INDIA'S LEADING ECONOMIC RESEARCH FIRM
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|The Poverty of Election Chatter|
|Friday, 16 April 2004 00:00|
Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari, in their survey of the 69 most backward districts in the country, District-level Deprivation in the New Millennium, have shown that even a project like the Golden Quadrilateral projected as a gift of the nation to its people will succeed in circumventing all the most backward districts in India.
In Lucknow, on Monday, the poor got Andy Warhols 15 minutes of fame. In an election of careful imaging, one in which everything was being nicely arranged for that tryst with democracy happy, waving people; scrubbed schoolgirls in schools with rooftops; booming stock exchanges; overflowing harvests; cheap housing loans; kindly grandfathers obviously delighted with their dada-dadi bonds broken bodies and heaps of worn out slippers suddenly broke into the frame like gatecrashers at a Vijay Mallya new year party. It took a while to register their presence. You don’t mean to say that in the gleaming, gold-plated India we live in, with its 10 per cent Q4 growth, there were still women who would put their lives at risk for a free sari? The poor, those 26.1 per cent of the population officially residing below the poverty line, have not really figured in the election campaign for the 14th Lok Sabha. Oh yes, a few intrepid journalists, in search of real issues, may have occasionally stumbled on some real people, but there seems to be a consensus that poverty is no longer relevant as an issue. BJPs ad geeks have, in any case, airbrushed the poor from public consciousness. The Congress, in its constant race to be BJPs B-team, paid tribute to that exact same sentiment by stealthily replacing its old garibi hatao sentiment with the aam admi bachao line. No one likes to be termed poor, it explained, everybody aspires to a share in national prosperity. This is a reflection, not of the reality on the ground, but of a significant shift that has taken place in political/electoral discourse. The fact is if a quarter of the population live below the poverty line and this means people who aspire for no more than three square meals a day it follows that a quarter of the 670 million voters, or some 162 million, are abysmally, grossly, unconscionably poor, no matter what political parties claim. They remain unrepresented and their concerns unarticulated amidst the welter of soundbites thrown up in every election. While there are innumerable representatives of the Crorepati Club in the campaign, and they can be banked upon to push the interests of their grouping with every buck at their command should they come to power, there can really be no one who represents these 162 million because the system squeezes them out of the reckoning at the very outset. Yet, over the years, an occasional politician or party has mouthed concern for the poor, even if for the most cynical ends. Indira Gandhi, for instance, wielded the garibi hatao slogan to drive a stake through the heart of the Congress(O) in the 1971 election and was rewarded by 44 per cent of the vote or 352 seats. Now, it seems, even that symbolic nod in the direction of the garib is old fashioned and regressive, quite out of sync with the feel-good, look-good India of today. It can be argued, as some have, that the decline in presence of the poor from being half the countrys population 50 years ago, they are a quarter of the population today could be one reason why the poor have become redundant politically. Others point out that the poor constitute a very heterogeneous grouping and it would be naive to see them as a votebank. Even if there is some truth in these arguments, the fact is that addressing issues of poverty touches the lives of at least 162 million. And that, surely, should have been cause enough for their concerns to figure in the public sphere? Presumably, then, the reason for this shift away from poverty concerns does not just have to do with the decline in the numbers of the poor, or their lack of homogeneity. It reflects, in fact, an ever-growing gap between the elite, the upper classes and middle-classes, on the one hand, and the absolute poor, on the other. Eminent sociologist Rajni Kothari had in the late eighties observed prophetically that for the new elite those millions of people who are left out are in fact a drag. These elections have already shown that poor are being left out of the discourse and they may yet witness a Republic on the move formally freeing itself from the tenuous clasp that these faceless millions have on its right foot. The evidence of this is everywhere about us. Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari, in their survey of the 69 most backward districts in the country, District-level Deprivation in the New Millennium, have shown that even a project like the Golden Quadrilateral projected as a gift of the nation to its people will succeed in circumventing all the most backward districts in India. Then there is Lucknow which could be considered the First District of the country because the PMs parliamentary seat is located there. It highlights how the fruits of development continue to elude the very poor. Despite being primarily an urban district, Lucknow, with 29.3 per cent of its population living below the poverty line, figures among the 25 worst districts in India in terms of infant mortality (97) and school enrolment levels (43 per cent). The stampede tragedy throws light on why poll politics does not translate into systemic social change. The relationship between the politician and the very poor voter is patronage at best the distribution of free saris being a case in point and often even such an act of kindness is limited to the period of the elections. Since the relationship does not address the structured causes of poverty in the constituency, it cannot transform peoples lives. Of course, such political patronage may bring political dividends but it is unlikely to help India. Growing inequality could put economic growth at risk and you dont need to be a cherry red communist to say this. The World Bank has always been the biggest votary of the growth mantra. Its chief economist, Francois Bourguigon, stated something very interesting at a lecture in Delhi not too long ago. He spoke about the poverty-growth-inequality triangle and pointed out that high inequality in an economy weakens the poverty-reducing effect of growth. In fact, he said, growth can sometimes widen existing inequality, creating the apparent paradox of poverty actually increasing in a period of growth. As he put it, The main risk lay in the government going in for cuts in social spending in order to wipe out large and persistent budget deficits (currently at about 10 per cent of GDP). These fiscal adjustments could only concentrate growth further, thus raising inequality. The lack of concern for poverty and inequality in an India in election-mode, that reflects in turn the lack of bargaining power of some 162 million, does not speak of a shining future.