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People's mandate signals hope amid Anischit Kaal

People's mandate signals hope amid Anischit Kaal

This wave, drawn from shared sentiments of increasing economic resentment and electoral disappointment against the incumbent, was evident on the ground, both against Modi and the BJP.

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Last Updated : 13 June 2024, 19:59 IST
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The mandate of the Indian electorate, reflected in the gains made by the Congress and I.N.D.I.A allies, clearly indicates a strong anti-incumbency wave. This wave, drawn from shared sentiments of increasing economic resentment and electoral disappointment against the incumbent, was evident on the ground, both against Modi and the BJP. However, many analysts failed to capture this sentiment when assessing voter preferences in this Lok Sabha election.

Economic issues such as persistent price rises (inflation), jobless growth, slow private investment, real wage stagnation, widening wealth and income inequality, and poor economic incentive-led schemes (like PLI), at the cost of decreasing allocations for essential social welfare programmes (MGNREGS, nutrition programmes, etc.), are factors that have significantly impacted the electorate, especially in rural areas. These areas in the north, west, and parts of the south voted heavily against the BJP. It is likely that these rural and semi-urban electorate clusters will continue to be deeply affected by these issues in the future.

In the previous column, two structural issues affecting India’s socio-political landscape were discussed: the lack of a coherent, inclusive development plan that executes a vision of development for all communities and a competitive model of welfarism, where parties prefer entitlement-based transfers rather than working towards removing unfreedoms or ensuring empowerment, especially for marginalised and vulnerable sections.

I discuss the third structural issue that merits not just economic but a broader political economy focus, i.e., growing access inequality.

Widening Inequalities

According to a recent study, it takes just Rs 2.9 lakh per year to make it into the top 10% of income earners and Rs 20.7 lakh to make it into the top 1%. By contrast, the median adult earns only around Rs 1 lakh a year, while the poorest of the poor have virtually no income. The bottom half of the distribution (50% of adults) earns only 15% of the total national income. Since wealth is a major source of future economic gains, power, and influence, this presages even more increases in inequality,” as observed by Bharti et al.

Those in the top 0.1% saw their share of wealth rise from 7% to 11% of national wealth in just a year, as is evident from the stock market boom and the rise in corporate profits of the top firms. The top 1% of the population earned more than 21.7% of the country’s total national income in 2021, while the bottom 50% made 13.1%. The authors of the World Inequality Report argue that the deregulation and economic liberalisation policies pursued since the 1980s have resulted in an extreme increase in income and wealth inequality.

The Modi government, particularly the Prime Minister himself, has largely ignored the issue of widening inequality, and this was evident when he sarcastically dismissed the issue when confronted in a recent pre-election interview with Aaj Tak. This is far more troubling and signals a weak moral compass and a lack of political leadership to address structural issues that affect the livelihood and socio-economic profile of Indians.

Growing Crisis of Access Inequality

The third systemic issue is the inequality of access afflicting or shaping society-State relations in India today.

Yes, over the past seven decades, significant achievements have been made in India’s fight against poverty, malnutrition, maternal and infant mortality, family planning, etc. across states. However, a path of neoliberal growth anchored in an ‘urban-biased’ and ‘urban-based’ model of development eluded those with lesser resources, including women, in the
rural, more marginalised spaces across the country.

India has one of the highest youth unemployment rates and one of the worst female labour force participation rates. As a new government is elected to power, it is worth asking the larger question: Whether the ‘neoliberal economic reforms’ of the last few decades and since then have actually yielded better economic outcomes and opportunities for all. Evidence on job creation gives a mixed picture, while on access (in)equality evident across Indian states, the picture is dismal.

A report by the Centre for New Economics Studies, OP Jindal Global University, on the state of ‘access inequality’ sheds light on ranking the performance of Indian states across five ‘access’ pillars: basic healthcare, education, basic amenities, socio-economic security, and legal recourse.

Going beyond growth-focused macro-indicators such as GDP and income per capita, multidimensional indices like the Access (In)Equality Index (AEI) have the potential to become a vital tool and economic indicator for correcting the course of poor economic policy and creating ‘equal opportunities’ for all.

In summation, despite the three systemic ills discussed here, which seem to be taking India’s perceived Amrit Kaal towards an Anishchit Kaal, there is a beacon of hope from within. The current electoral results are a testament to that and to the people’s will for change and a better promised life/economic future.

Any statement made on the condition of State-society relations today also has a contrarian fact evident for all to see. That’s how rich and diverse the experience of life is for those living in India.

People-based movements are still striving for social reform in many cities and towns. Environmental activism is peaking. Ambedkar’s teachings and emphasis on securing a social democracy are still guiding the cause of Ambedkarites and many others who are making a difference in the lesser-known remote spaces of the country. And, on access equality, states like Goa and Sikkim, and the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are doing much better than others to create ‘equal access’ to basic socio-economic opportunities and public goods.

One hopes that BJP-led NDA coalition, along with a united Opposition, works hard to acknowledge and recognise the discussed ills that afflict the State-society, social, political, and economic contract, while working holistically to address these, going beyond the temporal limitations of short-term policy thinking.

(The writer is Professor of Economics and Dean, IDEAS, Office of Inter
Disciplinary Studies, OP Jindal Global University)

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