Time to be different

The new (old) government is back. The question is if it has learnt its most important lesson: how to enjoin its political agenda to the agenda of government.

Let me explain. It was not the Indo-US nuclear deal which won the Congress Party the elections. It was the national rural employment guarantee programme, which provided people entitlement to work, gave them cash to survive drought or a flood. Similarly, it was not the ecstasy of the stock market, the opening of the retail sector or the grandiose special economic zones that won the day. This government was re-elected—as its leaders reminded people in their rallies—because it gave better prices to farmers, wrote off loans and gave tribals and other poor forest dwellers rights over their land.

In other words, it got elected for all the ‘wrong’ things, as the reformists put it. The reformists have already made it clear, now the noisy, obstructionist Communist formation is out, they want more reform. They want it fast. They want to divorce politics from governance. They want ‘populist’ things, good to win votes and rally people, out of the way. Already, corporate leaders have taken over the airwaves to hammer in the market reform agenda. People seem already forgotten.

So are we in for another interregnum between elections, when the government will focus on the ‘real’ agenda of the corporate world and forget the issues that got it the votes? Or will this second-term government grow up and understand good politics is also good governance?

After all, this is a time the entire free-market loving world is learning greed is not so good, and that a corporate-driven agenda creates havoc. Today, all countries are re-evaluating their policies—some seriously. All top know-it-all economists agree they still don’t know how the world economy will fare. They are beginning to admit, albeit in whispers, the consumer-driven economic model shows fatal weakness. It is now clear countries are more vulnerable when driven by the assumption people living somewhere else will have an infinite ability to spend and consume. In these times, we also need a new growth model, driven by resilience and sustainability.

This is a time for difference. Instead of focusing on bankrupt ideas—disinvestment in the public sector; fdi in retail; privatization of insurance, banks and pension funds—we can think of strategies that combine the needs of all with growth for all.

Take the employment guarantee scheme, dismissed as a corrupt, inefficient programme. The fact is this scheme is no different from what the rich world is today re-discovering in the name of Keynesian public investment-driven recovery programmes. It invests public funds to create public assets with the labour of poor people. The opportunity lies in using such labour to build assets: for relief against drought, for instance. The national rural employment programme is already the world’s biggest ecological regeneration effort—just under a million water bodies being dug, desilted or renovated. We must make sure these water bodies are not just holes in the ground, but will capture the next rain and recharge the aquifer.

It is possible. Doable. People’s desperation and demand for work, already recognized, must now be converted into a demand for development. People will use their labour to plan their village regeneration plans and then build their own durable assets. This is not possible without giving people rights over their resources—their local forest and their water resources. This is the ‘reform’ the top leadership must believe in and back.

Another big-ticket concern is dryland and rainfed agriculture. Most of India today, after years of public investment in surface irrigation structures, remains dependent on increasingly variable rain. The monsoon is the true finance minister for most poor Indians. We must recognize multipurpose agriculture as practised in dryland areas—combining coarse cereals with animal care and its products all mixed with off-farm products like artisanal craft—is one way to build affordable and resilient economies. Today our policies discount and destroy these local economies. Tomorrow, our strategies must build on their strengths. For instance, fiscal policies must recognize crops that minimize the use of water—more crops per drop —and include ‘coarse’ cereals in the public distribution system. Simultaneously, we must build local water security, to enhance productivity. We must do this not by increasing costs of cultivation but reducing costs and investing in resilience.

The third challenge is to invest big in building employment opportunities for the future. But this will demand recognizing jobs where we do not see they exist. Currently, all our policies push for organized business, in retail or in manufacturing. But we forget this business is not labour intensive and tends to collapse when the world sneezes. We need employment which is domestic, built on multiple opportunities and comprises millions of enterprises.

The next reform must be in education and health—reinvent ways to ensure the systems are efficient, affordable and accessible to all. Public investment in these sectors does not work if it is not accountable. And private investment will not flow into these sectors, which, being about the poor, are not profitable. So, we will have to do things differently, without dogma, with the idea of reform for those who voted the government to power.

Postscript: Remember, corporate India had anointed Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi their prime minister. They had dumped this government and its prime minister. This government is in power not because of them, but because of the poor. This trust must be kept. It is time to be different.

—Sunita Narain