On 23 May or thereabouts, the country will know the identity of those to whom governance will be entrusted for the next five years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is widely assumed to be in pole position to win a second term, but it needs to be remembered that democracy is often fractious and difficult to control. Every day of the overly long seven-stage election schedule, there have been choice epithets flung by both sides at each other. Such language may not be to the liking of those of a sedate disposition, but it is clear that democracy in India has entered the same space that several other countries have before it, where almost anything goes so far as campaign rhetoric is concerned. Television talk shows are a mirror of the political tumult taking place, and these too have often become bad tempered in the extreme. Issue upon issue has been discussed and countered, allegations have been made and refuted. However, going by the amount of time spent by the top campaigners on specific issues, the impression is growing that economic matters have taken a back seat. This is unfortunate, as “Roti Kapda aur Makan” is what is expected by the people from those in power. Unfortunately, for decade after decade in India, what has been taking place is that those active in politics have become wealthy in an alarming number of instances, while the people they profess to serve remain on the margins of subsistence. Unfortunately, although politicians talk of the need for transparency while out of office, once in power, such promises are forgotten and a veil of secrecy gets drawn over situations that in other democracies get revealed to the public. Those holding high Constitutional office should have to reveal details of the wealth of themselves, their close relatives and even such matters as business ties and external travel. It has become commonplace in India to have top policymakers routinely meet lobbyists who press for executive action that benefits a few at the expense of the many. The public trust is sacred, and those who abuse their solemn promise to work for the welfare of the people in a manner allowed by law should be exposed and made to face the consequences of such dereliction of duty. In particular, those dealing with economic matters need to be above suspicion, and if they are not, the deleterious effects of such misfeasance become apparent through bad policy. From the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, who fashioned the economic, social and foreign policies of India largely by himself after the passing away of Sardar Patel in 1950, policymakers in India have relied on an unhealthily narrow band of consultation, even while deciding on matters of great import.
While matters such as caste and faith certainly play a role, in places an outsize one, the reality is that most vote their pocketbooks. They reward or punish based on whether or not the government in office has delivered better economic results or not. Those who have failed in this will pay the price at the hustings. No amount of high decibel sound on matters that are only of peripheral concern to the daily lives of the citizen can overwhelm the effect of poor economic performance in securing votes. Certainly there is need to ensure that Pakistan pays a high price for unleashing terror on India, but this country can force a high price not only through military means but by increasing its economic success. Rathin Roy, who has been chosen by Narendra Modi to be part of his economic team, has warned of the middle income trap. Clearly the implication is that as yet, little is being done to ensure that the doors of the trap do not spring shut on India and snuff out the hopes of hundreds of millions of individuals for a better future. Taxes need to be reduced. It is astonishing that so many policymakers concerned with economic affairs forget that a smaller percentage of a much bigger output works out to much more than a high percentage of output that has been constricted by high taxes of the kind that is so common in India. The word “tax” can be extended to cover high interest costs as well as the extra bother of operating in an environment where infrastructure is still way below the standards of countries such as China and Malaysia. Most damaging is the pervasive culture of greed and corruption that has enveloped so much of the governance system for so long. The absurdly low number of policymakers (both official and political) who have been sent to prison for amassing illegal assets is testimony to the weakness of the machinery of accountability in India. The Prime Minister of India needs to make economic growth the top priority of his or her government, and for this to happen, out of the box solutions need to be resorted to. Policy as usual has failed, leading to business as usual. The people expect change, and hopefully this is what the government will give.