Age of lollipop politics
Emergence of populist themes is a disturbing worldwide development.
The economists say there is no free lunch. The politicians, on the other hand, promise a free lunch in exchange for the vote of the people. Since elections to one public body or another are always happening or about to happen, voters are given all kinds of promises like bringing the heavens down, by all the competing contestants. Some of them sound pretty crass, like making the road surfaces as smooth as an actress' cheeks. We are just done with the elections to the Assemblies of five States, and the rhetoric and the vote seeking rallies seemed to go baser than ever before. Of course, throughout the seven weeks or more of electioneering, we also had political and psephological speculators trotting out reasoned, or so they seemed, arguments for or against who was likely to walk away with the winning trophies in the contest.
Freebies surely win hearts of the voters. Indeed they are like lollipops, comfort food for the hapless and the poor, who forming the majority of the electorate are sought for their votes by all parties. What it does to the State Treasury, is another story in which there is little interest, except an academic one. Once the election is won, some sops will be made good, and for the unfulfilled rest, we can blame the bureaucracy or the global economic slowdown. It is also a fact that all governments, be it state or national, are running on borrowed money and the expense is far from the present or potential revenues. But that is not a worry. Doomsayers have sounded many a death knell about our impending bankruptcy, but we carry on regardless. For example, Punjab is now under debt of more than Rs1 lakh crore.
Back to the freebies, the so-called sops to the voters or lollipops. Sewing machines to attract the women voters, mixers and blenders likewise, cycles for girls, Amma canteens for everybody, laptops for students, free electricity for farmers, rice and wheat for almost no price for the poor. It is really competitive bidding but in reverse. The basic idea is to fool, at least, some of the people, all the time and coupled with few others, some of the time, the convergence of the two sets, will ensure a victory. The disturbing part of the emergence of the populist themes is that they are not limited to our brand of politics only and has caught the imagination of the politicians in the developed countries too. Indeed it is seen as a worldwide development.
The United States surprised world watchers by electing the divisive Donald Trump who said the most outrageous things on his campaign trail. Yet, his promise to make America great again won many a voter to the dismay of his Democrat opponent. The idea of throwing out all immigrants appealed to the native white American heart who never bothered to check for consequences. Similar sentiments are noticeably gaining traction in Europe too. The anti-immigrant party led by Marine Le Pen wants 'France for the French' only, and the Hungarian Prime Minister wants the European borders closed to maintain the ' Christian' character against Muslim immigrants. Geert Wilder in Holland also contested on the anti-immigration plank. Is the famed movement of globalisation which was so attractive only a little while ago, on the fast slope to decline now?
It would indeed appear that the 'world is one for trade and commerce' and there must be free movement across countries has lost its charm. Brexit was a cry against open trade and open borders. 'Make America great again', and 'immigrants go back' is a backlash against policies that created freer trade and movement of people. There is no doubt that globalisation created wealth and reduced poverty but mainly it made the rich only richer. The elites got the best of the deal and prospered while the poor could not afford or just were not equipped to take the opportunities on offer. The State just did not have the imagination or the wherewithal to bring those on the margins into the mainstream. The emerging state of affairs is a handy recipe for the politicians to nurse and capitalise on the collective sense of grievance and pitch for a re-order of economic policies and governance priorities, to re-assert and seek to reclaim the identities of the have-nots.
It does seem, going by the voting trends in the recent elections, that populism will shape economic policies. Indeed we can almost say that economics has no independent standing, howsoever guided by intrinsic logic it may be, unless the politics of the time is favourable to fiscal architecture under formulation. At the same time, populism also requires that protests, strikes or contrarian positions are put down with greater force under the guise of giving more power to the common man. Populism, actually, rides on this slogan and builds people's sentiment on nationalism. Hearts get filled with pride, for sure, but development and people's prosperity has to ride on robust ethical and equity frameworks. Whatever else we do, the integrity of the state must always meet highest standards of ethical policy. The policy makers have to be demonstrably conscious of this dire need.
The lollipop induced sweetness of the voter is soured soon as the harsh reality of deficits in public services coupled with shrinking employment opportunities and a less than facilitative ecosystem for business, hits the common man. Democracy cannot be a transactional exercise in a narrow frame because those who voted against the winner also deserve justice and equity. The winner has to transcend his resentment against those who voted for someone else and not withhold their share of the state policy. Public policy, to endure and build a robust state, has to be fair and inclusive, and the state treasury deserves the great respect of the governors. We have to remind ourselves that when the lollipops melt, so will the wealth of the country.
(The writer is former Director, Indian Habitat Centre. Views expressed are strictly personal.)