To say that politics is a hand-maiden of policymaking would be an understatement. This is more so in a country like India where a diverse polity makes policy-making a complex process. The Bihar assembly elections, where the JD(U)-RJD alliance rode to a landslide victory, has brought economic reforms back in focus. There is a fear that the BJP’s crushing defeat could have a bearing on the government’s planned reforms agenda. Financial markets sometimes serve as an appropriate proxy to measure investors’ reading of the turn of political events. The wobble in the stock markets on Monday mirrors an underlying anxiety about the Bihar poll outcome’s probable adverse impact on the speed of reforms. This apprehension finds its origins in India’s recent history, where central governments have tended to lean towards political risk management than biting the bullet on critical reforms.
At risk are two of India’s most critical second-generation policy moves: Tax and labour reforms. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) is arguably the biggest ever reform to be undertaken in independent India. Once implemented, it will stitch together a common national market by dismantling fiscal barriers among states. The system can be rolled out only when Parliament passes the pending Constitution Amendment Bill. The Congress and other Opposition parties have demanded amendments to the Bill passed in the Lok Sabha. There is a fear that hammering out a political consensus over GST will get even more difficult after the Bihar election results. Likewise, labour reforms could get delayed, given the political sensitivities involved in the proposals. The Centre had planned to reduce 44 labour laws to just five, including a new Labour Code. Trade unions have demanded a withdrawal of the proposed changes as they fear that once enacted, the Labour Code will allow companies to use it arbitrarily in their favour.
The moot point, however, is whether India will be able to delink electoral politics from policy-making in the larger national interest. It is often said that economic reforms are like a dose of antibiotics, abandoning the line of action mid-way could keep the wounds festering, or lead to side-effects. In policy-making, short-termism can have grave consequences. Considerable bipartisan political approval and collaboration among state governments and the Centre will be required to implement crucial policy initiatives. India cannot afford to stop the reforms clock. Collaboration and constructive debate, rather than rigid political posturing, is the need of the hour if India is to regain its status as a global growth engine. Politics and policy-making should not become a zero-sum game.