Column: India’s choice

Mar 18 2014, 01:58 IST
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SummaryThe two largest parties offer choices that fall short of the people’s expectations

The choice facing India’s voters in the upcoming parliamentary election is not an ideal one. The reason is that the two largest parties offer bundles of characteristics that leave much to be desired. On the one hand, the BJP seems to offer a firmer commitment to economic reform, but this inextricably comes with an ideology of what it means to be Indian that must be uncomfortable for many members of India’s minority groups. This bundling is particularly sharp in the case of the BJP’s current leader, but it is an issue that always lurks in the background, whoever the leader is. On the other hand, the Congress has no ideology to speak of, though its populism has been consistent with a particular view of equality in society, one that has some pluses. Ideas of economic reform seem to be less firmly integrated into the broader party membership, although some prominent members indeed lean toward reforms as part of a pragmatic approach to economic policymaking. Unfortunately, the Congress’ claim to being committed to the equality of its citizens is weakened by its own past record in various regional conflicts.

Perhaps the majority of India’s ordinary citizens care less about ideology and more about day-to-day good governance, which includes some possibility of material betterment, but also the absence of regular harassment and extortion (as opposed to the violence against specific groups that government sometimes permits or even encourages). Here, too, the BJP scores better, though not as well as the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has greater honesty in governance as a central tenet. Unfortunately, this desirable characteristic of AAP seems to be combined with a muddled approach to economic policymaking, including some extreme manifestations of populism.

Hence, wherever one turns, a reasonable mix of economic policy competence, commitment to equal treatment of citizens, and honesty is not to be found. At the regional level, the patterns are repeated in different combinations of corruption, nepotism, group favouritism, and lack of understanding of economics. And yet, there are state leaders and parties that seem to offer more attractive bundles of characteristics than either of the two largest parties. Voters at the state level gradually seem to have figured out that it is possible to have good governance, and to re-elect politicians who provide something that at least partially fits that description. In some states, there is enough head-to-head competition that parties have to compete

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