Gujarat election results offer hope for a rejuvenated political economy | analysis | Hindustan Times
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Gujarat election results offer hope for a rejuvenated political economy

The most-important factor that should shape the Opposition’s economic development strategy is to bolster the informal or unorganised sector, which accounts for 84.7% of jobs in the economy

analysis Updated: Dec 20, 2017 12:47 IST
Women at a re-polling booth in Daskroi constituency, Ahmedabad, December 17
Women at a re-polling booth in Daskroi constituency, Ahmedabad, December 17 (PTI)

Gujarat has witnessed a keenly fought election that portends well for the revival of political contests at the national level. The Congress sought to reinforce its base by uniting three distinct electoral constituencies, though these efforts did not yield the expected electoral dividends. A fuller understanding of these results is invaluable for building socially diverse and politically salient electoral coalitions in national politics.

Despite the intense focus on three young leaders, Patidar leader Hardik Patel, OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, and Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani, few recall that these young Turks first came together on their own accord in August 2016. The motivation was to register their opposition to the provisions of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Gujarat Amendment) Bill, 2016. This is a copy-cat law meant to bypass the 2013 land law enacted by the UPA; specifically, to do away with the provisions related to social impact assessment and the requirement of seeking the consent of the groups facing displacement. If the Congress had engaged these young leaders right-away, it would have given them nearly a year and a half to build an alliance founded on an issue that appeals to all three constituencies. In practice, the Congress was slow in responding to these developments.

Mewani and Patel positioned themselves against the BJP by design and pro-Congress by default. As a result, even though exit polls showed Congress winning a majority of SC votes, according to the CSDS surveys, in comparison to the 2012 assembly elections, Congress’ share of the SC votes went down by about 10 percentage points. Similarly, both the exit polls and the election results show the Congress further losing ground among the Adivasis, who constitute 15% of the votes in the state (as compared to the 12% Patels). These results are even more significant if one accounts for the fact that the incumbent state government failed the Adivasis on multiple grounds: a large number of Adivasi villages do not have access to safe drinking water, though they were asked to give up land for various dams and the vast network of canals that ferry its waters to Saurashtra and Kutch; the incumbent government also failed to settle the Adivasi land rights question per the Forest Rights Act of 2006.

The Congress and other Opposition parties will need to get their house in order if they are to challenge the dominance of the BJP, though the moment is ripe for the emergence of a broad-based social and political coalition. Journalists and researchers’ report agrarian distress and rural discontent vis-à-vis a range of economic issues. While it is obvious that Congress needs to focus on building its cadre and regional leadership, any viable strategy for the 2019 general elections must also include building numerous regional coalitions of the type the party attempted in Gujarat. Most important, instead of rehashing the discourses of ‘reform with a human face’, it must stitch together economic development strategies customised to Indian conditions.

The most-important factor that should shape its economic development strategy is to bolster the informal or unorganised sector, which accounts for 84.7% of jobs in the economy (NSSO, 2011-12). Even if one were to exclude crop production-related agriculture employment, this data shows that 75% of total employment in the rural areas and 69% of all employment in urban areas is informal. Informal employment is the bedrock of sectors as diverse as leather, textiles, manufacturing, and other small-scale production activities that are vital to the nation’s economy. Eighty-nine per cent of all manufacturing sector workers are employed informally. A meaningful programme meant to boost indigenous manufacture must be designed to improve working conditions in the sector.

Any efforts to push inclusive development will have to focus on the goals of ensuring better economic returns in the sectors that sustain hundreds of millions of lives and livelihoods, including agriculture, dairy, fisheries, and forests. These sectors are also the home of the cooperative sector that requires a massive infusion of energy. Equally important, the Opposition would do well to cater carefully to the youth constituency (18-25 yrs) that voted in favour of the Congress (45% against 44% support for the BJP; The India Today-Axis Exit Poll). Gujarat elections also brought to fore the discontent against rhetoric of development that has yet to benefit a majority of them. The Congress and other Opposition parties must offer meaningful opportunities to the millions of unemployed Indians. Shared prosperity has to be the central agenda of a vibrant democracy.

Prakash Kashwan teaches at the University of Connecticut, Storrs

The views expressed are personal