Sunday, April 26, 2009

Congress, beware the switch (April 26, 2009)


By Swapan Dasgupta

When the ruling party believes it is time to identify the genealogical imprint of Indira Gandhi on Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, you can be sure of two things. First, that Indian politics has scaled new heights of intellectual bankruptcy; and, secondly, that the natural instinct of the 124-year-old Indian National Congress is to fall back on dynastic adulation.

The idea that Indians should vote for the Congress because of Priyanka’s nose is baffling. But perhaps not half as baffling as some of the other issues the Congress and Friends of the Congress have introduced into the campaign: Priyanka’s views on Rahul’s post-poll alignments (should she be foreign or Indian?); the views of Robert Vadra (who he?) on Priyanka’s perception of her future; and Barkha Dutt’s enchantment that Priyanka speaks such good Hindi (must PLUs speak the ‘vernacular’ badly?).

The trend is intriguing. At this rate voters may be compelled to consider the views of Ottavio Quattrocchi (remember him?) on L.K. Advani’s plans to raid offshore tax havens.

The wicked people in town have equated the Track-II Congress campaign to a “family melodrama”—with even Race Course Road chipping in with a performance. They are only partly right. It is not merely the Congress that is anxious to avoid any meaningful stocktaking of the past five years—the Prime Minister promises an economic recovery in the next 100 days when he has not thought fit to appoint a Finance Minister in the past 100 days. The UPA constituents too are engaged in competitive tomfoolery.

Sharad Pawar and Lalu Prasad Yadav excelled themselves last Thursday. Even as voters were queuing in the scorching sun, these two were busy positioning themselves as uncrowned kings and king makers. Not for a moment were they concerned with the challenging electoral battles in the constituencies. For them the war was as good as won. Both took it for granted that the UPA (including the Fourth Front of RJD, LJP and SP) would not be able to cobble together a majority and would need the support of the Left.

Pawar and Lalu were interested in settling scores with an arrogant Congress: the NCP leader is bitter over the Congress’ vengeful attitude towards the IPL and Lalu is unlikely to forget Pranab Mukherjee’s threat (since retracted) to exclude him from a future Congress-led government. But neither paused to take into account a very simple fact: that their future plans will depend on how people vote in the first place. Both were guilty of taking the voters for granted. Lalu was explicit that the NDA had been decimated from Kurukshetra to Jharkhand and Pawar was not factoring in the possible outcome in Maharashtra.

In the age of coalitions, parties are prone to futures trading. However, the extent to which they can trade depends on the number of people they can get elected to the Lok Sabha. To win the battle of the ballot is the first priority of politicians; from this flows their shy at power. Pawar and Lalu have begun counting their chickens even before they have been hatched.

I may be over-reacting but I get the sense that voters may construe their premature pronouncements as nothing but arrogance. And there is nothing voters enjoy more than cutting politicians down to size, especially if they are perceived to be either haughty or shifty. The BJP was guilty of smug complacency in 2004 and came crashing down to size. This time it may happen to the UPA. Caught up in the thrilling headiness of government formation, its constituents appear to have overlooked the importance of winning the election first.

When the election campaign began, the pundits took it for granted that the Congress would emerge as the largest party and the truncated UPA the largest pre-poll formation. The deficit, it was also assumed, would be made up by wooing either a chastened Left or sceptical constituents of the NDA. It was this sensing of oozing over-confidence that prompted the Congress into rejecting any national alliance and even declaring Manmohan Singh as the prime ministerial candidate.

After the second round of polling, the Congress’ calculations seem a little less credible. Ground reports suggest that the Congress has not performed all that well in Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand, isn’t likely to make gains in Maharashtra and won’t be able to pin the BJP down in Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. There is now a definite question mark over its ability to emerge as the largest party in the 15th Lok Sabha. Equally, the prospects of the Fourth Front don’t look too good in Uttar Pradesh and appear distinctly bleak in Bihar.

Worse, in the battle with the Left, the Congress has blinked. The Prime Minister and Pranab Mukherjee have affirmed their non-hostility to the Left, thereby suggesting nervousness over the outcome.

To what extent the BJP-led NDA will be able to step into this void is still a matter of conjecture. However, there are encouraging signs for the BJP. First, it has made the Congress respond to its agenda rather be led by the Bharat Nirman-type rubbish that was dished out in the early stages of the ruling party’s campaign. The Congress has meandered from Jai Ho to “weak leader” to dynasty. Secondly, none of the NDA partners have scored major self-goals in the past three weeks. Contrast this with the public civil war in the UPA. Finally, the BJP and Advani have been cast in the role of an underdog and have therefore escaped the problems of media over-exposure.

There are no published exit polls to estimate the outcome in the two phases. But if the bush telegraph is any guide, the underdog and the favourite may have switched places. Maybe that is why the Congress needs someone with the right nose for politics.

Sunday Pioneer, April 26, 2009

A cocksure Government slowly loses the plot (April 26, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Indian general elections have the uncanny knack of injecting wisdom in hindsight. When the tally from the Electronic Voting Machines is revealed on May 16, there will be a torrent of clichés coupled with belated discoveries of undercurrents. The winners will shower praise on the innate maturity of a discerning electorate; the losers will harp on the failure of communications; and analysts will detect a hitherto invisible mood for either change or continuity. If there is no discernible outcome, there will be a frenzy to unearth a lofty ideological principle behind a lowest common denominator—“secularism” is the favourite. There will be one set of politics till the morning of May 16 and another from the afternoon.

It is precisely the anticipation of a mismatch between the voices at the hustings and the post-facto writing of history that prompted the pioneers of the Nuffield College studies of British elections to stress the virtues of reading an “election in flight”. The halfway stage may be an opportune moment to reflect on the flight path of the 2009 poll.

A striking feature of the 2009 campaign is the astonishing degree to which it has combined a parliamentary election and an American-style primary. If the dog fights between the Congress, NCP, RJD and Samajwadi Party (all ostensibly in the UPA) are any indication, it would seem that the battle is not between an incumbent government and its opponents but a delegate selection for a grand UPA plus Left convention to be convened after the counting. Last Thursday morning, even as voting was still underway, both Sharad Pawar and Lalu Yadav were pontificating on how the PM was to be chosen. This wasn’t just arrogant bravado. For the UPA, a civil war is being fought simultaneously with the war against the BJP-led NDA.

A corollary of this self-absorbed smugness is the Congress desire to keep its first family firmly in focus. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul may be doing all the travelling and delivering their lines but it is Priyanka who has been tailoring the campaign to the imperatives of a family melodrama. The Congress has deliberately scripted speculation of Priyanka’s future political role—with the frisking-exempt Robert Vadra chipping in—and her sisterly views on Rahul’s own post-poll alignments. Even her nose has become the subject of analogy and flattery. For the 124-year-old party politics, it would seem, is just a dynastic saga.

The Congress campaign is disproportionately centred on the need to skirt a debate on the past five years. L.K. Advani may have fired the first salvo in the majboot versus weak debate that has left the editorial classes drooling for more. Yet, since it is an accepted rule of politics to avoid a battle on terms set by the opponent, why did the Congress choose to respond? And that too by resurrecting a 17-year-old demolition and a nine-year-old hijack?

A possible answer is that a positive campaign based on the PM’s incredible claim of 80 per cent strike rate in the past five years had to be offset with a negative campaign that galvanised the committed. Indira Gandhi was adept in this game and Narendra Modi repeated this trick in Gujarat 2007. The flip side of this cleverness is that in proclaiming his combativeness, Manmohan Singh undermined his claim to be above the hurly-burly of partisan politics. In short, he reinvented himself into something which he is definitely not. Will the unlikely appearance of a pugnacious Manmohan bolster the Congress appeal among the middle classes? Or, will it add to the existing cynicism of the non-voting classes?

The extent to which Manmohan has ducked his area of core competence is staggering. At a time when even consumer advertisements are devoted to coping with the bad times, the economist PM has wilfully abandoned Keynes for Kandahar. Where the Congress was expected to reassure people that the economy is safe in the hands of a technocrat, the PM’s intervention has been confined to strange remarks about the inevitability of 8 per cent growth—the reality being a dismal 4 per cent or less. Never mind admitting the grim reality of a sharp downturn, the PM hasn’t deigned to utter even a word of sympathy for the 15 million victims of closures, redundancies and economic mismanagement. What is even more astonishing is that the opposition hasn’t taunted Manmohan with having a head but not a heart. They haven’t even detected the cruel irony of the Josh Congress has invoked.

At the midway stage of the flight, Verdict ’09 appears less about an opposition winning but a cocksure government gradually losing the plot.

Sunday Times of India, April 26, 2009

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Real Charge Against Manmohan (April 19, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

For reasons that seem quite inexplicable, a section of the media has suddenly turned pious over the “weak” versus “strong” debate involving Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani. It is being suggested that the exchanges are tantamount to “mudslinging”.

The assertion is quite incredible. As Outlook editor Vinod Mehta has repeatedly pointed out in his TV interventions, the exchanges are tame and are nowhere marked by the verbal viciousness which characterise, say, politics in Britain. The fact is that the Congress has wilfully chosen to over-react to the BJP slogan of “majboot neta” by painting the Prime Minister as a hapless victim of a personal attack. The party has cleverly chosen to tap the reservoir of goodwill for Manmohan as a decent man who has been caught up in the murkiness of politics. In making the Prime Minister’s anguish an important talking point, it has sought to divert attention away from some of the main issues of the campaign.

It is only after the results are known on May 16 that analysts will be in a position to judge the efficacy of the Congress strategy. People vote in elections on the strength of different impulses but there is always a retrospective rationale attached to their vote. If the Congress comes out well, Manmohan’s combative press conferences will be pronounced a “masterstroke”; if the BJP does better, it will be praised for luring the Congress into battling on its own agenda.

Last week, in one of her campaign speeches, Sonia Gandhi argued that the election was an “ideological battle” between the Congress and BJP. The point has been driven home in some of the Amar-Akbar-Antony type advertisements issued by the Congress. The implication of such messages and the surrogate advertisement involving the “hand” of film stars is that the BJP will destroy the syncretic soul of India.

Like the astonishing assertion that Manmohan is cast in the saintly mould and comparable to Mahatma Gandhi, the so-called ideological battle has a clear cut purpose. It is an out-and-out diversionary ploy aimed at ensuring that bread-and-butter issues don’t dominate the campaign. It is paradoxical that rather than painting him as a wizard economist who can turn India into a subcontinental paradise in a world of economic uncertainty, the Congress would rather project the Prime Minister as a quiet, but steely politician. In short, the Congress wants to repackage Manmohan as a politician rather than a mere technocrat. This is precisely why they have chosen to keep the UPA’s five year record in the background. It would rather debate a nine-year-old hijack (which, surprisingly, didn’t feature in the 2004 campaign) than the present state of the economy. The reasons are self-evident.

Last Friday, Oxford Economics, an international consultancy, projected that India’s GDP growth for 2009 would be around 3.4 per cent—a far from the “little less than 7 per cent” the Prime Minister claimed in Mumbai on April 13. The figure is lowered than the 4 per cent growth projected by the World Bank and the 4.3 per cent estimated by the OECD.

In a similar vein, while the likes of Manmohan and P. Chidambaram have been confidently asserting that the “fundamentals” of the Indian economy are strong and relatively insulated from global pressures, the chief economic adviser to the Finance Ministry Arvind Virmani confessed on April 11 in Bangalore that it was “absolutely essential to counter the worst recession in 60 years.”

The most immediate impact of this has been on the employment front. Each day brings horror stories of mass dismissals from companies which have hitherto been held up as India’s pride. Infosys shed 2,100 jobs in April in pursuance of what it somewhat heartlessly called a “zero tolerance” of inefficiency. Jet Airways, whose sacking of 1,000 staff last October prompted national indignation, will close down its ticketing offices. Some top companies have imposed a 15 to 20 per cent pay cut across the board. These pieces of high-profile bad news have been buried in the inside pages of newspapers and mentioned in passing by the electronic media. Together they have received less attention than Priyanka Gandhi’s observations of brother Rahul’s real post-poll alignments.

There is no point going on about the media’s lapses. The media isn’t fighting elections; it is battling for eyeballs. The fault lies with the political class. True, the BJP has issued print and radio advertisements on the growing loss of hope but this has not been accompanied by a relentless assault on the Congress for mismanaging the economy to the extent that some 1.5 crore jobs have been shed in the past eight months or so. Advani is not naturally at ease with economic issues but you don’t need to have dined at the High Table of Nuffield College, Oxford, to put a political spin on economic mismanagement.

The Prime Minister’s knowledge of economics is not a matter of any dispute. What is in doubt is his sense of compassion. Throughout the crisis—over which he remains in denial—he has not thought it fit to utter even lip sympathy for those whose Incredible India crashed amid high interest rates, deflation with soaring food prices, an unacceptably high fiscal deficit and wasteful expenditure. He has not thought it fit to even appoint a Finance Minister for five months.

The real charge against Manmohan and the owners of his party is not that they are weak but that they are callous and heartless. In this climate of fear, the Congress has issued a new advertisement which proclaims Josh. It is the nearest Indian equivalent to Marie Antoinette suggesting they have cake.

Wars, it is said, are too important to be left to generals. The economy is far too strategic to be left to an economist.

Sunday Pioneer, April 19, 2009

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Politics, Good and Bad (April 17, 2009)

The Congress is either in denial or in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

By Swapan Dasgupta

It has become customary for an alienated intelligentsia and sanctimonious editorial class to berate the absence of “real issues” from the election campaign. TV anchors who go gush-gush over Priyanka Gandhi’s sombre pronouncements on brother Rahul’s likely post-poll alliances have habitually snubbed bewildered party spokespersons for failing to rise above something called “petty politics”. Young op-ed writers, fresh out of some American college, have drawn unfavourable comparisons between the discordant din of rival candidates and the focussed approach of their latest poster boy, President Barack Obama. “Why can’t we have leaders like Obama?” is a question often encountered among those who measure success through the per capita distribution of modern shopping malls.

The articulation of dissatisfaction with the culture of politics may leave a lot to be desired. Yet, there is something to be said for those who genuinely believe that Indian democracy is dysfunctional because it is centred on what old-style Marxists loved to call “false consciousness”. The contention is that, unlike some more compact democracies, Indian voters exercise uninformed choice. The assumption is that issues of caste or religious identity and purely local issues have no place in the election of the government at the Centre.

In a strange sort of way, President Bill Clinton’s famous jibe—“It’s the economy, stupid”—has come to personify the ideal, “true consciousness” voters are expected to display while voting. Deviations from this path of “economism” naturally invite the ire of those who have assumed the role of custodians of the national spirit. By this logic, it is “good politics” for parties and voters to be concerned with Singur and Nandigram but “bad politics” to be swayed the nativism of Raj Thackeray and the somewhat tasteless invocation of Hindu interests by Varun Gandhi. As the hoardings in Ranchi sponsored by a Hindi newspaper put it starkly, “Do you want more IITs or more temples?”

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this definition of wholesome politics is accepted, it is instructive to assess the 2009 election campaign in terms of its ability to raise “relevant” issues, i.e. those that have a direct bearing on the material well-being of voters.

On April 11, at a press conference in Bangalore, the chief economic adviser to the Finance Ministry Arvind Virmani asserted that it was “absolutely essential to counter the worst recession in 60 years.” Virmani’s intervention was brutally candid: unlike others in government he used the dreaded R-word quite unequivocally. Hitherto, P.Chidambaram had fallen on the mantra that “the fundamentals of the Indian economy are strong” to brush away the dip in the Sensex and the ever-cautious Pranab Mukherjee had preferred “meltdown” to describe the present economic uncertainties.

Virmani’s admission of a deep recession in India, quite predictably, never made it to the Breaking News of TV news channels. It was discreetly tucked away in the business pages of general newspapers. Likewise, the news that India’s most high-profile IT company Infosys had issued pink slips to 2,100 permanent staff in April didn’t become a big talking point—unlike the proposed dismissal of 1,900 Jet Airways staff last October. True, Infosys cited indifferent performance as the reason behind the dismissals but this looks like a piece of adroit spin. The fact is that all over India there has been a wave of unpublicised job losses and enforced pay cuts. It has generated a wave of fear, experienced by those who have lost jobs and those fearful of losing theirs.

There are no reliable estimates of the quantum of job losses in the past eight months or so. The estimates vary from the laughable government admission of five lakh redundancies to the figure of 1.5 crore put out by the Bharatiya Janata Party in its advertisements. The estimates also don’t take into account the salary cuts and imposition of shorter working week by companies that have seen a loss in business. Nor does it take into account the load-shedding of manpower in the non-organised sectors such as retail and household services. A shopkeeper employing three helpers has quietly let go of one while the executive who was employing a chauffer has been compelled to drive to work himself. And, finally, there is the sharp shrinkage of demand, both skilled and unskilled, in the construction industry.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh enjoys an exaggerated reputation as an economist but he has earned some brownie points for his constant invocation of “inclusive” development. It is, therefore, odd that he has chosen to conveniently gloss over this tragic human problem. The Prime Minister and his party, it would seem, is either living in denial or cloud cuckoo land—trying to obfuscate the problem with ridiculous seven per cent growth projections. Indeed, the denial has merged with insensitivity. A new Congress Party TV appeal and outdoor publicity portrays a burst of energy (josh) as the aam aadmi celebrate the government’s economic success. The misplaced bacchanalia is on par with Marie Antoinette’s advice to eat cake.

Economists are known to be unappreciative of popular concerns. The Prime Minister, it would seem, is no exception. So enmeshed is he in the tax-and-spend culture of a statist party that he saw it fit to denounce, at last week’s interaction with women journalists in Delhi, the BJP’s espousal of a “low tax, low interest rate regime”. With a fiscal deficit that has already touched more than 10 per cent of the GDP and government debt at an unsustainable 80 per cent of the GDP, this was the clearest indication that a future Manmohan-led dispensation will have tax increases high on the agenda.

It is a measure of the opposition’s failure that it has failed to make this “it’s the economy, stupid” election. The BJP was right to hit at Manmohan’s weaknesses through its “strong leader, decisive government” campaign. Where the BJP faltered was in not anticipating that the Congress would cash its media IOUs and launch a full-scale assault on L.K. Advani’s own credentials. At the time of the first phase of polling, a sustained offensive by the Prime Minister, Congress President and the heir apparent has seen the focus shift to the challenger rather than the incumbent.

The Congress has done something quite interesting. On the plea that it is the only party that practises “good politics”, i.e. dwell on development and economic matters, it has mounted an attack on its opponent that is exclusively centred on “bad politics”—the blame game over Kandahar. It has quite deliberately tried to shift the agenda away from the economy, including Advani’s campaign against loot in Swiss banks. For a man who was said to be most comfortable interacting with fellow economists and donnish leaders such as Gordon Brown, the sheer imperatives of political survival has forced Manmohan Singh to fall back on “bad politics”.

If the BJP succeeds in the coming weeks to invoke the subliminal fear of recession in the electorate and highlight its low tax promise, it could yet push the Congress into the back foot. The Prime Minister is innately not strong in political sparring—the reason he shied away from a debate with Advani—but he has been forced into this unlikely role because he is most vulnerable on his area of core competence.

India is suffering from a monumental loss of hope and a slide into pessimism. Quite inexplicably, the opposition isn’t even exploiting this dramatic mood shift.

The Telegraph, April 17, 2009

It doesn't help to be a Lone Ranger (April 12, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

If editorial approval, Facebook encouragement and celebrity endorsements can shape an election, Independent candidate Meera Sanyal will be the clear winner in battle for Mumbai South. Needless to say, the possibility of such an outcome is about as high as Sonia Gandhi making an extempore speech. The best that Sanyal, the “daughter of Mumbai South” who (in the spirited prose of Shobhaa De) has deigned “to get her hands dirty”, can hope is to save her security deposit. The same is true for Mallika Sarabhai who is taking on L.K. Advani in Gandhinagar on the strength of her illustrious surname and local roots.

Mumbai has a tradition of being generous to Independents. In 1971, Naval Tata lost Bombay South by just 20,000 votes. He even outpolled George Fernandes. V.K. Krishna Menon lost by just 13,000 votes in 1967 in neighbour Bombay North-West. In 1971, the redoubtable former army chief General K.M. Cariappa polled 90,000 votes in that seat. On its part, Ahmedabad elected Independents such as G.V. Mavlankar and Indulal Yagnik on four occasions.

It is extremely unlikely that history will shape the results on May 16. Neither Sanyal nor Sarabhai is fighting to win. Sanyal is in the game to stand up and be counted and, in the process, serve as a role model for People Like Us. Sarabhai’s objectives seem more modest. She loves needling Narendra Modi and securing brownie points from the radical chic community. Sarabhai has sought to paint Advani as an outsider which, had it not been for her aesthetics, would have seemed suspiciously reminiscent of Raj Thackeray.

Although both candidates profess to speak for exasperated citizens, eliciting mass support, it would seem, is not on their agenda. Sanyal and Sarabhai have made a virtue of their fringe status and tacitly acknowledged that ordinary voters will shun them. Parties, writes Sarabhai piously on her website, “uphold the logic of numbers and not the logic of people.” Sanyal isn’t so disdainful but even a perfunctory glance at her campaign team tells a story of professional achievement and social exclusivity. Sarabhai, on the other hand, is consciously averse to the corporate and MNC types. Her campaign is made up of NGOs and activists who have made a virtue of being jarringly out of tune with the impulses of mainstream Gujarati society.

Both campaigns are fanatical in their desire to occupy the moral high ground. It is, however, curious that their competitive sanctimoniousness is inversely related to public support. It is a pointer to the mind-blowing condescension with which these beautiful people view their less socially adept co-citizens. They are in effect snobs in an arena where snobbery is at a serious discount. Exclusivity may be a worthwhile criterion for social networking but it is somewhat inappropriate for democratic politics. In the world of universal adult franchise, life is all about aggregation and finding negotiated solutions to complex problems. Political parties are an important forum—but by no means the only agency—through which communities find a voice and through which the distribution of scarce resources are managed, however imperfectly. That is why they retain relevance and why aspirants for public office can’t do without them. A Parliament of free thinkers is a good idea on paper; in practice it is even less coherent than the Third Front.

Yet, there is an important lesson to be learnt from the romance of well-meaning people dissipating their energies in pursuit of an uncontaminated political culture. First, over the years, political parties have lost the ability to attract the idealists and the talented in sufficient numbers. Instead of grooming decent people into leadership roles, the parties have fallen back on resourceful fixers and criminals who take refuge behind community sanction. The consequences are thoroughly unwholesome. Secondly, caught up by the challenges of social engineering and empowerment, parties have bypassed a new breed of middle class Indians who are detached from traditional vote banks. This lapse has prompted the “secession of the successful” from politics.

It is heartening that both national parties are beginning to acknowledge the problem. Rahul Gandhi’s bid to change Congress culture may be clumsy and often laughable but at least he has recognised that politics could do with a different blood group. Likewise, the outreach Friends of BJP initiative has the potential of injecting some contemporary thought into the parent body.

Maybe, in hindsight, both Sanyal and Sarabhai can take some credit for doing their bit to highlight the shortcomings of our democracy. But their election experience will also show that “good” people can’t play Lone Ranger. To make a difference they need responsive political parties. (END)

Sunday Times of India. April 12, 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

BJP's enabling manifesto (April 12, 2009)

Sunday Pioneer, April 12, 2009

By Swapan Dasgupta

When Devi Lal, that great purveyor of earthy wisdom, first asked “Who reads manifestos”, he was mocked by an intelligentsia that still believed in the sanctity of political commitments. That, however, was in 1989. Two decades later, the presiding deities of the intellectual establishment have become emotional Third Front-ers, and willing to propagate the notion that what matters in politics are flexibility and the ever-willingness to be a part of any government. Last Wednesday, for example, I was simply taken aback by the endorsement of Devi Lal Thought by Hindu editor N.Ram—one of the last pillars of Brahmanical Stalinism—in TV show. If the editor of the stodgy Hindu, which makes it a point to report every inanity of those in authority, could find nothing worthwhile about manifestos, it must surely mark the end of civilisation as we know it.

There is a basis to Ram’s scepticism about manifestos in general. The Congress manifesto of 2004, for example, promised the creation of one crore jobs per year. Against that assurance it is estimated that nearly 1.5 crore jobs have been lost in the past six months alone. However, at the release of the 2009 Congress manifesto last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claimed with a straight face that the party had fulfilled 80 per cent of its previous commitments. When the holder of the highest political office can fall back on such an incredible claim, there are grounds for believing that manifestos have about as much sanctity as the Congress contention that the UPA is intact.

The overall scepticism notwithstanding, there are grounds for viewing the BJP manifesto a little differently from the rest. This is not on account of its tall promise (in the IT Vision document) to ensure a mobile phone for all those below the poverty line or the amazing assertion that the Ram Setu can be made into a tourist spot. The importance of the BJP Manifesto, as I see it, lies in its approach to the economy.

The global economic slowdown has induced a fundamental rethink about the role of the state in the economy. First, the champions of capitalism have acknowledged that unbridled human greed can lead to wild speculation, irrational exuberance and lead to debilitating distortions. Second, there has been a revival of Keynesian economics which emphasises the overriding importance of the state in kick-starting the process of economic recovery. Neo-socialists such as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have gone to the extent of describing the G-10 summit formulations as the basis of a “new world order”—a turn of phrase that conjures unhappy memories of the false dawn of socialism in the 1960s.

The likes of Manmohan who had to reluctantly dismantle India’s over-regulated economy are ecstatic. There is nothing the dinosaurs among economists like better than putting more and more money at the disposal of an ever-expanding state. This was the basis of Indira Gandhi’s disastrous Left-turn in the 1970s, a process that set India back by at least two decades. Given half a chance, the Congress would love to get back to the good old days of reckless government expenditure and high taxes to fund it.

The BJP Manifesto differs from the new orthodoxy in two significant ways. First, the role of the state in the economy has been narrowed down to two specific areas. There is, of course, the heavy investments in infrastructure—the building of roads, the upgrading of ports and airports and investments in low-cost housing. Along with this the state has been entrusted to ensure cheap food to those citizens who need it the most and special facilities for the advancement of women.

There is a fundamental difference between this and the Congress emphasis on the NREGA. The NREGA scheme was a flawed exercise in welfare precisely because it channelled government expenditure into earthworks and non-asset building projects. The money the UPA Government diverted away from infrastructure projects has resulted in the creation of nothing tangible.

The second feature of the BJP manifesto which is a radical break from the past is the commitment to a low tax and low interest regime. The thinking behind this is important: the economy can be revived if there is more money in the pockets of individuals and their families for both consumption and investment. Individuals and families can be expected to make more rational choices than a centralised state. India’s post-1998 success was entirely entrepreneur-driven and not state-driven. It is that logic which has been incorporated in the manifesto.

If taxes are low, where will the money come from? This is a question that some Congress leaders have raised. Implicit is the Congress belief that the ever-growing state must be paid for by individuals and corporates through high taxes. Apart from blunting India’s competitive edge, this is precisely the sort of economics that encourages tax evasion and the growth of the black economy (which in turn distorts politics).

The low tax alternative is based on the premise that greater economic activity will more than make up the dip in the per capita burden of taxation. Of course, this has to be complemented by two additional measures: the unblocking of idle government assets (a euphemism for targeted privatisation in the non-strategic sector) and better tax compliance. The promise to unearth illegal money stashed overseas isn’t a moral issue alone; it is imperative to ensure that honest Indians pay less taxes.

The extent to which these ideas can be put into effect depends on the outcome. But whatever the May 16 verdict, the BJP has added an extra feather to its famed distinctiveness. And this time, the critics can’t raise the communal bogey.