Political promises in an aspirational ethos - Hindustan Times
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Political promises in an aspirational ethos

May 27, 2024 10:00 PM IST

The polarised campaign in this election season suggests the immunity to issues of inequality that political debates gained in recent years has worn off

The current election cycle has seen inequality regaining a prominent place in political discourse. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been talking about the overwhelming influence of a few business houses in a style reminiscent of his grandmother. After ignoring his arguments for a while, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) responded by presenting the Congress as a party of the extreme Left. The immunity to issues of inequality that political debates had gained since liberalisation appears to have worn off.

FILE- Workers use machinery at a coastal road project construction site in Mumbai, India, Aug. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool, File)(AP) PREMIUM
FILE- Workers use machinery at a coastal road project construction site in Mumbai, India, Aug. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool, File)(AP)

The return of inequality to the political stage is not entirely surprising, once we distinguish between the perception of differences in the mathematical and social domains. In a mathematical sense, any difference is an inequality. In the social domain, there are differences that are celebrated and those that are treated as inequalities. While we celebrate those who distinguish themselves from others academically, we tend to be morally less comfortable with extreme social inequalities.

Liberalisation shifted the focus from the disapproval of inequality in the garibi hatao years to celebrating individual economic successes as examples of what can be achieved. Manmohan Singh, as finance minister, ended his epoch-making 1991 budget speech with the statement that India as a major economic power was an idea whose time had come. Later governments may have made this claim more muscular than Singh’s style, but the goal had already shifted from leading the developing world in its fight against global inequalities to becoming one of the beneficiaries of that inequality.

The shift from inequality to aspirations had a greater effect on domestic politics. Political rhetoric was transformed from helping the vulnerable to asserting the dominance of specific identity groups. Even as Hindutva asserted the dominance of the national majority, regional groups asserted their dominance through disdain for local minorities. The political terrain was redefined in terms of a battle between Hindutva and regional identities.

The celebration of dominance in the economic domain led to the view that poverty could only be removed through unequal economic growth. A part of the higher revenue generated through this growth was to be used for politically rewarding welfare schemes. This worldview meant not just ignoring income differences but using inequality as a tool to step up savings and hence growth. The goal of raising the rate of savings could have been realised either by increasing the savings of all sections of the population or simply by transferring income to those who save more. Since the rich are able to save more, increasing inequality would generate a higher overall rate of savings. Studies have shown that India used increased inequality to generate savings for its growth.

There are, of course, limits to increasing inequality, especially in a democracy. Growing inequality reduces the share of large sections of the population in income and hence consumption. This steps up the demand for welfare that the State and/or the political class is expected to provide. It does not help that the celebration of the rich raises these expectations even further. Thus, even as economists use a minimalist poverty line to point to a reduction in poverty, politicians don’t have that luxury. At a time when the government has been claiming a massive reduction in poverty, it has been careful enough to ensure it provides free food to 800 million Indians, which is around 60% of the population.

Having created an aspirational ethos, merely providing free foodgrain is not enough. Politicians have been forced to change their attitudes to the generation of jobs. Nowhere is this clearer than in Bihar. At a time when inequality was ignored, Bihar’s workers coped with regional inequality by seeking short-term assignments in distant metropolitan centres. Its politicians encouraged this process. Ram Vilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar, and Lalu Prasad used their stints as railway ministers to extend the railway network to more remote parts of the state, thus enabling workers to travel relatively quickly to distant worksites. This paid political dividends when caste-based worker networks used the wages and skills generated in the metropolitan centres to alter dominance patterns in their villages. But exposure to urban centres also raised aspirations that low-wage assignments in urban centres could not meet. The political value of encouraging short-term migration has begun to taper off. Tejashwi Yadav is leading the next political generation’s move away from short-term migration by promising better-paying jobs in Bihar. Rahul Gandhi may be leading the campaign on inequality and jobs on the national stage, but Yadav is arguably doing the most intense groundwork for the cause.

The BJP’s response to inequality getting a prominent place on the national stage after more than three decades has been to double down on what it does best. It has put all its resources behind the politics of majoritarian dominance. The Prime Minister (PM) himself is leading the targeting of Muslims. And, the PM’s economic advisory council has used old population data, including some convenient calculation errors, to raise fears of a Muslim population explosion. It states the share of the Sikh population has grown by 6.58% though the figures in the same sentence point to a growth of 49.19%, well above the growth rate of the share of the Muslim population.

Beyond the personalities, the political choice of 2024 has emerged as one between the politics of asserting dominance and that of easing the effects of inequality. In a political milieu where it is generally believed that direct ideological confrontations are a thing of the past, this is the sharpest difference that has been presented to the Indian electorate in a while. Whoever is first past the post on June 4 will take the result as an endorsement of their politics, thereby determining whether the next five years will see more of the politics of dominance or an effort to ease the extremes of inequality.

Narendar Pani is JRD Tata Chair visiting professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. The views expressed are personal

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