Twenty years ago, the expressway connecting Mumbai and Pune became fully operational as India’s first modern intercity highway, a showpiece that came to be associated in the public mind with BJP leader Nitin Gadkari. As a young minister for public works in the first Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra, Mr Gadkari had set in motion the project conceived by an earlier government.
Since then the country has seen a flurry of big-ticket projects, each grander than the last. While not all of them may have come to fruition as quickly as the expressway, which was constructed in about five years, India does boast now of many modern expressways, high-speed trains and multiple airports, not to forget gargantuan statues and grand temples.
While these fancy projects promise to help India take its place in the ranks of the developed economies and focus our vision on a rosy future, reality becomes a speck in the distance. But reality does not disappear, no matter how far we may think we have gone from it. As the manufacturer’s note of caution says, objects in the rear-view mirror are closer than they appear.
The reality for a majority of the citizens of the country is that beyond the grand projects, life remains a dreary struggle. Any time you drive off an expressway or step off a high-speed train, you come face to face, in shocking suddenness, with poor subsidiary roads, lack of clean drinking water, public toilets or police assistance for miles, with people struggling to survive as prices soar and incomes ebb, with the fact that governance doesn’t touch all— or even most — lives uniformly. Until that reality changes, the showpieces will remain just that.
Unfortunately, no politician seems to have a clue how to achieve that change, except to make grandiose pronouncements celebrated by the chattering class and hope that grand transformation will eventually trickle down into general transformation.
Wider debate on electoral reform needed
Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for the Aam Aadmi Party in the Supreme Court in connection with the freebies case, said Indians are not gullible enough to be misled by politicians’ promises. “No one can fool the voters all the time,” he declared. The court is hearing a petition seeking to prohibit freebies — a term on whose definition itself there is no consensus, as this paper noted on Aug 22.
Of course, no serious politician would dare dispute Mr Singhvi’s statement, given how they are always waxing eloquent about the ‘native wisdom’ of the electorate. Voters themselves would not like to admit their malfeasance. But it is undeniable that all manner of freebies, whether pre- or post-election, have an impact on the mood of the elector. Were that not so, career politicians, whether contesting an election to a village council or standing for Parliament, would not be spending handsomely to present constituents with wads of notes and bottles of booze or bags of household goodies to go with their basket of promises.
We tend to pat ourselves on the back for the ‘free and fair’ elections we have in the country. At the same time we admit unlimited money power is an essential part of the arsenal of politicians and parties that enjoy electoral success. There is a contradiction in these two statements that we fail to — or would rather not — see. That contradiction is something the Supreme Court, and our political class, would do well to ponder over.
Indiscriminate freebies, such as free power for all households or pensions for all women without any economic criteria to select the beneficiaries, certainly have the potential to beggar state treasuries. But if freebies have become an important tool in the electoral arsenal of some parties, it may at least partially be because they cannot match their opponents in buying votes the traditional way. It would be dangerous to assume, however, that the latter model, or indeed the opaque manner of financing of political parties, poses no threat to the economy or to democracy.