Government versus opposition:  Where are Citizens?

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By Dr Bappaditya Mukhopadhyay
The Union Budget will be presented on July 5, 2019. There is a considerable amount of expectation this time around from the Finance Minister, both for how it addresses the immediate problems the economy is facing as well as the long-run path India is expected to take. This budget will surely mark the beginning of a new economic era with Modi 2.0 and is expected to be the road map for future policies as by now it is widely believed that a BJP lead coalition is there to stay for quite a while. From economists to industrialists to common working-class people to farmers, there will be many expectations and viewpoints that will dominate the media for the next few days. While there will be new approaches, suggestions and criticisms, something will remain unchanged. Those who are part of the ruling coalition will hail this as the ‘best budget ever’ while those in the ‘opposition’ will argue how this budget is a failure. The cycle will repeat every year as it had for years. There lies the fundamental discomfiture-the role of elected MPs and MLAs who see their role as either for or against the ruling coalition! It is time to put in place a system that clearly defines the role of MPs and MLAs as part of the voice of the people they represent rather than the ideology they support or oppose to in the house. Luckily, one can borrow some fundamental results from Economics to address some of the issues.

The first result is The Median Voter Theorem which says that in a majority voting rule (as in India), the political parties target in its manifesto the median voter. Simply put, all parties would like to present their manifestos as similar to each other so that maximum electorate preferences are covered. It would be dangerous to go extreme right or left as the electorate it would satisfy then would be far overweighed by the ones they will lose. No wonder whether it is BJP or INC, both will promise Economic benefits, citizenship rights, nationalistic fervours, addressing farmers grievances etc in their manifestos-differing perhaps only in degrees! If most manifestos are similar then how relevant are they? Precisely! They are not and one need not go far to see that in most of our elections, manifestos have been relegated as a footnote. Some parties release their manifestos after the initial phase of voting has been completed! The electorate is unaware of what the party promises if voted to power- communication through rallies are almost always about how terrible the other party is. With manifestos being rendered inconsequential, no Government is ever pulled up by evaluating their performance against the promises. Thus, it seems rather odd that parties who fight on similar electoral promises would see them as “opposition” to any of those policies being attempted to implement by the Government. So how can things be envisaged differently?

That brings us to the second important result from Economics, from the Matching problems. In a problem where members of two parties are to be matched with each other, whichever party proposes the initial pairing  (with the other party reserving the right to accept or reject such pairing ), the proposing party is better off than what they would have been if the roles were reversed. Let us demystify this a bit in our context. Currently, we have a system where the political parties propose through their manifestos and the electorate respond. The electorate will be better off if they proposed what they want and the political parties responded. Simply put, wouldn’t the electorate be better off coming with their list of priorities than what the political parties think they are? One may argue, for a country as diverse as ours, this may be complex to implement. Certainly with technology with us, local level citizen forums can coordinate rather efficiently among themselves and present a list of issues they want the elected members to be addressed. This would tick some important issues. One, we wrestle back our parliamentary form of election from the increasingly presidential form as we are witnessing. Two, every elected member can now be evaluated and held responsible for what (s)he did or failed or deliver and most importantly, we will not be electing a group of representatives who will take one of the extreme positions-either support everything the ruling coalition does or oppose them! 

When we look at Modi 2.0, one thing that stands out clearly is that here is the mandate to undertake major reforms given no coalition pressures. Unfortunately, the theme for electoral reforms seems to be more centralization while decentralization is the key. Recently, the all-party invitation by him was a positive start but expectedly none of the major opposition leaders turned up. This isn’t new. The problem is with the concept- elected members see themselves as ‘opposition’ and not a stake holder for good policy making. The reason, as we argue above, is their far removal from what they represented and got elected for. Time to change that starting from the electorate itself with a slogan –“our manifesto your task”!

The author is a professor at Great Lakes Institute of Management, Gurgaon.


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