It must pursue economic policies that have borne fruit across the world
What can one say about the abysmal performance of NDA during its governing tenure of five years? The functioning of BJPled NDA has indeed been disastrous, but it would be hard to say that, preceding it, Congress-led UPA was doing brilliantly well.
UPA, for sure, did have some truly impressive achievements, including unprecedented rates of economic growth, and social transformations such as establishing the right to information and making substantial moves towards guaranteed rural employment. But it did not manage to institute healthcare for all even at the primary level, nor move India significantly towards what the great Ambedkar called the “annihilation of caste”. In understanding how NDA has failed, we have to be even-handed.
The trouble is that NDA did little to remedy the deficiencies that were there, and instead consolidated and hugely enlarged the lacunae. It increased the evil grip of caste (reducing the freedom of Dalits and of the deprived tribal population); it moved the country further away from healthcare for all; and in sharp contrast with its electoral promise, it made it much harder for poorer people to find jobs, generating huge levels of unemployment (India under NDA moved to the highest level of joblessness in nearly half a century).
Adding to this sad failure, NDA leaders have made the country much more divisive along communal lines – adding sharply to the precariousness of the lives of minorities, particularly Muslims. Along with that, the new rulers of India moved speedily forward in increasing the bureaucratisation of academic institutions, suppressing freedom of speech, and imprisoning people by branding dissent as “sedition”. In fact, the Hindutva-oriented rulers have forced India to take “a quantum leap in the wrong direction” (as a collection of carefully researched scrutinies by a team of young scholars – Rohit Azad and others – has sharply brought out in a recent book of that name).
And instead of following well understood economic policies, the Hindutva rulers have been keen on what can be called “development through magic” – like trying to generate wealth and prosperity through delegitimising parts of the established currency and reneging on the promise of promissory notes. The result has not matched any foretold vanquishing of black money (far from it), but has caused significant setbacks in the business of small traders and entrepreneurs, including in agriculture. It would have been much safer to leave magic to PC Sorcar.
Rather than seeking the paranormal, India needs serious pursuit of economic policies that have borne real fruits across the world. Our real needs include development of efficient and equitable public services, appropriate incentives for private initiatives, carefully chosen public investments, and the cultivation of real science, technology and skill formation for productive use (rather than invoking of some fairytale creations from an imagined past).
What Europe and Japan learnt to practice in the 19th century, and South Korea and China in the 20th, is equally available to us in India today. If we were to follow Adam Smith, the parent of modern economics, in encouraging India today to provide good incentives along with the pursuit of equity, there must be an abandonment of single-minded facilitation of the interests of the richest people in India, and a move towards support for opportunities to be enjoyed by people at large. Smith had called for good use of the market economy as well as for careful provision of needed public services (such as primary education and healthcare), which the state can provide.
These facilities are central to the well-being of people and to the enhancement of their productivity (and through that, consolidation of opportunities for economic and social progress). The effective use that, for example, China has made of the market economy is important to appreciate, but along with that we have to recognise the huge advantages that the Chinese economy enjoys through having an educated labour force and a largely healthy population, capable of efficiently producing almost any good known in the world.
Much is made in governmental rhetoric in India of the merits of meeting the costs of sophisticated medicine through its programme of Ayushman Bharat, which subsidises expensive medical procedures (mostly provided by profitmaking private firms, which often employ paid agents to drum up patients for these firms). But the provisions of Ayushman Bharat do little to provide better primary healthcare for all, which is most under neglect in India – a neglect that distorts secondary and tertiary medical care as well.
It is, in fact, a mistake to give priority to extending the ayu of some (handsomely subsidising profit-seeking private enterprises), while neglecting the ayu of most people (doing nothing for elementary healthcare for all). Good healthcare – even efficient use of private healthcare – demands a solid foundation of basic public health for all.
While UPA can be accused of some neglect, NDA seems to have abandoned altogether what India needs at this time. An equitable outlook has to be a part of the demands of sustainable development – both for justice and for efficiency. India needs a big constructive change in that direction – in healthcare as well as in economic and social policies in general. There is some real urgency in that recognition.
The writer is a Nobel Laureate in economics