Tuesday, 8 April 2014

How to sell all this to the electorate

Maybe I should amend the title to "Can all this be sold to the electorate" ?  Well, I am not sure whether this can or cannot be sold (admittedly a difficult task), but I strongly believe it SHOULD be. In a democracy, we elect the form of government we want. However imperfect, it is better , in the long run, than any other alternative. But a sensible democracy is only possible when presented with a choice of ideas - not a choice of personalities as Indian democracy tends to be.

Despite the Indian electorate being enamoured of freebies, open to bribery, largely illiterate, etc etc, it is not dumb. It is actually a highly intelligent electorate which maximises personal benefit ( why not ) and decides on the choices presented. It is the fault of the political class that they have not presented a different nature of choice.

I believe, its a complete misnomer that subsidies and freebies win elections. They do not. Consider the Congress party's last 5 years. Two major doles - the Rural Employment Guarantee and the Food Security Act are nothing but giveaways; totaling in excess of Rs 50,000 crores. Has it given them any electoral advantage ? None.  What about the state of Tamil Nadu - where parties competed with each other to dole out mixies and grinders. The DMK, which started this and faithfully implemented the promise, was thrown out at the last election. The Samajwadi party , which doled out free laptops in UP, is facing a fair defeat in this polls.  Many parties have written off loans, given free power to farmers etc etc - that hasn't always won them elections.

The Indian electorate has changed. Good governance wins elections now. The examples of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa, and to a certain extent Assam are showing us the way forward. Spread across the political spectrum , they are indicative of a trend. Development and economics works and it can win elections. After all, the current frontrunner is running precisely on this plank.

The challenge for the political class is to explain economics in a simple way to the electorate. Almost nobody has cracked this (anywhere in the world). But that doesn't mean we should not try. Present the Indian budget in an even simpler form than what I outlined a few posts back. And then engage in a national debate  as to what the priorities should be. An honest, non corrupt leader, meaningfully engaging this issue will resonate with the voters. Indians understand debt and the need to live within our means very well - it is in our culture. Engage in a debate with them on priorities. I am willing to bet that a consensus amongst a vast majority will be reached, which would be sensible economically.

There are however some pre requistes for a politician engaging in an economic debate

  • He or she must be completely non corrupt personally. At the moment only Manmohan Singh, Mamta Banerjee,  and perhaps Narendra Modi qualify.
  • He or she must be completely free of crony capitalism (both the gentlemen stand accused of this)
  • He or she must have credibility (Manmohan Singh's has gone and the lady does her best to undermine her's) .

Such a leader must present the case for reform  to the Indian electorate.  It may not win him the election, but I strongly feel it won't lose him one. Building up some steam and buy in, makes the job of implementing them easier later on. Once the track record has been established, it will guarantee him future victories in elections far better than any populist measures will.

So here is a suggestion to the combatants in the elections

  • Choose a personally non corrupt leader (most major parties have such individuals)
  • Outline the boundaries of the economic plan. Of course, this is only aspect of a manifesto - others including social, political, cultural, and other issues are equally important
  • Once in power, implement rigorously with zero tolerance for crony capitalism. State funding of elections, will help in this.
  • When the time comes five years hence for re election, I submit you would win easily.
An alternate route to winning this election, I suggest,  will doom you to defeat in the next one. So what, you might ask ? After all five years of power and moneys are pretty good . Yes, maybe. But politicians will quickly discover that short term gains are not that attractive to them any more. They all aspire for a place in history.  That is certainly true of those who want to become the Prime Minister. A place in history comes with  the nation doing extraordinarily well - not by thuggery or maximising personal wealth.

With this post, I rest my case on the economic manifesto for India.

We enter a crucial next month when we as a nation will make a choice.  May we have the strength to chose wisely, and carefully. And May the Force be with the new leader, whoever that may be, and his government, to serve India well. May we be judged in times to come, as a generation which turned the corner for India. 



The Million Miler said...

Optimist you are in saying that this is a generation that turned the corner around in India!

Ramesh said...

@Kiwi - Well, when we lose hold of optimism, what else is there !!

Sriram Khé said...

Was it in the Economist that I recently read, or was it somewhere else, the commentary that politicians, especially the uber-corrupt ones, are able to buy the votes in constituencies with high illiteracy rates. Particularly female illiteracy. The buying of votes--with cash or gifts--won't always work when the voter is able to think even just a bit, and literacy is a reasonable proxy for that thinking cap.

Which is why, as you point out, while DMK and ADMK routinely empty the treasury in order to dole out freebies when in power, and hand out goodies during elections, it does not work. People--like the domestic help at my parents' home--do collect the freebies but really the vote itself is not for sale.
The urban voter might vote based on an understanding of jobs and incomes, whatever that understanding might be. But, religion and caste still plays a huge role in rural India. (The reports on BJP's campaign tactics in UP's Muzaffarnagar is a wonderful example of that.)

As much as I do not like the idea of Modi as the PM, it appears that the probability is high that will become PM. Which might work out well as long as there is no serious incidence of violence/terrorism that is religion-based. If an incident or two happens, then his Hindutva image will become one awful issue. Modi will have quite some hassles establishing his Indian, not "Hindu," credentials as the PM when he continues the peace dialog with Pakistan, or work out the illegal immigration issues with Bangladesh. For India's sake, I can only hope that at least for the first couple of years of his office there will be no serious religious tensions in India, in Pakistan, or for that matter even in Iran or Iraq or Palestine ...

Ramesh said...

@Sriram - You will be surprised how much the old issues of caste and religion are eroding as electoral issues even in rural India. One of the small "work" that I still do takes me to rural India - I continue to be amazed at how much the hunger for jobs is, how much education (delightfully of women too) has spread and alas, how few opportunities are there for them.

As for your prediction on the results, I shall let that one pass !!!

Anonymous said...

I think we underestimate the intelligence of the voting public. There's a general sense that the government has unlimited money and if needed it can just print more notes but if someone were to educate people on the budget and the fact that resources for spending are limited and therefore the need to prioritize, I think many will get it. You don't gory details and complicated economics - just the basics. Also as you point out from the TN example the freebies to the really poor voting masses does not add up to that much and so if you keep that intact but get rid of undeserved subsidies, there may be a more widespread buy in. Maybe I'm being naive here but as far as I can tell nobody has tried to educate the public. I am not saying everyone will understand it but there needs to be some intelligent debate.

Ramesh said...

@J - Agree. The innate intelligence of the voter understands the limitation of the resources even now. The big issue is that the voter is convinced that everybody is looting the exchequer and hence therefore its absolutely fine if he joins the party too. The complete breakdown of trust in any authority is a big problem. Hence anybody who discusses priorities is not credible.

It will take somebody indisputably clean to be able to really sell that. There are such people - Mamta Banerjee for one. Unfortunately the economics of such people is completely lunatic.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Ramesh: I am sure you have heard this before but two years ago when the threat of a Grexit from the Euro was very real, Jean-Claude Juncker,the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, said "“We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” I think it is true of the national politicians. One of my investors who is working actively for Modi's victory says the NDA thinks Indian voters do not vote on the basis of governance and issues but on the basis of caste and religion. May be this is half true or even 10% correct. But this thinking permeates politics.

Ramesh said...

@Ravi - Missed you all this while with your learned and incisive points of view. I can understand though that some godforsaken village in Cheshire, where you took a fancy to, may not have internet or some of the twenty first century facts of life. Perhaps you were hollering at Henry VIII there :)

Yes, that is the prevailing point of view, but what is the point of getting elected on caste or religious lines and your name being cast in mud - don't these guys want a place in history ?

The Indian voter and the Chinese "voter" aren't much different - look at the legitimacy that the CPC has, exclusively on economic performance. That shows it is possible to be popular solely by development.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Ramesh: Knutsford is a sleepy backwater, but 5 miles away is Jodrell Bank, one of the most advanced Radio Telescopes in the world. That's England for you - a small town that appears in the Domesday Book from a thousand years ago, sits cheek by jowl with an establishment that helped us learn how insignificant this planet is, and how ephemeral its concerns are in relation to the vastness and timelessness of the Cosmos.

Our leaders invariably believe that a few hundred million dollars in a Swiss Bank beats a place in history. Who cares about history in this country other than the middle class? The political class don't care because of money, and the poor don't care because of money (or the lack of it).

We were founded on an idea in a tryst with destiny. That sense of history has been lost. We are about to elect a man who has not read a book in his life and could not place Taxila. He is being hailed as a saviour largely because of his muslim-killing credentials.

I suggest we focus on the Cosmos.

Ramesh said...

@Ravi - What has happened to you. Why are you now puzzling over the timeless Cosmos. Is this what a stint in the vicinity of a radio telescope does. By the way I am intrigued by your claims of modernity for Old Blighty by the presence of a radio telescope. The best radio telescopes in the world are in the Atacama Desert, Mauna Kea, Green Bank, etc etc. If you intention was to however paint your beloved country as comparably remote, then I wholeheartedly agree :):)

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