Millennium Post

Prisoners to brand images

The spectacular majority seen in the recent president and vice-president elections renders invalid the popular explanation for India’s halted socio-economic progress that it is primarily due to a fractious polity. In the presidential election, even Mamata Banerjee, a permanently miffed United Progressive Alliance [UPA] partner, got her Trinamool Congress to vote for UPA candidate Pranab Mukherjee; more significantly, the Shiva Sena broke ranks with the BJP, its ideological and political sibling, to support him. The UPA’s vice-presidential candidate Hamid Ansari defeated National Democratic Alliance [NDA]’s Jaswant Singh by an unexpectedly large margin of 525 votes. So what was the glue that worked?

It is nothing but the satisfaction of being spared an election now. I am sure if India had a system of direct presidential [and vice-presidential] election, neither Mukherjee nor Ansari would have been put up as candidates, not to speak of winning. Neither of them has popular appeal across the nation. But the MPs and MLAs who voted for the duo have different priorities. The electoral process in India has become so costly and unpredictable that every winner trembles to face the next test. It is natural, therefore, that they’d not like a freak outcome in electing two non-functional dignitaries to upset their applecart.

So the polity is not fractious per se. It is united in its anxiety to hold back an election that entails a real expenditure 15 to 20 times that of the maximum amount stipulated by the Election Commission [Rs 25 lakh for Lok Sabha]. But its constituents still do a lot of sparring in the public arena—like BJP leader L K Advani and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi recently did in Parliament recently—because that’s the way to retain their ‘brand image’. The Congress, for that matter, must be seen as pro-poor and pro-Muslim, regardless of what its policies actually are. The BJP, on the other hand, wants to consolidate Hindu votes but says it is committed to national security because it’d otherwise confirm the general belief that it is communal. The parties have got locked onto their brand identities, and that’s the problem. Politics is a dynamic process that changes with society. But as parties become prisoners to their brand images, they got frozen in time. The Congress’ current dilemma in Assam is a typical example. Though regularly accused of fostering the illegal immigrants, the Bangladeshis, in the state and using them as its ‘vote bank’, so much frozen is the Congress in its secular brand - image that it refuses to think of a low-cost way out, like enforcing a citizenship identity card with a clear marker for those who hadn’t lived in India before 1971. Congress is scared of losing minority votes in lower Assam but is not prepared to bet on the ‘gratitude vote’ of the native population.

On the national scene, the party is also caught in a bind on the issue of poverty and welfare. The value of MGNREGS as a pro-poor welfare scheme is undeniable. But what is downright questionable is its refusal to create any asset, thus making it the world’s most expensive free lunch. It will neither help India remove the huge social imbalance of agriculture accounting for only 17 per cent of GDP but employing 52 per cent of the labour force, nor will it help the poor make use of the opportunities to get on in life. Instead it will create a stagnancy in rural life, signs of which are already evident. On the national economy, the more GDP growth rate dwindles, the more difficult will it be to sustain it. And by linking the MGNREGA payout to the rural consumer price index, the scheme has triggered a wage spiral in the farming sector which is bound to make agriculture uneconomic at some stage.

It’s nobody’s case that MGNREGA should be wound up at the drop of a hat. But it will be creative thinking if this massive, and sparsely audited, earth-digging exercise is tweaked to improve the beneficiaries’ skill levels.

India is abysmally deficient in skills, which is one reason why, unlike in the South East Asian economies, manufacturing has failed to provide significant employment. According to an ASSOCHAM study, South Korea has 95.8 per cent of its work force with vocational training, Japan with 80.4 per cent and China with 58 per cent. In India, only 5.3 per cent of the work force are skilled. The skill deficit of workers in India has particularly hit the small and medium enterprises which are reeling under the shortage of trained welders, fitters, carpenters, etc. The ITI-type polytechnics are few and far between: against 13 million new entrants to the labour force, the existing training facilities [and that includes engineering colleges] can train only 3.1 million. Even middle class people feel the shortage of trained workers. One is lucky to find a plumber or an electrician, and, with no certification, there is no guarantee of the quality of their work. Once paid for the job, they may not take your call, not to speak of being accountable for the quality of service.

However, the architects of MGNREGS have made the law imbued with such an utterly false but evangelical show of concern for the poor that it allows for only ‘unskilled manual work’ In other words, it subsidises absence of skill. If a minor amendment is carried out by replacing the clause with ‘doing unskilled manual work, or being trained to acquire technical skill’, it can open a new vista of economic growth.

For example, in a decade from now, as aging catches up on China’s labour availability, it may look around for countries with efficient labour where it can move its manufacturing industries, just as the US and Europe did to China two decades ago. That’ll be India’s turn to do a China on the world. A skill dispersal programme funded by a statutory body like MGNREGS can truly make India turn the page on poverty.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who has sculpted UPA-2’s political strategy, may avoid going that extra mile because she’s possibly inspired by her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, whose garibi hatao slogan reaped a windfall of seats in 1971. But that’s another century. If Sonia Gandhi makes MGNREGS more meaningful, nobody, not even the BJP, will accuse her of being anti-poor.
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