Time for the future to win

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 15 June 2004

Elections 2004 are over. Was it a vote for development, social inclusion and justice? Or simply a vote against an incumbent government, flattened by sleazy and slick self-promotion? The answer is complicated, as can be expected from a country as diverse and layered as India.

So, for instance, it can be rightly said that rural and poor India voted against the government because it found the 'India Shining' campaign offensive and insulting to their poverty and deprivation. Also, this India was left out of economic liberalisation, so that this election was about their voice resounding in the nation's consciousness. In this sense, we can argue, it was a vote against economic policies that marginalise and neglect the many and favour the few.

But this doesn't explain why the rich cities of India, supposedly beneficiaries of this model of growth, voted against their providers. Did cities vote against the politics of exclusion and division? Or simply assert that even in urban India the shine is illusionary and that more people are "feeling bad" against those "feeling good"?

Then, was this vote for effective governance? If so, how does one explain the defeat of the S M Krishna government (of Karnataka) arguably more efficient and productive than the Naveen Patnaik government in Orissa, which won? Then there is the victory of Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar, which -- from all we know -- is a near-disaster state, wallowing in corruption and neglect. What is one to make of all this? Possibly, it is better not to look for an overarching rationality. India is about the management of contradictions, and this election was no different.

Nevertheless, what we need to understand better are the big messages that came through so that we can read the elections as a statement on future policy. In this context, the post-poll survey on 'how India voted', by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and its Lokniti network, makes for fascinating reading. It shows there is much more to the vote than obvious political lessons (the caste-class arithmetic and alliances). In Tamil Nadu, their poll shows that drought and water shortage for drinking and irrigation, and unemployment, were important campaign issues. About 50 per cent of voters felt that drinking water facilities had deteriorated; 62 per cent felt that irrigation supply had gone down. A staggering 71 per cent saw worsened employment opportunities.

Similarly, in high-tech Andhra Pradesh, neglect of irrigation facilities in rural areas was key. But equally, 57 per cent of the young votes going to opponent Congress meant that the resentment against unemployment had boiled over. In neighbouring Karnataka, 45 per cent of respondents said that the drinking water problem had worsened and 58 per cent said that governments had given more importance to urban areas as compared to rural areas. In Gujarat, voters wanted to leave behind the politics of violence and hate, and polled on issues relating to their economic survival -- agriculture and irrigation.

Yet another issue sneaks through this analysis. Corruption still matters when people vote. It is not obvious, nor is it talked about. But somewhere a Naveen Patnaik, whose reputation is as spotless as his performance, scores over other achieving chief ministers. And in Karnataka, nearly 50 per cent people felt that corruption in the Krishna administration was visibly on the rise.

The people have spoken. The agenda for change is clear. It must be formulated and implemented. People want their governments to invest into issues that matter to them -- water to drink and to irrigate their crops; education and health -- and deal with the massive challenge of unemployment in this "young" country. Investment must be made in a manner that the benefits reach people and are not siphoned off along the circuitous and leaky corridors of power.

This, however, will demand the reform of the state. More than the economic reforms, on which so much time and energy is expended, this real reform still awaits government notice. It demands the reform of the bureaucratic apparatus, so that people are assured of the benefits meant for them.

In all this, I believe that the two top obsessions of this government must be: water and employment. But I would like to warn here, as would any serious observer of development, that there are no easy answers or short cuts to this challenge. The water agenda will demand governments go much beyond the rhetoric of supply and targets, to implement policies that put water in the hands of communities on the one hand, and reduce waste and want on the other. Similarly, the agenda of growth with jobs will demand looking at solutions way out of the industrial-service sector box. Jobs have to be created from the sustainable use of natural resources. But this sustainable livelihood package demands, in turn, reform of the obstacles that impede people from turning resources into wealth. In other words, we need long-term commitment to reform and we need the highest political attention, indeed devotion, to the details of change.

Let me conclude my reflections on the verdict of elections 2004 by saying simply that for me, these elections protected the idea of India, where there always was space for dissent and which believed in the challenge of the balance. The strength of India lay in the fact that there were never, in this country, any glaring winners. In this scenario, governance was about balancing contesting and competing interests, with no absolute resolution. When nobody really won, then nobody really ever lost. That way, the spoils were shared across a wider platform. The challenge now is to ensure that more and more people 'get' bigger and bigger gains so that all of India can win. Election 2004 is an opportunity. Let us not lose it.

-- Sunita Narain

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