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Rise of regional leaders may be a good omen for India

Last updated on: March 14, 2012 11:59 IST

Rise of regional leaders may be a good omen

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There is no reason to assume that a collection of powerful regional leaders will be bereft of vision and responsibility, says Subir Roy

The latest round of assembly elections has come at a significant juncture in current Indian politics.

First, it was preceded by a nationwide anti-corruption agitation, and so the results will be examined to see what the voter is trying to say on that issue. Second, the elections will be closely followed by the Budget session, thus allowing a glimpse into lessons the ruling combination has sought to learn from the election results. Third, the popular verdict and the rulers' agenda will offer a pointer to the kind of life the present ruling combination will have till general elections take place.

Will the Delhi Durbar be presided over by any meaningful authority?

Importantly, the elections have yielded no clear verdict on corruption. A highly corrupt formation in Punjab has been returned to power. A corrupt dispensation in Uttar Pradesh has been given a severe drubbing -- but it has been replaced by a party whose antecedents are hardly lily-white.

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Image: Leaders of Samajwadi Party celebrate their victory in Lucknow
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

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Throwing money at endemic issues will not help

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A leader with a clean image in Uttarakhand has failed to stave off defeat. Importantly, the leader has been handed a humiliating defeat in his own constituency by the same forces of misrule whose misdeeds he had been seeking to live down in order to save the day for his party.

It seems corruption has been rendered a non-issue in places where all the protagonists are seen to be corrupt, as in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

What will the results do to policies and the future of reforms? The 2004 parliamentary election results were interpreted by the Congress to be a vote in favour of pro-poor policies, which resulted in galloping subsidy bills.

The 2012 results indicate that simply throwing money at endemic issues will not help. The conventional wisdom is that this government will be rendered even more impotent. One fudging exercise (the 2011-12 Budget) will be followed by an even less credible effort. The future of reforms will be even bleaker.

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Image: File photo of voters at a polling booth in Uttar Pradesh


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Congress, BJP have performed poorly

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The redeeming feature is that both the global and the Indian economy appear to be on the mend. The US is steadily adding jobs and Europe appears to be pulling back from the brink. With inflation coming under control and the Reserve Bank of India easing monetary policy again, India's growth prospects also appear to be improving.

All that can be hoped for is that a government unable to get anything meaningful through Parliament will not get in the way of an economy recovering on its own. The fiasco over banning cotton exports is not a good omen, but hopefully this is an aberration.

The most significant outcome of the elections is centred on neither corruption nor reforms, but the emerging nature of India's polity. Central authority will decline further and powerful regional parties will emerge as the key arbiters.

The poor show by the Congress has been widely commented upon, but the Bharatiya Janata Party's performance has been even poorer. It has lost seats and vote share virtually everywhere. Perhaps the BJP is ceasing to be worthy of serious comment.

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Image: Flags with the Congress symbol


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Regional leaders know how the country runs

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Though India has been through more than a decade of coalition politics at the Centre, this latest humbling of national parties will initiate a kind of federal, consensus-based decision-making not known till now. Virtually every important central decision will be taken keeping an eye on the parliamentary headcount.

The conventional view will be that with leaders like Jayalalithaa and Mulayam Singh pulling in their own directions, we can say goodbye to any kind of decisive policy initiatives and reforms. But this is too simplistic.

Today's powerful regional leaders know how the country runs and what can make it tick better. In the Nehru era, when the Opposition was ineffectual, it used to be said: absolute power corrupts; absolute lack of power also corrupts. Today, regional leaders are about to collectively taste real power and there is no reason to believe that they will be more indecisive than the present government.

Take foreign direct investment in retail. The United Progressive Alliance government's inability to allow it was seen as a setback.

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Image: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa


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Things can only get better under regional rule

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But it is even more fundamental to substantially whittle down the scope of the Agricultural Produce Market Committees Acts across the country. This would enable large retail to buy directly from farmers so as to give them a better price.

Maybe India's regional leaders will see the plight of farmers and thrash this out. Maybe they won't. But there is no reason to assume that a collection of powerful regional leaders will be bereft of vision and responsibility.

The high voter turnout in Uttar Pradesh underlines both people's interest in electing the government they want and the power and effectiveness of the Election Commission. The paramount need is to nurture institutions and good practices to give Indian democracy substance.

Considering the poor progress made in institution-building under powerful leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, perhaps things can only get better under collective regional rule and prodding by today's energised civil society.

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Image: A protest against FDI in retail organised by the BJP


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