The recent Assembly elections sent out an unambiguous message to the federal Indian government — populism is no substitute for good governance. All the populist measures the UPA government initiated — be it the MNREGA job scheme, farm loan waivers, cheap rations or the 22-US$ billion food security law which professes to feed 800 million Indians — could not avert its rout in four of the five key Indian states.
Interestingly, the sops handed out just before elections (in complete violation of the Election Commission rules, of course) proved to be no guarantee of votes. The Congress has been shown the door for poor political leadership, a shifty approach to corruption and utter disregard for the wishes of the common man.
Ostensibly, the party’s approach was to bag votes with largesse at State’s expense rather than through its own administrative acumen. The result is for all to see. They seem to be forgetting that this pseudo-entitlements culture is reminiscent more of medieval rajahs handing out doles to commoners rather than a modern government in tune with its people’s aspirations.
The dessert state of Rajasthan illustrates this point well. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot had bent over backwards to hand out every possible sop to his voters. Populist schemes like free medicines to pension schemes to entitlements for women were launched. But did they win him another term? No way. He was booted out with the message that people’s votes could not be bought through cheap gifts.
The same pattern got repeated in Chhattisgarh. CM Raman Singh, pulled out all stops to launch new schemes for the girl child and deliver rice for Rs.1 a kg, among others. But people rejected his munificence outright. They’d rather have access to better services, more jobs, quality goods etc, they seemed to say through the ballot box.
Apparently, the UPA overlooked the most fundamental truth — it is the quality of governance which matters at the end of the day. The changing political dynamic across India – both in rural and urban areas — suggests that only political parties that deliver on governance will remain relevant. And while voters may not understand the complexities of economics, or the nuances of fiscal deficits and GDP (gross domestic produce) or PPP (purchasing power parity), they’re astute enough to know that cheap rations, free rice and free electricity deliver only short-terms gains.
What’s in it for us in the long haul? they seem to be asking now. How about generating employment for us by boosting industrial growth? How about better education for our kids by bringing the country’s colleges and universities at par with global standards? How about better transportation services? And more security for our women?
Inflation has sent household budgets into a tizzy, as the unprecedented price rise in vegetables and essential commodities has gone through the roof. This too, has led to a paradigm shift in voters’ mindsets.
A large number of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet seem to have been driven by the approach that populism will fetch the party votes and bring them back to power in 2014. Now that bubble has burst, the prime minister shouldn’t remain a prisoner of political expediency.
Electoral sops reinforce the idea that people need to be provided for and that they can’t fend for themselves. What could be more demeaning? This is an antediluvian mindset.
Data complied by independent agencies suggests that most populist measures, profligate and tardily implemented, have led to corruption. Resources cannot be squandered in the name of votes, particularly when people want only lasting benefits.
There’s one silver lining in this cloud though. The shockers in these assembly elections will surely make Indian politicians sit up and take note of people’s real needs. In the process, they might even treat the common man with more respect. And this is hardly a bad thing.
With more awareness — thanks in no small measure to India’s vibrant social media and a vigilant Fourth Estate — people’s aspirations have spiraled dramatically. They want the real deal. They want empowerment, not handholding.
Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist
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Pupils will be involved in teacher-led online lessons on December 1, and they will only return to campus on Tuesday, December 5