This has been a dispiriting election campaign. Most of what we hear are negatives — why we should not vote for the other fellow. Most of the rest is rhetoric — platitudes masquerading as content. We need an election where we see a contest of ideas and not hate. Start with three propositions: First, both the government and opposition are equally committed to the national interest and try to serve it with equal integrity. Neither has a monopoly on patriotism or integrity, and accusations of being anti-national or corrupt in either direction are shameful. Second, when in government, both the BJP and Congress have done their best to develop the economy. This best has often been lacking. The last 20 years have seen India governed by the governments led by the BJP and Congress for 10 years each. Each can take roughly half the responsibility for what we have achieved in these 20 years and what we haven't. And third, both the government and opposition would serve the country well if they debated ideas instead of personalities. We do not need a strong leadership; we need a government that does the right things.
So what right things should we seek as election promises from our political leaders?
Economic issues must dominate debate
India needs decades of high growth to become a developed country. If we grow 8 per cent a year (better than we are achieving now), it will take 20 years for our per capita GDP (currently $2,000) to match today’s mid-income level of China ($9,000). If we grow 10 per cent a year, it will take 30 years to reach today’s developed country level of South Korea ($30,000). Very few countries have grown 10 per cent a year for over 20 years: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. We must have the same aspiration. What will it take? Three things: Our growth must be inclusive, we need consistent structural reform of the economy, and the private sector must be the growth dynamo.
First, as 60 per cent of India's GDP growth comes from consumption, our growth must be inclusive. Both the government and opposition talk inclusive growth, but rely on giveaways — whether loan waivers or direct cash transfers. Giveaways alleviate current poverty; they do not include people in growth processes. We should rely, instead, on education and skills. We need specific commitments on education spending, policies to improve education outcomes, and ideas to kick-start our moribund skill development programme.
For too long we have tolerated governments which do not accord school education the priority it demands. The results are depressing: The 2018 Annual State of Education Report (ASER) says:
- Under half of all children in government schools in Standard V can read a Standard II text;
- Only 23 per cent of children in government schools in Standard V can do division. Forty per cent of children in Standard III cannot even subtract;
- Only 12 per cent of Standard III children in Uttar Pradesh can read a Standard II text while 47 per cent of children in Himachal Pradesh can.
Eventually, the ASER tells us, many children learn something. But if our children spend most years in school simply learning how to read, add and subtract, they are missing the basic skills needed to learn anything else. Shouldn’t such fundamental issues, which are crippling the nation in the long run, be front and centre in our election?
Second, we need consistent economic reform — defined as moving decision-making from the government to the market. We do not need better government; we need less government. This government's ease of doing business programme is in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. Every improvement in reducing regulation by one department (e.g. industry) seems to be matched by a new regulation from company affairs, or a regulator like the Securities and Exchange Board of India, or the Anti-Profiteering Authority (the name itself is a throw-back to our pre-1991 slumber). Election manifestos may be necessarily short on detail, but we need specific commitments of which areas would be reformed, and how. Two examples of sensible economics are missing in our political discourse: Instead of free power, farmers should be promised 24-hour high-quality power — at market rates. If we need subsidies, provide a direct cash transfer. Agriculture should be taxed as for any other activity — will any party have the courage to tax personal agricultural income above, say, Rs 1 crore per year?
Third, the strength of the Indian economy, unlike the Chinese economy, rests in the private sector. Much of the increase in our growth rate since 1991 has come from the unleashing of private enterprise. We should hear how business in general (as opposed to some individual crooks) would be trusted to invest and take the economy forward. A 1970s cartoon by the wonderful R K Laxman shows a businessman walking away from a minister's desk: “Did you see how depressed and miserable that businessman looks? That shows our industrial policy is working.” We have come a very long way after 1991, and the progress must continue. And just as business must be trusted to do the right thing, business must repay that trust — by investing in capacity and proprietary technology by complying with all applicable laws in full, and by funding political parties completely transparently — saying who and how much they fund.
If politicians are human, and voters are intelligent
Finally, as voters, we should expect our politicians to be human. We should not expect them to be supermen or miracle-workers, able to bring peace and prosperity to all while balancing the books. We should expect them to wrestle with conflicting priorities and display the humility of not having all the answers. We should expect responsibility for actions and accountability for failures. We should expect decency in debate and civility in how opponents are addressed. And, equally, politicians should expect us as voters to be intelligent. That we do wish to hear ideas debated and policy presented. That we do want politicians to call on us to think for ourselves and make real choices, instead of pandering to our worst instincts. Let us have a contest of content when we go to the polls in April and May.
The writer is co-chairman of Forbes Marshall, past president of CII, and chairman of the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Economic Research (CTIER)