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Trying Times

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Political parties are really going overboard while positioning themselves for the coming assembly elections in five states. It is not just the frenetic temple-hopping and attempts to appropriate local traditions and celebrations; it is also the over the top populist promises. As each wannabe party comes up with a particular bold giveaway, others try and keep up with even more extravagant promises. The parties with actual chances of getting elected are under pressure to make concessions that could actually undo the good work they have done while in office.

The challengers are not promising good governance – do not have any economic policies to speak of. All they are willing to do is drain the public exchequer in the post-Covid challenged situation as a bribe to obtain votes from what they are hoping is a gullible electorate. The alienation among large landowning farmers is being particularly targeted. So, AAP MLA Bhagwant Mann has promised to import into Uttarakhand the malaise that has almost destroyed agriculture in Punjab – free electricity for farmers. AAP is fully aware that its best hope is single digit seats in Uttarakhand, but is more than willing to queer the pitch for others with outlandish promises.

Anybody who understands economics knows that government funds come from the ordinary folk. Any giveaways, over time, find their way into the pockets of the well-to-do, or are diverted by middle-men. Diesel, which was subsidised for decades for farmers, became cheap fuel for SUVs that were bought by the rich. Public funds have to be used for infrastructure building, improvement in services and targeted schemes. India has had a very difficult time making the shift from populist welfarism to productive use of these funds. It cannot afford to return to the state bankruptcy and systemic corruption of the past.

The ‘threat’ of elections is also being used by a number of groups to pressure government on their pending demands. Government employees, for instance, are demanding the return of the old system of pensions. That this ‘privilege’ is not sustainable in the long term and could lead to greater loss in other ways does not concern them. The political parties can either lie, or actually try and implement tall promises made during election time. Both would be equally disastrous. It is, therefore, a difficult time for politicians as they walk the tightrope between expectations and reality. The dancing on stage as one possessed by the ‘devtas’ is perhaps the kind of smokescreen politicians are attempting to get past this challenge.