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Vox Populi

Why the BJP didn’t oppose the food security bill. 

The Affordable care Act (ACA) or ‘Obamacare’ was signed into law in 2010 by President Barack Obama in the face of almost universal Republican opposition. The Republican Party argued that ACA was ‘socialized Medicine’ and was an entitlement the US simply couldn’t afford in an era of depressed economy and curtailed budgets. The Democrats, on the other hand, argued that ACA was a rightful step towards universal healthcare—a long-standing policy goal for the Left.

So far so good. The positions of both parties reflected their cherished goals. The Democrats believe in an activist government to correct what they perceive as the inequities of the market system. The Republicans are a party of small government and therefore were naturally opposed to a new entitlement.

But then a curious argument followed. The Republicans asserted that ACA was funded by money ‘stolen’ from the Medicare trust fund to the tune of $700 billion dollars. In fact, Mitt Romney specifically promised that in case he was elected president, he would ensure that the said money was ‘returned’ to Medicare.

Without getting into needless technical details, the Republican accusation was silly. But it was also surprising. After all, Medicare—a universal entitlement for Americans aged 65 and above—is socialized healthcare. It is an entitlement scheme and many prominent Republicans have argued that it would soon bankrupt America. So what’s going on here?

ACA is primarily designed to benefit the poor and the minorities who disproportionately vote for Democrats. On the other hand, Medicare by design is an entitlement scheme for elderly Americans who overwhelmingly vote Republican. Though couched in ideological terms, the battle over ACA was as much a political argument where both parties were trying to protect and reward their constituents. The argument is not that there are no genuine ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats. There certainly are. But these arguments are often a veneer for naked political battles where both parties attempt to protect their vote banks. The fact that both parties have distinct constituencies is what lends their ideological argument a political edge. If the Democrats didn’t believe that ACA would yield substantial political benefits, President Obama was unlikely to risk his political capital. For instance, climate change—an issue which agitates the ‘professional Left’—has been largely ignored by  the leaders of the Democratic party including President Obama.

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The Lok Sabha recently passed the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s flagship Food Security Bill (FSB). Despite concerns raised by many parties, the bill was passed unanimously with virtually no opposition and even a formal division of votes was not required.  The amendments moved by BJP  and other opposition parties were designed to further strengthen the proposed law. Indeed, BJP leader Sushma Swaraj specifically promised that when her party comes back to power, it would further strengthen the FSB.

BJP’s capitulation in the parliament has caused great consternation among its supporters particularly on social media who believe that the party has let down its allegedly Right-of-Center economic agenda. Other commentators have pointed out that despite its claims of supporting economic reforms, the BJP was actually pushing the FSB further towards the Left. But did it  make any sense for the BJP to oppose the FSB?

Unlike in the USA, the political constituency in India is not differentiated on economic policy.  Except for the Muslim vote, the BJP and the Congress are appealing to essentially the samel class of voters.  The BJP is a strong political player in some of the poorest states in India where it would have no electoral traction without the votes of the poor—the alleged beneficiaries of FSB. Take Chhattisgarh for instance. The Raman Singh government has won two elections primarily based on his reputation as ‘chawal waale baba.’

What about the middle class, you may ask? Two points.  The middle class remains an untested entity as far as electoral politics is concerned. There is little doubt that it is a stronger political force compared to the India of 2004 but there is limited evidence that it can swing electoral fortunes in a national election. Second, except for sections active on the social media, the middle class remains as much enamored with government handouts as the poor. Its priorities may be different—cheap petrol instead of food security—but it is not fundamentally in disagreement with redistribution as long as it is its primary beneficiary.

So here’s the hard truth: Despite the noise it creates on twitter and on op-ed columns, the economic right-of-center voter in India is electorally irrelevant. In other words, the number of voters who would actually shift their voting patterns because they disagree with economic populism are a minuscule minority unlikely to influence elections except in a few urban cosmopolitan seats. For the BJP or any other party to sacrifice its electoral interests at the altar of such an insignificant minority would be committing political suicide. Sadly for the vocal BJP supporters, the Congress holds all the cards in the battle for populism and the party has little option but to minimize its losses.

Even the policy elite in India who often laments the lack of a true Right-of-Center alternative are largely social liberals. They may use BJP’s economic populism as a stick to beat the party with but  when the  push comes to the shove, they would still support the Congress party because of their fundamental disagreement with BJP’s Hindutva politics.  Harsh as it may sound, the BJP is only wise to ignore their contrived protests.

For any party to discard the politics of populism would require a strong political constituency which would vote specifically on that ground. And why would it do that?  Because those policies  hurt its interests. Where is that class of voters in India?  Unless there is strong middle constituency which votes against ‘pro-poor’ policies, this state of affair is unlikely to change.

In a democracy, ultimately every party which aspires for power is dictated by the harsh reality of electoral logic. In India, this points to a populist polity where redistribution would be the primary goal of the government with reforms or growth a secondary concern. This may change as India becomes a middle income country and the aspirational class becomes the dominant player. However, that is a long-term process to be measured in decades and has little immediate political salience.

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In their recent book, The Dictator’s Handbook, De Mesquita and Smith argue,

While most of us think of a state’s bankruptcy as a financial crisis, looking through the prism of political survival makes evident that it really amounts to a political crisis. When debt exceeds the ability to pay, the problem o leader is not so much that good public works must be cut back, but rather than incumbent doesn’t have the resources necessary to purchase political loyalty from key backers. 

Viewed in that light, it is easy to understand why the UPA government has set aside economic concerns in ensuring the passage of the food security bill. India is a certainly in the midst of an economic crisis but it still has the wherewithal to pay for expansive welfare programs. In any case, elections are six months away and it is the next government which would have to grapple with the implications of UPA’s fiscal profligacy. And because ‘self-interested calculations and actions of rulers are the driving force for all politics—the need for self-preservation—it makes immense sense for the Congress party to pursue welfare politics rather than worry about the economic crisis.

In conclusion: Populism is inevitable in a democracy and in a poor country like India, it will  remain the dominant political tool in the foreseeable future. And that would remain true irrespective of whether the opposition chooses to commit political suicide at the altar of fiscal rectitude while the Congress laughs all the way to power.

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