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The challenge: progress without giving up welfare state

Kuldip Nayar
Gulf News, 04-Mar-07

THE voting pattern in India is undergoing a change beyond conjecture. There were times when Pakistan or Kashmir would be an issue in every election, provincial or central. Then it was the phase of slogans like the state’s constitutional rights and New Delhi’s tendency to violate them. Some such noises still linger.

Yet, it is the development that has come to have focus in the last decade or so. The voters have begun measuring their economic gain when they are selecting a political party to press the button at the polling booth. No doubt, their vote against the ruling group is called the anti-incumbency factor. But what it really means is their dissent against governance – whether the state made their life easier and safer.

This is reflected in elections in three states: Punjab and Uttarakhand in the north and Manipur in the northeast. The first two have gone against the Congress, which was the ruling party there. The party has, however, retained the third, Manipur, although precariously.

The loud and clear message the polls give is that the way to the ballot box goes through the path which the economic development paves. The Bhartiya Janata Party’s coalition learnt the lesson only when it lost majority in the Lok Sabha nearly three years ago. It projected that India was shining under its rule while the fact was that the country, especially the rural areas, was reeling under indifferent, cursory development.

Slogans, to the BJP’s woes, did not sell; nor the publicity worth millions of rupees. The reverse the Congress has suffered in Punjab and Uttarakhand has the same explanation: the belied expectation of voters for their economic wellbeing. Price rise hit the party still more.

In Punjab, the swing in its favour was four per cent and in Uttarakhand two. The defeat in both the states has been close and the party fought more or less as a team.

The Sikhs want a pluralistic society. The Akalis for the first time fielded seven Hindu and one Muslim candidates. The point at issue was primarily the government’s performance and the outgoing chief minister Amarinder Singh’s style of functioning. From being the most prosperous state in the country Punjab has slid to the fifth position. Even farmers have committed suicide.

Amarinder Singh, a royal scion, failed to react and went on with his maharaja-type rule. One other factor which has counted with the voters in Punjab and Uttarakhand is the rulers’ contact with people. Amarinder Singh was always distant from the common man.

Unlike him, his opponent, Prakash Singh Badal, the new chief minister, was a familiar figure even in the remotest part. When he was in the wilderness, Badal kept his contact leaving his house at Chandigarh every day in the morning and returning in the evening.

In Uttarakhand, the Congress leaders had a penchant for official cars with beacon lights. They did not have to be cabinet ministers to flaunt this symbol of authority. Uttarakhand had the paraphernalia of development.

The ominous development is the return of the BJP in urban areas. In the last election, the party was the Akali Dal’s Achilles’ heel, adding only three to its strength. This time the BJP gave 16 seats apart from the Hindu vote.

In fact, the revival of the BJP is what should be a matter of concern to the secular parties. The Shiv Sena-BJP front won most of the municipal seats in Maharashtra last month. Now the Akali-BJP combine has won a majority in Punjab. In Uttarakhand, the BJP has gained 15 seats to make 34 in a 70-member house. Not that the BJP played the Hindutva card but the party’s basic ideology to create a Hindu state remains unchanged.

Pluralism is what holds the country democratic and united. The recovery of the BJP means the space of pluralism is shrinking. The biggest drawback in fighting against communalism is that the Congress, the main party, lacks the committed members, although not the commitment.

The party has not been able to project the image of a secular outfit. There are doubts about many of its leaders, particularly in the states.

In Punjab, the party’s blessings from a religious organisation like the Sucha Sauda Dera put a question mark against secular credentials of the Congress. The electoral politics has also made the party compromise on the fundamentals. When it admits in its ranks the former BJP and Shiv Sena members in Maharashtra or the extremists in Punjab, the Congress does not realise the harm it is doing to itself.

The reason why the 9-10 per cent growth rate is not paying the Congress dividends is the share which is appropriated by the upper half. They are the real gainers of development. The lower half remains where it has been.

The party has belatedly realised this. But the love for globalisation that most cabinet ministers and Congress leaders have makes them look like part of the corporate sector. Capitalism has never gone down well in India. Progress without giving up the concept of welfare state is a challenge before the Congress.