For the past month, television screens have been suffused with images of political leaders criss-crossing the five states where elections have just been held and the results have come in. Although the former civil servants in the Election Commission of India may not agree, the fact is that a stridency of debate is commonplace within mature democracies. In the United States, for example, while Republican nominee Donald Trump in effect called Hillary Clinton a criminal by suggesting that the Democratic candidate should be in jail, the lady retaliated by accusing the New York billionaire of being an agent of the Kremlin. Whether it be the US or in other democracies, there is a relentless spotlight on each major candidate for high office that is yet to become the norm in India, where there seems to be a lack of curiosity within large sections of the media about several aspects of a candidate’s life and work that are crucial in determining whether or not to give support to the individual concerned.
Certainly the gloves came off during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, just as they have in the March 2017 Assembly elections to five states. Charges and counter-charges became a staple of campaigning, and this is at it should be, for an anodyne campaign, which avoids touching on inconvenient facts does injustice to the need of the public to know every important detail of a politician’s career, including family, health and financial particulars. Amazingly, thus far the Election Commission of India is yet to conduct a thorough audit of the income and wealth statements of Parliamentary candidates to check whether the figures represent fact or fiction. In particular, whether there has been systematic under-valuation of assets and income. Hopefully, the EC will review existing procedures to make them more accurate and comprehensive than is the situation the far.
In the estimation of this newspaper, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi has about 16 months before the general election season kicks in and creates a situation where all matters unrelated to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls fade away to the back of the stage. During this time, it is important that important reforms get passed and implemented across the country, such as GST. Hopefully, the din heard during the past weeks from the five states that have gone to the polls will not get repeated in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, and that both Houses will ensure that legislation crucial to the economic success of India and to social stability and security will get passed. Debate is needed, but gridlock needs to be avoided.
A bad example was set by the BJP during the second term of Manmohan Singh, when the saffron party acted as a sore loser and sought to block the functioning of Parliament. Indeed, measures of great significance to future growth such as GST were repeatedly blocked by the BJP through the state governments controlled by that party, a situation that has gotten reversed now, with the BJP seeking to operationalise the GST at the earliest. Other reforms are needed, including in the field of labour, so that the deadly effect of labour legislation passed during what may be termed the “Soviet years” of the 1960s and the 1970s gets removed through a replacement of such laws through legislation that takes account of the need for companies and enterprises to have flexibility in hiring.
Far from hurting the interests of workers, such measures would protect them by boosting economic growth and leading to millions more jobs. If such jobs do not get created, the streets of cities across the country are likely to fill up with unemployed youth. The danger in a rapidly expanding pool of unemployed is that many of them may turn to caste rivalry or communalism in order to locate a solution to their problems. Of course, such moves would only worsen an already unsatisfactory situation. Hopefully, while battling each other in the political arena, leaders of major parties will press the “pause” button on moves designed to slow down policymaking, and instead unite to ensure the double digit growth, which alone will rescue hundreds of millions of fellow citizens from the misery of penury.