Three governance tasks that confront new government - Hindustan Times
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Three governance tasks that confront new government

Jun 18, 2024 12:15 AM IST

How it addresses them will determine whether the BJP wins back its mojo or cedes ground to a resurgent Opposition

The Lok Sabha elections verdict suggests that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) governance model requires an upgrade. The new government faces three critical challenges — socioeconomic inequality, unemployment, and federal fault lines. How it addresses them will determine whether the BJP wins back its mojo or cedes ground to a resurgent Opposition.

New Delhi, Jun 09 (ANI): Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi addresses a meeting with National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leaders before the swearing-in ceremony of the new Cabinet and council of ministers, at his residence in New Delhi on Sunday. (ANI Photo) (ANI)
New Delhi, Jun 09 (ANI): Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi addresses a meeting with National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leaders before the swearing-in ceremony of the new Cabinet and council of ministers, at his residence in New Delhi on Sunday. (ANI Photo) (ANI)

Over the past four decades, rapid economic growth has lifted millions from poverty, and improved living conditions across the country. But as this column has pointed out earlier, the extent of improvement has varied sharply across regions and social groups (‘Inequality debate must centre around evidence’, May 20). The first step to address this issue is to collect credible and granular data on socioeconomic inequalities.

The BJP has been opposed to the Opposition’s demand for a caste census so far. It needs to reconsider its stance. The BJP’s opposition stems from three main concerns. First, it fears that any such exercise will antagonise its core upper-caste voter base. Second, it fears that counting castes will end up legitimising the caste divide in the country. Third, it fears that a caste census will be difficult to administer in a diverse country with changing caste profiles and fluid jati (sub-caste) boundaries.

The first two concerns are overdone. Caste will retain salience in modern India regardless of whether the government collects caste data or not. Just listen to any campaign speech — or browse through the matrimonial sections of any newspaper — and you will find numerous references to castes and sub-castes. The absence of caste data can sometimes deepen caste conflicts. Consider Maharashtra, where the lack of credible data on caste-wise deprivation levels has added fuel to the Maratha-OBC divide. The results of a recent YouGov-Mint-CPR survey suggest that even affluent urban youth are not averse to the Opposition’s demand for a caste census. BJP supporters also view this demand favourably.

The third concern is not entirely baseless. One way to address this issue is to follow the 2011 template when the socioeconomic caste census (SECC) followed the main census. This would ensure that the main census (which has already seen an extraordinary delay) can take off soon, and give officials some time to prepare a well-designed SECC. The last SECC failed to provide jati-wise details because of the lack of adequate preparatory work.

It is worth noting that despite its limitations, SECC was a vast improvement over the old below-poverty-line (BPL) lists used to identify welfare beneficiaries. The BJP government’s ability to deliver on welfare over the past decade owes a lot to this database. But this database is outdated now and is in urgent need of an upgrade.

The government could also take inspiration from the 1961 Census, when the census office conducted field studies to study caste patterns. Apart from the statutory census data, the census office conducted non-statutory surveys of villages and weddings to collect caste details. Detailed case studies and representative state-wise surveys of caste groups could uncover facets of the caste system that a short nationwide census questionnaire may fail to decipher (see ‘We need well-designed and nationally accepted tools to measure social inequality’, Mint, November 21, 2023).

The second challenge is creating new jobs. India’s most competitive businesses are in services and capital-intensive manufacturing, which employ very few people. When it comes to labour-intensive manufacturing such as garments and leather, India fares poorly. Poor job growth has hurt consumption demand in recent years. It also places an undue strain on the farm sector, which tends to absorb most of the unemployed and underemployed in the country.

“The last decade has been spent repairing the supply side — from the banking system to infrastructure, to housing and bankruptcy,” economist Sajjid Chinoy wrote in an article recently. “Now the focus must turn to structurally boosting demand through employment, consumption and exports.”

The third big challenge for the new dispensation would be to improve coordination with state governments. While the BJP rode to power in 2014 promising cooperative federalism, it has had frequent run-ins with state governments on a host of issues: from delayed GST dues to adventurist state governors. With major allies from Bihar and Andhra Pradesh demanding special grants for their states, the Union government now faces a new challenge. It must placate its allies without upsetting its voter base in other states.

One way to address federal tensions would be to revitalise the Inter-State Council (ISC). It was established as a constitutional mechanism for federal coordination. But the BJP has preferred to rely on the NITI Aayog. The Aayog is neither a constitutional body nor does it enjoy trust in state capitals.

If the BJP is serious about cooperative federalism, it should refer legislation pertaining to subjects in the concurrent list to the ISC, as recommended by the 2010 Punchhi Commission report. The ISC can set up working groups of state officials to thrash out contentious issues if needed. On a wide range of issues — from migration to environmental degradation — an empowered ISC could help bring about inter-state coordination.

Since most regulations affecting businesses — including land and labour laws — are under the purview of states, the ISC could play a pivotal role in shaping the next generation of economic reforms.

Pramit Bhattacharya is a Chennai-based journalist. The views expressed are personal

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