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Vote without fear

Once you sift the facts, those who are touted as growth champions are no better than others. Those who are vilified as economic luddites propound policies similar to second-generation reforms, writes Partha Mukhopadhyay.

ht view Updated: Apr 13, 2014 22:53 IST

As India votes, a common refrain is that we need a stable, single-party government for economic growth. All other arrangements lead to economic collapse. This scare-mongering is just wrong.

If your vote is driven by economic reasons, you could vote for AAP to act on corruption and decentralise service delivery by providing untied grants to local bodies. Its manifesto states: “Government should not be in the business of running businesses… [It] should encourage honest enterprise through lower compliance costs and a corruption free environment, the provision of efficient and reliable infrastructure and services and incentivising productive innovation”.

Many policies in Arvind Kejriwal’s swaraj, eg, schoolteachers recruited and paid by local bodies, are like those emanating from ‘evidence-based policy’, based on randomised control trials! But, if you vote against AAP because you think we need a strong central government or because you disagree with their decisions in Delhi, do so.

Or, you could vote for the Congress because it delivered the highest average growth rate in the past 10 years, or against it because it lost its way and we seem to be on a downward spiral, or for it because it seems to have corrected itself recently, or against it because of all the scams, or for it because the laws it has brought in are helping to uncover all the scams … you get the drift. There are reasons both ways.

You could vote for the BJP because the NDA started the infrastructure boom — the highways, the airports, the rural roads — and you believe it is that benefit we are reaping today, or against it because Narendra Modi was not part of the NDA story and you think that he will be too pro-business and too little pro-market, or for it because you believe in labour reforms and industry that is “modern competitive and caring”.

But don’t vote for the BJP just because Gujarat did well. Consider three facts.

First, Gujarat has always done well. Second, a large part of Gujarat’s GDP (and India’s exports) is based on petroleum refining. The biggest SEZ in India is the Jamnagar refinery, which accounts for roughly half of all exports from new SEZs, and over a tenth of exports.

Its location is in Gujarat because the state is closest to West Asia; it was commissioned before Modi came to power and it exports because the Union government’s policy on fuel subsidies renders Reliance Industries’ domestic sales unprofitable.

Third, Gujarat’s much-vaunted performance on supplying electricity and water is hyped. Gujarat and Karnataka were at roughly similar levels in 2001. From 2001 to 2011, Gujarat had the stable Modi sarkar, while Karnataka had two spells of President’s rule, three parties in power and four chief ministers. Still, it outperformed Gujarat.

The share of rural households with access to electricity in Gujarat rose by 12.9% vis-à-vis 14.6% in Karnataka. Rural households with access to tap water rose by 6.7% in Gujarat compared to 7.9% in Karnataka. In urban areas, Karnataka did better in electricity while Gujarat performed better in tap water.

So, don’t let the instability bogey stop you from voting for your regional party, for J Jayalalithaa, Jaganmohan Reddy, Naveen Patnaik, Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati or Mulayam Singh Yadav. If you want to vote against them, do so. But, don’t be afraid that sending them to Delhi will cause instability.

Tamil Nadu is India’s manufacturing hub, sadly affected by power shortages — because of tardiness in connecting them to the national electricity grid. Kumar has changed rural Bihar. Reddy is backed by Seemandhra capitalists.

Patnaik is seen as a squeaky-clean chief minister. Why should they, most of whom run their own states effectively, want to make a mess in Delhi?

The current slowdown is driven by falling private investment — business waiting and hoping that the future will be more to their liking.

They would like a cosy relationship with government — and you may think that’s what India needs today, like South Korea of yore. But, if that is not available, business will adjust to more open and transparent regulation — just as US business did at the beginning of the last century.

Fundamentally, we are in good shape. The private share of GDP is growing, we are open to the world economy — much more so than most countries our size; our workers are finally leaving the farm; most of them with some schooling and we are saving much more.

Don’t think voting for smaller parties will scare business away. Big business is not easily scared even if they do like to scare people into thinking they can be scared away. Once the political dust settles, investment will grow. Business will not give up a good thing.

Once you sift the facts, those who are touted as growth champions are no better than others. Those who are vilified as economic luddites propound policies similar to second-generation reforms. In such a world, while little is as it seems, do not let the catastrophists scare you. None of your choices will result in economic meltdown. Vote without fear.

Partha Mukhopadhyay is an economist and senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. The views expressed by the author are personal.