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A Hundred Million Losers

The BJP doesn't seem to have anything to say about the economy that is different from others

A Hundred Million Losers
This election is remarkable in the complete absence of economic issues from the electoral agenda. Many see this as a consequence of the rise of coalition politics. I disagree. Coalitions can be forged as much around economic issues as about other things. Italian, Japanese and South Korean coalitions have forged alliances on economic issues. In particular, established parties of the left and right use economic platforms to cement alliances with others. In India there are no national left parties. But what of the right?

The Congress Party is engaged in political necromancy and can hardly be expected to rally round an economic platform. But what of the BJP? Does the party have anything resembling a coherent economic policy?

The erstwhile Jan Sangh was a party of lala capitalism, in line with its enthusiastic support base of shopkeepers. Its major economic pronouncements were therefore predictable: in the entire history of the party the most remarkable economic issue that comes to mind is its campaign to abolish the sales tax. Given this inheritance the building of an economic policy framework (nonsense about Gandhian socialism apart) has been a major challenge for the BJP which held no economic office in the 1977 government. With its right-wing credentials, the BJP should be the party most in favour of liberalisation, openness to foreign investment and tax-cutting. But this is certainly not the case. The Rajiv Gandhi baba log and Dr Manmohan Singh projected the Congress as the face of modern right-wing capitalism. In response, the BJP believes in "computer chips not potato chips" and mutters about swadeshi in a manner that would embarrass any self-respecting right-winger, and delight Nehruvian planners. All very grotty for your average, suspender-wearing, wannabe global Indian.

The BJP's political finance ministers and economic advisors are equally unfashionable. No Harvard and Oxbridge characters out of the closet supporting the BJP yet, apart from a clutch of discredited ex-Trotskyites looking for a new religion. Or Subramanian Swamy, long consigned to a political dustbin.

So, on policy issues, the BJP is either gauche or bankrupt. It has no distinct strategy for poverty alleviation. It has no new ideas on increasing domestic investment for all its swadeshi pretensions. When it comes to dealing with foreign investors it seems to be committed to the case-by-case approach that has been the hallmark of all governments, no exceptions made. What do they think about opening up the insurance market? Fine, as long as foreign investors implement crop insurance schemes. What does a future BJP government do if such schemes are offered only to rich farmers? Can't say. Is the BJP committed to convertibility of the Indian rupee? No idea. Does the BJP have ideas on cutting the revenue deficit? No. Is the public sector to be reformed or sold? No answers.

But does all this matter? It wouldn't if the BJP had anything to say about the economy that was different from anybody else, or even, better still, if there was a vision, any vision.

To have a vision, one has to first ask a simple question: what needs to be done? The answers stare everybody in the face. Better and more education. More jobs and opportunities. Less inequality.

 Now the strategy. A good right-wing party lets the market take care of what it can and regulates things to enable this. It welcomes investment, irrespective of domain or origin. It cuts taxes. It privatises. It removes subsidies. Or, at least, it talks about these things. No such talk from the BJP.At the same time, no inclination to go the other way and aggressively tout the virtues of domestic, or state-led, capitalism.

The BJP's silence on these issues is not surprising. It is a hallmark of all political parties, through to the communists at the other end of the political spectrum. The reason why the BJP's silence is all the more interesting is that it makes a joke of its claim to being a national party with a national vision.

The fact that the BJP, if successful, will have to share power with smaller parties in a coalition makes its gauche bankruptcy all the more poignant. A common political vision would be difficult, a minimum one barely possible given the BJP's rather complex regional and caste difficulties. A common economic programme would be the logical way out. But how does the BJP do this with allies as diverse as George Fernandes, Parkash Singh Badal and Ramakrishna Hegde? Imagine a post-election scenario where Fernandes insists on throwing Pepsi out of India (on swadeshi grounds, of course), while Badal demands an increase in food subsidies, even as the lalas protest at having to justify their foreign holidays in their tax returns. And the BJP and the CPI(M) will be as one in their opposition to any cuts in the pay, perks, numbers and privileges of government employees—for does the BJP not want to retain its newly-found middle class supporters, so many of whom work (if one can call it that) in government? Comic, but depressingly possible.

The moral of this story is simple. There's a way out of the present mess, if one or the other of the coalitions is able to work out a common economic vision. But economics is about making winners and politics is about numbers. So which of our illustrious politicians and their visionary advisors are going to come up with an economic vision that creates at least a hundred million winners? There lies the key to political success and a way out of the present farce. Ask the politicians—what's your vision 2020 and how many of us win then, if not now?

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