There is an astonishing lack of debate on economic issues in states going to the polls at a time when the economy faces a deadly combination of low growth, raging food inflation, rising interest rates, and recurrent wobbles in the external value of the currency. Instead, there is a focus on personalities and on the groups they would favour and disfavour. Anti-incumbency features in discussion but without demands for granularity in promises of change.
There have over the years been state elections in which parties with a good governance record won successive terms. But conversations between candidates and electorate are still not about the details of what contenders would do to raise the productivity of agriculture, or vest employable skills in school-leaving cohorts, or facilitate industrial production and employment, or reform the power sector, or improve the quality and quantity of water supply, or combat climate change, or improve sanitation. Electoral strategy lapses into particular forms of segmentation of the electorate. Election warfare then degenerates into schoolyard practices, where scare tactics are used to prevent the formation of party coalitions which can forge alliances across these partitions.
On October 26, The New York Times joined the Indian election fray in scare mode. (Subsequent external electoral assessments for India such as that by Goldman Sachs had a more sensible focus on economic issues and expectations.) In an editorial, the newspaper warned that one among the prime ministerial candidates in the general elections slated for May 2014 inspires fear among India's minorities. It did not mention that the entire electorate fears the continuance of misgovernance at all levels.
By coincidence, the newspaper carried an op-ed that very same day by Frank Bruni on another country, the identity of which is an unfortunate red herring in the current Indian context: "Italy is what happens when a country knows full well what its problems are but can't summon the discipline and will to fix them. It's what happens when political dysfunction grinds on and on and good governance becomes a mirage, a myth, a joke... Italy's current way of doing business... [is] based on personal allegiances, debts owed and time served instead of merit." Sounds familiar. The difference of course is that India is a far poorer country, with much less room for waste or error.
A current example of misgovernance is the epidemic of dengue fever that took grip post-monsoon, a classical public health failure, which ran riot through rich and poor alike. A popular movie director, Yash Chopra, succumbed to dengue some months ago. There is no political party exclusively culpable for this, in Delhi at any rate, where the municipal level at which responsibility for public health principally lies is controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the state government by the Congress party. The general credibility of government is at such an all-time low that when incidence in Delhi was reported (most recently) at 4,784 cases, and deaths at 15, the public routinely applied a factor of as much 10 to those numbers.
Even 48,000 cases might be thought of as a low probability affliction in Delhi with a population of 17 million. The absolute numbers were nevertheless large enough to cause an acute shortage of hospital beds for routine surgeries. India now has the proud distinction of having the largest number of dengue cases in the world. Since the dengue mosquito breeds in any collection of water, including those inside homes, it might be thought to be beyond the reach of the governance capabilities of the country. It was not always so. In the 1950s, there was a systematic effort to stamp out malaria in Delhi through home visits by field staff of the public health department. Supervisors later did sample checks to see if their investigators had actually visited. Before the worldwide eradication of smallpox by a remarkable international effort, when there was an outbreak in Delhi in 1958, every home was visited and every resident inoculated. Delhi was a smaller city in those days, of course, but available channels for outreach were also much more limited.
Voter memory is short. When a public programme succeeds, there is no reminder of what it was like before. People forget the ravages of malaria, of what it was like to be reduced to a shivering wreck. Slowly, over time, the focus of elected governments shifted from the universal benefits of good governance to identifiable beneficiaries. The advantage is that the larger problem can be neglected, and bailouts given to selected groups. The governance solution to food inflation would be to steady the price level, to benefit all. The votebank solution is to give subsidies to selected identities.
Aadhaar just by itself drives home the decisive shift in the practice of governance in India towards identifiability as the basis for receipt of governance benefits. Aadhaar undoubtedly has huge potential for eliminating ghosts from lists of pensioners, or for enabling financial inclusion. But the core driver of the scheme, which has cost around Rs 5,500 crore so far, was its promise of being able to differentiate the entitled from the unentitled. And the failure to secure legal opinion prior to spending all those crores is in itself a massive instance of misgovernance.
Governance is about systems and procedures. It is if anything more relevant in the state context than in the context of the general election, which is in any case too far away in time. Any promise or performance of governance has to descend from grand abstractions to specifics, so that voters know what is on offer. Not just chief ministerial candidates, but plain ordinary representatives have to declare what they think are the problems facing the country, and the constituency they are running for. What will they do to fix those problems? What do they think of food inflation, food adulteration, ensuring hygiene in public places? What will they do to enable economic activity and overall betterment?
The writer is a retired professor of economics