Why is ‘Vikas’ missing from election speeches?
There is a remarkable change in the campaign for the 2019 parliamentary elections, compared to the 2014 one. Narendra Modi is widely considered to have come to power in 2014 by promising development for all through the slogan Sabka saath sabka vikas. He had also promised to create over 10 million jobs. There was no hint of the divisive credo of Hindutva.
In contrast, the BJP’s current campaign is singularly devoid of economic content. It began somewhat defensively with much being made by the Opposition of the missing jobs and rural distress. Then, quite fortuitously, the terrorist attack at Pulwama and its aftermath have caused Modi to call himself the chowkidar or gatekeeper with the message going out that national security is best ensured under BJP rule. The patriotism of those who questioned the success of the Balakot counterattack has been questioned.
The pros and cons of the Congress Manifesto
This pattern of contrasting campaigns of the two main parties has been further emphasized by the Congress in its election manifesto choosing to highlight economic issues and making major promises.
The key Congress campaign plank is the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) which promises an annual cash transfer of Rs 72,000 to the women of the bottom 20 per cent of households. This is the nearest the country has come to outlining a universal basic income (UBI) which is being talked about globally as inequality of income is rising, denying the fruits of high growth to all but the rich.
The manifesto goes further. As NDA-II has singularly failed in its promise of creating jobs, the Congress has promised the filling of four lakh central government vacancies, 20 lakh such positions at the states and creation of 10 lakh Seva Mitra positions at local bodies.
The Congress has further promised to pass a Right to Healthcare Act and double public expenditure on healthcare to 3 per cent of GDP. Similarly, the expenditure of education will be doubled to 6 per cent of GDP.
The Congress has also sought to be business friendly by promising to overhaul the newly introduced GST system by simplifying it, introducing a single moderate rate of taxation, zero rating of exports, exempting essential goods and services and importantly promising a share of the revenue to local bodies.
These Congress promises have been widely criticized among economic and financial analysts as irresponsible because there seems no way in which the resources to make good such huge promises can be found without simply printing money and wrecking the fiscal balance.
NDA wary of unfulfilled promises
NDA-II came up with its own version of UBI earlier in the interim 2019 union budget through the PM Kisan scheme which sanctioned Rs 6,000 per year to 120 million small and marginal farmers with land holdings of less than two hectares. The first instalment of this, Rs 2,000, has been disbursed to beat the introduction of the code of conduct for the elections.
One reason why the government has come up with few pre-election proposals to make life easier for the poor is that it has already launched several such schemes during its tenure such as help to build toilets, distribute cooking gas connections and provide electricity connection to every household that wants it. One programme which has huge long term implications is facilitating the opening of no-frills Jan Dhan Yojana bank accounts to enable direct benefit transfer. NYAY, promised by the Congress, will use this mechanism if it comes to power.
Another, perhaps more important, reason why NDA-II has been slow to make lavish pre-election economic promises can be that it has become a bit wiser after the way in which its promise of jobs boomeranged. This has taken away most of the credit which should have been its due from achieving a high 7 per cent plus rate of economic growth and keeping inflation under control.
Unfortunately, the last has had an unintended fallout. Low inflation has been achieved mainly through keeping food prices under control which has caused enormous grief to farmers. If there is any one issue which may cost the BJP dear in the coming elections then it is wide rural distress stemming from cultivators being unable to even recover their costs. This in turn has caused the rate of growth of rural wages to lag behind inflation, thus causing real incomes to actually go down.
As opposite to this, the Congress has been free to promise the moon in the knowledge that it will have to live up to its promises only if it comes to power. It is only then that the hard sums will have to be worked out.
Populist promises resonate with voters
This brings us to the whole question of whether economic issues, all important in poor countries, can become campaign issues in a meaningful way. Past experience suggests that only populist promises stir the public’s imagination. This was the case with Indira Gandhi’s Garibi hatao which brought electoral dividends but did not bring about a substantial dent in poverty.
That had to wait till the policies which came in the wake of economic liberation initiated in the nineties took root. The cardinal issue today is that winning the battle for growth is not enough if it turns out to be of the jobless variety. Economists round the world as yet do not have a clear answer to that puzzle. Hence a key election is being fought by sidestepping the single most import issue of the day – how to beat the demon of jobless growth.
Subir Roy is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.