With great power comes great responsibility. In popular culture, the of7th Lok Sabhat-cited quote from Spiderman refers to the exercise of power gifted to an ordinary individual. Unlike the fictional superhero, the representatives of the 17th Lok Sabha will draw power from within rather than outside the system, and that serves to accentuate their responsibility.
Regardless of who is invited to form the government after the results of Lok Sabha 2019 are declared on May 23, a formidable array of challenges, economic and political, awaits the incumbent. From the agrarian crisis, unemployment, population growth, credit crunch and widening fiscal deficit to balancing geopolitical concerns, he or she must have the chops to tackle an enormously complex job.
This begs the question of who, in the voters’ perception, can handle the situation better and whether that will influence their voting choices? In a fuzzy ‘Modi vs Who’ scenario, there’s obviously no answer. Voters may have lost confidence in the NDA but they might not be willing to repose their faith in an as-yet unnamed coalition, with indeterminate contours. Or they might be so disgruntled that they will vote for change, regardless of what that change might bring.
Let us take, for example, the cessation of oil imports from Iran, as a result of US economic sanctions. India’s oil imports from nations under sanction amounts to almost a fifth of the total. The government is confident that it will tide over the shortfall, but in the long run, must convince the US to grant another waiver- if for no other reason than its investment in the Chabahar corridor that eases trade access to Afghanistan.
It will fall to the new government to undertake the delicate negotiations, in which everybody is an interested party, given the complex interlinking web of geostrategic relations. Both the US and Russia must be kept happy, from the perspective of containing the Pakistan-China nexus. The NDA has walked that particular diplomatic tightrope reasonably well and banked goodwill, but carrying the legacy forward will need uncommon adroitness.
The nuances may be lost on voters, but they get the big picture. Modi’s India, as presented by the BJP, is no longer a soft state at the losing end of give and take. The Opposition, on the other hand, paints the NDA as a paper tiger, or more accurately, a Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It remains to be seen how effective the rival campaigns will prove.
Of more and immediate concern to the voter is the state of the Indian economy, vulnerable to global and domestic pressures as never before. In the last five years, the agrarian crisis has deepened: the gap between farm and non-farm incomes has widened, farm produce suffers from price volatility, risk-proofing through public crop insurance has failed, access to credit is still skewed in favour of big farmers, post-harvest infrastructure is weak and middlemen run the show.
To be fair, consistent attempts were made to address at least some of these issues, through the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Beema Yojana, a hike in minimum support prices supported by price deficiency payments, a common agriculture market (eNAM), income support for farmers and so on. The devil was in the implementation and these schemes failed to take off, with the result that voters may well put the NDA’s farm policy in the ‘failures’ column.
On the other hand, even while the NDA’s repetition of its ‘doubling farmers income’ by 2021 slogan rings hollow, the Opposition has no counter to offer. Likewise, the twin deficit problem persists even as welfare schemes stretch government expenses to breaking point, private investment remains sluggish and the credit squeeze is tighter. How the new government will dig itself out of this particular financial hole is a mystery, so either way, the voter must take a leap of faith.
On the job front, the Opposition’s promise of filling 34 lakh government vacancies and creating new government jobs may sound prima facie alluring, but is obviously pie-in-the-sky. State governments simply don’t have the resources and will shrink rather than expand the size of their workforce. However, the NDA doesn’t have a credible job creation mantra to offer, at least not one that we haven’t heard before.
The overall improvement in internal security versus a perception that majoritarianism is undermining democratic institutions; the ill-effects of demonetisation versus a fall in the corruption perception index. There are no easy choices, only the hope that whoever wins, will bear in mind the Biblical verse- “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded…and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.