that await it. And prime among these will be tackling India’s worsening fiscal deficit.

Earlier this year, the financial services firm Goldman Sachs noted that India’s fiscal deficit, including the Centre and states, ranked among the highest in the world and was likely to exceed 10 per cent of GDP in the current fiscal year. The sums involved are staggering. In the interim budget presented in February, the government admitted that in 2008-09, the deficit at the Centre had swelled from an initial estimate of Rs 1,33,287 crore (2.5 per cent of GDP) to the boggling reality of Rs 3,26, 515 crore (6 per cent of GDP). As a consequence of this profligacy, the prudential obligations imposed by the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act had to be ‘relaxed’.

The real question posed by such stupendous borrowing is whether this political addiction to debt is sustainable in the long run. Who should be especially concerned? The middle class on whom the brunt of repayment will fall through taxes certainly ought to be. It’s time they began asking some hard questions of their elected representatives.

At a time when the global financial crisis has left governments elsewhere in the world bracing themselves for a post-fiscal stimulus era of austerity with public spending freezes and an overdue return to prudent book-keeping, what’s noticeable in this general election is that neither the BJP nor the Congress have articulated a coherent response on this front. Instead, both parties have preferred to side-step issues relating to detail in favour of regurgitating pious humbug.

Their respective manifestos are far from illuminating. With a fine sense of historical irony, the Congress manifesto declares that the party “promises what it can do and will do what it promises”. It extols flagship expenditure initiatives over the last five years including the NREGS and the Rs 65,000 crore farmers’ loan waiver scheme, inviting voters to believe in their efficiency as an article of faith and tempting them to forget the many reports of systemic leakages and operational failure. A list of well-intentioned expenditure schemes for the next five years is outlined. But in typical fashion, no details on funding are offered. The inconvenient truth that these will have to be paid for somehow is overlooked entirely.

Yet if the Congress manifesto can be faulted for its uncosted assumptions, can the BJP manifesto be far behind? After a frightfully tedious lament for India’s past, the BJP manifesto turns to the present day by promising “massive investments” and listing some proposals without bothering to address costs. On the one hand, it fulminates against the Congress party’s reckless spending. But on the other hand, it also advances plans of its own which resemble much the same. For instance, the party affirms its intention to waive agricultural loans but doesn’t spell out where the moneyfor this will come from. Neither does it indicate whether it will be prepared to rethink or even revoke existing Congress spending plans where it disagrees with them. For all its criticisms of the NREGS, the BJP balks at taking a specific policy stance in relation to it. That indecision or timidity comes through quite clearly.

The unacknowledged truth is that the next government will not have the luxury of choice that its predecessor had. An era of high economic growth and revenue buoyancy allowed the Congress party to spend unheeded as it fancied. But that time has passed. Contracting growth and diminishing revenues mean that public expenditure will come under strain. Neither the Congress nor the BJP have alluded to this inevitability. If the intention is to carry on borrowing, it has not been disclosed. This reluctance is driven by the populist exigencies of an election campaign. But it places too low a premium on a voter’s intelligence and this opacity diminishes public life.

At a deeper philosophical level, the issue is that both parties remain wedded to the idea of state control. It is now generally assumed that the onset of liberalisation in the early 1990s marked a fundamental reorientation in Indian politics. Liberalisation came to India not as the apogee of an intellectual movement but merely through the nadir of necessity. It has not supplanted the Congress party’s essential instinct for centralism and intervention. Nor has it led the BJP to an alternative vision of localism, individual autonomy and smaller government.

Nevertheless, despite such ideological misgivings, the reality is that the next government will have to curb expenditure to effect a much-needed fiscal course correction. Hopefully, it may have little option but to shrink the state by cutting waste, exercising restraint and encouraging private enterprise. From the ashes of this financial tumult, if a fiscally conservative phoenix arose eventually, it would not be such a terrible outcome after all.

More than politics the people good quality life. If the politics is not going to provide that, politics is going to suffer irreparable damage in the future.


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