Indian politics and populism: A dangerous seesaw

Venky Vembu | Updated on April 26, 2019

Return gift: Every party’s economic manifesto, such as it is, is centred around competitive welfarism   -  The Hindu

Desperate to woo the voter with giveaways, politicians downgrade the discourse on economy

In this season of extended election campaigning, with opinion polls pointing to a less-than-clear mandate for any one party, it’s fair to say that the political manoeuvring skills of key players will be on stern test — first, in forming a government, and later in ensuring its stability. Established political theory would suggest that parties that position themselves close to the centre of the political stage — and steer clear of the fringes — stand the best chance of attracting allies and new adherents. There is something about centrism that political formations, particularly those that are not bound by ideological orthodoxy of one persuasion or another, ought to find comforting: It provides them the flexibility to be all things to all people, and to fashion opportunistic alliances based on post-election outcomes.

A graphic audiovisual clip, which went viral on social media platforms last week, provided a metaphor of sorts for the kind of skills that will be required in the next few weeks as parties scramble to read the tea leaves of the electoral verdict and ponder over whether “auld acquaintances” should “be forgot” and “never brought to mind”. The clip, which gained traction after business tycoon Anand Mahindra drew attention to it, was of a thrilling automobile daredevilry, with two jeeps being artfully manoeuvred on a scarily see-sawing mechanical platform. After teetering one way and then the other in order to counter-balance the other vehicle’s lurch to one extreme, the two automobiles find the right equilibrium and the right balance — at the centre. It’s the kind of stunt that you might see performed in village fairs, but as much as it validated theoretical scientific concepts, it also allegorically demonstrated the political premise that stability is optimised at the centre of any platform.

Under these principles, a lurch to one extreme position by one political party or formation would effectively create a vacuum at the other end of the spectrum, which a rival could profitably hope to fill, even if it is acting on an opportunistic instinct. That consideration would effectively serve as a counterbalancing force on the first party, which would then be compelled, for reasons of its own survival, to move away from the fringe — and towards the centre. As the players negotiate the spaces thus, the political system as a whole would typically find a balance close to the centre.

However, a survey of the election landscape across the country, and a clinical study of the parties’ manifesto promises in respect of the economy, makes a mockery of these political theories. Virtually every party’s economic manifesto, such as it is, is centred around competitive welfarism, with each looking to ‘outbid’ the others in respect of promised giveaways for voters. The Congress came up with the pledge of a ₹72,000-a-year direct benefit transfer to 20 per cent of the poorest households in India, which received much media attention and acclaim. That set off a bidding war of sorts, in which regional parties too joined in. In the end, the award for reckless populism was secured by the Telugu Desam Party of N Chandrababu Naidu, which promised monetary benefits to the extent of ₹2 lakh a year to each family in perpetuity. These benefits, the party emphasised, would extend all the way “from the womb to the tomb”.

That an erstwhile reformist-minded chief minister, who had projected himself as the State’s CEO who could deliver superior governance on the bedrock of fiscal prudence, feels compelled to go over the top with cradle-to-grave giveaways, tells its own story.

In effect, what such competitive populism has done is to shift the fulcrum of the discourse on the economy far to the left of the centre. Theory suggests that this opens up the politico-economic space on the right of the centre for any party to profit from. As a supposed ‘right-wing’ party, the BJP may seem best placed to fill this vacuum, but the reality is somewhat different.

Other than a few of the BJP’s market-oriented policy interventions, such as the Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme, the party’s core economic philosophy doesn’t differ vastly from the Nehruvian socialist model that characterises much of the political flock. Its appetite for a modicum of reforms, manifest soon after it came to power in 2014, vanished ever since it was targeted by the Congress with the ‘suit-boot sarkar’ jibe, ostensibly for placing a premium on the sensibilities of corporate tycoons. That effectively represents a lost opportunity.

Ironically, the Congress has been nimble about seizing this piece of business-friendly turf vacated by the BJP.

For all of Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s continuing jibes — much of which rests on a foundation of mind-numbing mendacity — about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proximity to prominent businessmen, it is a Congress candidate who has secured an on-tape endorsement from India’s richest tycoon. Evidently, sartorial preferences are tending towards the suit-boot yet again.

Venky Vembu   -  BUSINESS LINE


Venky Vembu is Associate Editor, BusinessLine; Email:

Published on April 26, 2019

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