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May 21, 2009

Governance & Politics

How to Win

By Nitin Desai


This is the time for saying I told you so.  So here is a quote from my column last month: “My guess, or more accurately, my hope is that the Indian electorate is smart enough to know what is good for the country and will give a much more decisive result in favour of one or the other major party than the commentariat expects. So those who are believers may kindly pray…”


The prayers must have worked and the Indian electorate, that is far more sensible than the politicians it elects, has given a clear signal on what they want and what they do not want. Now is the time to understand the signals sent before the usual parsing of voting percentages and off-the-curve results confuses the message. 


The election was in effect a referendum on Manmohan Singh and a test for Rahul Gandhi’s attempt at reconstructing our politics. Both have come out of this fully vindicated.  Manmohan Singh is the first Prime Minister after Pandit Nehru to come back after serving a full term.  And there is a reason for this.  Pandit Nehru embodied for young Indians of my generation the modern India that we sought.  Manmohan Singh represents for Indians today the integrity and spirit of service that they look for in the political class and Rahul Gandhi is the earnest, simple and dedicated person that every man wants his son to be.


The people of India want a stable government less dependent on the whims of small coalition partners than in the past decade.  They do not want the government to be held to ransom by minor partners and the smaller parties in the UPA better listen and beware.


They want a generational change.  By the time the next election comes they will want to see a government led by Rahul Gandhi and the many talented young persons who have been re-elected or newly elected this time.  This is true not just for the Congress but for any party which expects to be taken seriously next time around.


They want a government which is pragmatic and less driven by ideology, which is what the massive losses of the Left Front indicate. But do not read too much into the debacle of the Left. It is more a rejection of dogmatism, stridency and arrogance than of pro-poor programmes  judging by the impact of NREGA and loan waivers on electoral outcomes.


They want a government which delivers what it promises at least in some measure.  This is clear from the Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa results and perhaps also explains why the BJP has not done too badly in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.


They do not see the regional parties as credible national players. But they remain a potent local force if they deliver results on bijli, pani, sadak, makan and rojgari. So Mayawati beware: Dalit pride is not enough.


These developmental and the political challenges come together in UP and Bihar and the Naxalite affected areas of Central India.  It is the part where the bulk of the poor live and where a vast mass of under educated young persons are found.  It is where most of our population growth, the so-called demographic dividend, will take place. This is where the battle for inclusive growth and the new politics of Rahul Gandhi will be won or lost.


The signals from the elections in this region are clear.  Nitish Kumar’s success in Bihar and the set backs to Mayawati in UP suggest that the electorate wants leadership that focuses on the delivery of development rather than one that emphasises the assertion of sectional identities.  The success of the Congress in UP, against all expectations, suggests the same thing. But the Congress has not made a real impact in the Naxalite affected areas.


This election is only the first step. The Congress can and should aim at becoming an absolute majority party at the next election and to do that it will have to make deeper inroads into the sectional vote bases that have been built up in UP and Bihar.  This is not easy.  They are not the ruling party there and cannot show any results on the ground.  But national policies that widen development options in this part of the country can help.


This is the part of India that is still not well integrated into the fast growing industrial and service economy. Take two areas: fast moving consumer goods and industrial parts and components. Why should it be easier for a buyer in Mumbai  or Bangalore or Chennai to order them from China than to buy them from a supplier in the low wage cities of UP or Bihar?  Ask yourself how long it takes for a truck  to move from Patna to Pune and  you will have a part of the answer. 


The key to development in the lagging regions of the North and the East is to invest in the logistical infrastructure which can connect these regions with the fast growing West and South.  Of course improved logistics is not enough.  Education and training, less corruption and greater accountability for results in public administration and the climate for entrepreneurship also matters. 


The growth that we need will have to take place largely in the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in urban areas and will require vocational training for rural migrants. These three, MSME support, urban development and vocational education are precisely the areas where our current policy structures are grossly inadequate.  These should be at the core of the reform agenda of Manmohan Singh’s second administration even as the nineties reform agenda of investment, trade and technology liberalisation for large corporate enterprises is pursued, now that the left foot is off the brake. 


The real challenge is to begin the process of reform and reconstruction of governance that provides the poor with the skills they require to benefit from new opportunities, that stops treating small producers of goods and services as illegal intruders, that liberates cities from public and private land sharks, that empowers city administrations and that starts doing this first in the poorest parts of the country. So if Rahul Gandhi and his young collaborators are working for the next election these are the areas of reform on which they should concentrate.


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