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So much empty rhetoric

February 20, 2014 11:13 IST

If Narendra Modi could tame his obsession with the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family, Arvind Kejriwal resist polishing his halo and Rahul Gandhi find his voice, we could begin a debate about the future of this country that actually addressed the seriousness of its problems, says Rahul Jacob.

For an election billed as one that could alter the destiny of this country, the economic policies articulated so far have been either tired and uninspiring (the Bharatiya Janata Party's and the Aam Aadmi Party's opposition to foreign direct investment in retail) or daft (interlinking rivers and pushing for bullet trains in a country where preventing pollution of our rivers and getting trains to run on time are epic challenges). This is all the more surprising, given that two principal challengers to the Congress party, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal, are among the best orators this country has seen in some time.

With the exception of Kejriwal's excellent speech to the Confederation of Indian Industry this week where he unveiled the wonderful notion of assessing the CTC (cost to company) of our Lutyens's Delhi-dwelling netas, the chameleon-like Kejriwal has sounded like an Indian child of the ’70s who learned his socialism from Indira Gandhi while also idolising Leon Trotsky.

Modi's unhealthy obsession with the Congress and the Gandhis gets in the way of his making the case that he is a better administrator. Here's one example from a rally this week in Karnataka that mentioned the Congress many times more than it did the economy: ‘Congress is an epidemic that spreads rapidly and ruins the country,’ he said. ‘If the country is to be protected, there is just one solution -- Congress-freeIndia.’ If only it were that simple.

In the midst of this vacuum of ideas along comes a study from the McKinsey Global Institute that underlines the scale of the challenge the new government will face. The study looks beyond the debate about whether living off Rs 33 a day is an appropriate benchmark and broadens the scope of what is an acceptable standard of living. McKinsey zeroes in on eight basic household needs -- food, energy, housing, sanitation, healthcare, social security, education and drinking water.

‘By this measure, some 680 million Indians are deprived -- more than 2.5 times the population of 270 million below the official poverty line. Hundreds of millions have exited extreme poverty, but their lives are still marked by a continuous struggle to achieve a modicum of dignity, comfort and security,’ according to the authors of the study. This yardstick seems appropriate in a country that famously has more mobile connections than toilets.

Even allowing for the jarring consultant-speak deployed such as ‘empowerment gap’, this report is a bracing reality check. It shows how large some of the country's challenges are in job creation, social spending and agriculture. If the 11 per cent annual increase in real terms in social spending had been administered at the levels of the best-practice states in the country, for instance, some 85 million additional people would have been moved out of extreme poverty between 2005 and 2012.

Contrary to the simplistic rallying cry of Kejriwal, not all the problems of this country exist because many bureaucrats and politicians take bribes. The delivery mechanisms of public services in education and healthcare are broken and yet we hear little about it at rallies. According to the study, 91 per cent of government healthcare centres in Assam have no electricity. Only a third of what the government spends on healthcare reaches the people it is intended for.

Absenteeism is rife in government schools and hospitals and both the Congress and BJP governments are able to do little about it. Fewer than a third of children in schools in rural Gujarat can subtract and only half of those in class V can read a standard class II text, according to the recent report from the NGO Pratham, which is not much different from the disgraceful national averages.

If there is a nationwide epidemic, it is this semi-literacy that characterises the country even as the government spent almost $50 billion on our primary and secondary schools in 2012. The problem at government schools and hospitals has little to do with the politics of Delhi and a lot to do with making those entrusted with teaching and manning healthcare centres more accountable, which no one is talking about.

There is also the huge challenge of adding 115 million non-farm jobs by 2022. Even if we miraculously get the right policies in place to move away from protecting the small-scale sector and creating an environment in which large factories are possible, we are already well behind Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, let alone China, on this score. The proportion of workers with vocational training is just nine per cent of the workforce and the state averages range from 19 per cent in Kerala to one per cent in Bihar.

There is an opportunity here to build a manifesto that speaks directly to people's lack of access to amenities and education that large numbers of people in developing Asia take for granted. Next week, Modi is expected to unveil new ideas about redesigning the country's welfare schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and invest in boosting agricultural productivity as well as skills development. This is to be applauded. If Modi could tame his obsession with the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family, Kejriwal resist polishing his halo and Rahul Gandhi find his voice, we could begin a debate about the future of this country that actually addressed the seriousness of its problems.

Rahul Jacob