Tomorrow’s battles

Dear Mr Gandhi: The elections in Uttar Pradesh are, understandably, your major preoccupation. It is difficult to predict the result. But even if you do well, will India have reason to celebrate? Electoral success will show that you are better than the opposition. But that bar is now so low that it is almost an embarrassment to trumpet that one is merely better than the opposition. In 2009, the Congress got as propitious a mandate as any party could have expected. There was hope and expectation. The opposition, both on the left and right, was decimated. But what did India gain? It frittered away the good times. Instead of using growth to lay a secure foundation for the future, and create conditions where the scourge of poverty can be removed, we undermined the prospects for growth. We have high inflation, worrying public debt, slowing growth, uncertain currency prospects, falling investment, crushing interest rates. Do you seriously believe that none of this impacts India's poor? If Dalit children enrolled in school, it is not because government reached out to them. It is because they began to see the returns to education that an expanding economy brought.

Not a single one of the big-ticket items the country needs has progressed. Centralisation of governance remains endemic. There is no serious progress on GST. There is an energy crisis looming. With the exception of RTI, there is no meaningful administrative reform. These will not happen without serious investment of political capital. Government processes from finance to environment smack of more discretion than before. Agriculture, except where states have taken an initiative, remains stuck. Corruption is endemic. Evasion of responsibility remains the norm. Every single institution, from the office of the prime minister to the cabinet, stands weakened. The capacity of the system to negotiate conflict and grievances is declining. Bills are languishing in Parliament. And all your favourite schemes are fighting yesterday's battles, not preparing for tomorrow. NREGA was, at best, a palliative. But the fact that more of it is required is an indictment of government. Your party may not have some of the worst, exclusivist tendencies of your rivals. But you have not found ways of transcending the traps of identity politics that have kept India small.

Perhaps it cannot be all that bad. We are growing at 7 per cent. But this has made your government shockingly complacent. This growth is a testament to the resilience and perseverance of the Indian people, who are finding ways of innovating. But there are two reasons for worry. First, as you know, employment elasticity of capital-based growth is falling globally. India needs to grow faster if it is to absorb the countless aspiring young men and women trying to make something of themselves. Second, all of the things we now need to do for a more participatory economy — health, education, infrastructure, building cities, research and development, water, energy — have long gestation periods. But time is of the essence. Our demography is giving us a short-term boost. Despite global uncertainty, this is a huge moment of opportunity for India. But this opportunity will not last, and if we miss this decade, we shall forever be condemned to poverty.

The political judgment reflected in your policies is inexplicable. FDI in retail may be a sound idea. But it is hard for you to sell it with any degree of conviction. It is apparent to everyone that retail FDI is not backed by a will to reform. It is a low-hanging fruit plucked by a desperate government that has brought India's external economic balance to precariousness. It would have been easier to sell the idea after a Parliament session where your party had regained some credibility through legislative achievement. You place great stock in the land acquisition bill. But rather than working for its quick passage, your government again introduces distractions. In your rare parliamentary interventions you announce that the Lokpal will be a constitutional body, as if that elliptical statement substitutes for all the political hard work that needs to be done to get consensus on an effective bill. Will you invest political capital in these issues, or wave your hand as if it is the Congress's birth right to do whatever it pleases. There is no follow-through on anything.

The use of state power by the Congress has been ruthless, the corrosion of public discourse unconscionable, and the anti-intellectualism mind-boggling. Mayawati may run a corrupt government. But she had the audaciousness of proposing the reorganisation of the state. You have waxed eloquent about the plight of Bundelkhand. Where are your arguments to this proposal that grants self-government to the region? You are faced with a potentially debilitating conflict over Telangana. Where do you see the future of Indian states and the place of mega cities like Hyderabad in them? You have focused attention on India's poor. But you appear to use the poor more than you want to trust their agency. Most citizens of India understand that we need to build the state in the right places. What they do not understand is waste in the name of welfare, centralisation in the name of accountability, and bureaucratic power in the place of innovation. Rather than engage on pathways out of poverty, your government seems to want to douse them with noblesse oblige. India needs more social programmes. But the way in which your government designs them, presumably with your imprimatur, ensures that they will not meet their objectives. Your party is trapped in two illusions. First, governance and politics are different issues. Second, only those policies that specifically address poor people affect the poor. You wreck the macro-economy in the name of the poor, and then cheat the poor because you refuse to govern.

Our generation — those of us in our forties — has a historical responsibility like no other. The preceding generations struggled against great odds. Ours is the first genuinely post-colonial generation in this sense: the outside world cannot hold us down. Ours is the first generation that began to genuinely feel that India need not remain impoverished. But our window of opportunity is small. What does it say about your leadership that both those sentiments now seem to be on shaky foundations? That subtlest of things on which nations are made — self-belief — is fast eroding. Great leadership converts ordinary talent into something exceptional, constraint into opportunity. Your party diminishes talent, converts opportunity into constraint. Your party-building efforts are needed. But will the party be built on the ruins of the nation?

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, express@expressindia.com

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