Almost the worst day for a political columnist is the day election results are expected. Anyone interested in Indian politics will spend all day riveted in front of their televisions, cruising between news channels to get the latest results. For me to write about anything else would be a waste of time. And yet, I cannot analyze the results for you because my deadline long precedes them. This restricts me to analyzing the campaign and to ruminating about whether the ‘Modi magic’ is still potent and musing about the fading allure of the Congress Party’s ruling family.
Sonia Gandhi’s heirs have been busy campaigning in this set of state elections. Last time around, or was it the one before, Rahul Gandhi was walking across India ‘opening a shop of love in a bazaar of hate.’ This time, he was electioneering strenuously but with the same message he has taken to voters for the past ten years: Narendra Modi is stealing their money and giving it to his rich friends. This time, he also came armed with ‘guarantees’ that he assured voters were more reliable than Modi’s guarantees.
These guarantees are really freebies. Free travel for women, subsidised gas cylinders, free electric scooters for girl students, subsidies for farmers, free electricity, and free WiFi for one and all. His sister backed his message, reminding voters in her public meetings that they had kept their promises in Karnataka and so nobody should doubt that if Congress wins these state elections, all promises made will be kept. Other Congress leaders followed this freebie lead. Ashok Gehlot, desperate to keep anti-incumbency at bay in Rajasthan, had guarantees or freebies of his own to offer. An ‘honorarium’ of Rs 10,000 annually for women, cooking gas at less than half the market price and an insurance scheme called Chiranjeevi that guarantees health insurance up to Rs 50 lakh.
Freebies have been very much the flavour of this election season. The Prime Minister has not been far behind in playing catchup and is using his own freebie trump card, which is to guarantee free food grain for the next five years for more than 80 crore Indians. As someone who has stridently condemned freebies in the past, it saddened me to see him succumb to this very bad habit. He must know that when governments spend money on winning votes at election time by promising freebies, they end up having less to invest in real development. This means less money to spend on good schools, healthcare, roads, sanitation, housing and electricity. These are the tools that when provided, enable people shackled in extreme poverty to break their own shackles.
When the Prime Minister was in Dubai last week, he would have noticed that it is now a megapolis that rivals London and New York. I first visited this emirate forty years ago, when it looked like a shabby Indian small town. It has been transformed because it took an economic road Modi once promised that India would take. Remember when he sneered at MNREGA for being evidence that all the Congress Party achieved after decades in power was to pay people to dig ditches and then fill them up again? He also inherited from Sonia Gandhi’s do-gooding kitchen cabinet, the National Advisory Council (NAC), a massive free food grain programme. These two schemes came in handy in the COVID years but is it not time to create real jobs and real prosperity?
Is it not time for Modi to rediscover that poverty needs elimination and not alleviation? This ugly word has been the Congress Party’s favourite for too long. It requires poverty to always exist so that leaders like Rahul Gandhi can wander about showing empathy (always on camera) with people who remain disadvantaged and desperate after decades of ‘poverty alleviation.’ He has managed in quite an extraordinary way to turn this carefully choreographed noblesse oblige into his main economic policy. Poverty alleviation has been, for very long, the mainstay of Congress economics, and its only real achievement has been to confine millions of Indians in the degradation of extreme poverty.
When Narendra Modi first appeared upon the national political stage, he took a refreshingly different view of poverty. He vowed to eliminate it. As someone who believes bad economic policies are why India is still a poor country, one reason why I became a Modi Bhakt was because I believed him when he promised to take a new economic road. Why has he decided to give up his plans for a new economic beginning and reverted to the old road that the Congress Party’s ‘socialist’ prime ministers paved with bricks of solid granite?
It was a peculiar kind of socialism that defined Congress economic policies. It was one that believed not so much in creating wealth, by respecting those who create it, but in distributing poverty. It is a shame that Modi has started to walk that same futile, well-trodden path instead of continuing to forge ahead on a new road. When this round of state elections is done, and we start moving towards a Lok Sabha election next year we must hope that Modi will rediscover his mojo. As things stand, the Indian voter has a choice between two national parties who seem in economic matters just clones of each other. Faced with this dismal, dreary choice voters choose those who offer better freebies.