Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
It’s election season, and promises are raining down on voters like rose petals on naïve newlyweds. Earlier this week, the Congress party announced a minimum income guarantee for the poor. This Friday, the Modi government released a budget full of sops. As the days go by, the promises will get bolder, and you might feel important that so much attention is being given to you. Well, the joke is on you.
Every election, HL Mencken once said, is “an advance auction sale of stolen goods.” A bunch of competing mafias fight to rule over you for the next five years. You decide who wins, on the basis of who can bribe you better with your own money. This is an absurd situation, which I tried to express in a limerick I wrote for this page a couple of years ago:
POLITICS: A neta who loves currency notes/ Told me what his line of work denotes./ ‘It is kind of funny./ We steal people’s money/And use some of it to buy their votes.’
We’re the dupes here, and we pay far more to keep this circus going than this circus costs. It would be okay if the parties, once they came to power, provided good governance. But voters have given up on that, and now only want patronage and handouts. That leads to one of the biggest problems in Indian politics: We are stuck in an equilibrium where all good politics is bad economics, and vice versa.
For example, the minimum guarantee for the poor is good politics, because the optics are great. It’s basically Garibi Hatao: that slogan made Indira Gandhi a political juggernaut in the 1970s, at the same time that she unleashed a series of economic policies that kept millions of people in garibi for decades longer than they should have been.
This time, the Congress has released no details, and keeping it vague makes sense because I find it hard to see how it can make economic sense. Depending on how they define ‘poor’, how much income they offer and what the cost is, the plan will either be ineffective or unworkable.
The Modi government’s interim budget announced a handout for poor farmers that seemed rather pointless. Given our agricultural distress, offering a poor farmer 500 bucks a month seems almost like mockery.
Such condescending handouts solve nothing. The poor want jobs and opportunities. Those come with growth, which requires structural reforms. Structural reforms don’t sound sexy as election promises. Handouts do.
A classic example is farm loan waivers. We have reached a stage in our politics where every party has to promise them to assuage farmers, who are a strong vote bank everywhere. You can’t blame farmers for wanting them – they are a necessary anaesthetic. But no government has yet made a serious attempt at tackling the root causes of our agricultural crisis.
Why is it that Good Politics in India is always Bad Economics? Let me put forth some possible reasons. One, voters tend to think in zero-sum ways, as if the pie is fixed, and the only way to bring people out of poverty is to redistribute. The truth is that trade is a positive-sum game, and nations can only be lifted out of poverty when the whole pie grows. But this is unintuitive.
Two, Indian politics revolves around identity and patronage. The spoils of power are limited – that is indeed a zero-sum game – so you’re likely to vote for whoever can look after the interests of your in-group rather than care about the economy as a whole.
Three, voters tend to stay uninformed for good reasons, because of what Public Choice economists call Rational Ignorance. A single vote is unlikely to make a difference in an election, so why put in the effort to understand the nuances of economics and governance? Just ask, what is in it for me, and go with whatever seems to be the best answer.
Four, Politicians have a short-term horizon, geared towards winning the next election. A good policy that may take years to play out is unattractive. A policy that will win them votes in the short term is preferable.
Sadly, no Indian party has shown a willingness to aim for the long term. The Congress has produced new Gandhis, but not new ideas. And while the BJP did make some solid promises in 2014, they did not walk that talk, and have proved to be, as Arun Shourie once called them, UPA + Cow. Even the Congress is adopting the cow, in fact, so maybe the BJP will add Temple to that mix?
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” This election season, my friends, the people of India are on the menu. You have been deveined and deboned, marinated with rhetoric, seasoned with narrative – now enter the oven and vote.
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