People and the ballot boxShould governments fail to deliver, the people will band together to defeat ruling regimes
The recently concluded assembly elections in five Indian states made one thing clear: you simply cannot ignore the grassroots. After losing power in the three Hindi heartland states: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, the relentless triumphalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to have come to a halt. At least for now.
The elections across the border hold an important lesson for leaders back home. Mere hot air coupled with administrative incompetence can take a party only so far. Nationalist rhetoric can take a beating anytime; nothing matters more than delivering on promises. Dream merchants may reach their short-term targets, but what people want in the long run is for those dreams to turn into concrete realities. Should that fail to happen, the people will band together to defeat ruling regimes. It is not for no reason that they say that the ‘janata’ is ‘janardan’, or the people are supreme.
The Indian media has been reporting that Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have been beset by ‘rural agrarian distress’. More than 70 percent of the population of the three states live in rural areas. Four years ago, they helped bring the BJP to power. Swayed by Modi’s oratory, these farmers believed they would no longer suffer neglect. Contrary to what they expected, conditions in agriculture have gotten worse as farm incomes have been contracting owing to slower output growth and higher costs. Increased vulnerability to a changing climate—which has exposed farmers to erratic monsoon rains and lower yields due to increased temperature or unseasonal showers on the eve of the harvest—has added to farmers’ distress. But the government has failed to adequately compensate them for their losses.
Government policies have also privileged the consumer over the producer. A report titled ‘Agricultural Policies in India’, published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Indian think tank Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), pointed out that Indian farmers faced regulations and restrictions—both in the domestic and international market. This has led to producer prices that are often lower than comparable international levels. Consequently, the report concluded that “the overall effect of the policy intervention over the 2014-2016 period was a 6 percent annual reduction in gross farm revenues.”
As there were no signs of the problem getting solved, tens of thousands of angry farmers have been marching in protest. Be it walking barefoot from Nasik to Mumbai or marching the Indian Parliament like they did last month. While a number of opposition leaders, including Rahul Gandhi and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, addressed the agitating farmers, the Modi government was apathetic to their concerns. The election results, therefore, are the repercussions of the BJP government’s omission of the common people.
Here at home, two words—development and prosperity—animated Nepal Communist Party’s election campaign. And they charmed the public. The PM’s rhetoric was able to capture the imagination of the nationwherein the public believed that, finally with a stable government, all their woes would be alleviated. The Oli-government has introduced some important policies and measures in just about ten months since taking office.
For example, the introduction of the Social Security Scheme, the drive to digitise Nepal, the decision by the government to periodically review its cabinet members’ performance, and new regulations aimed at expediting the National Pride Project. While these are laudable steps, whether they will prove to be a hit or a miss remains to be seen. What’s more, the impacts of these policy interventions will need to be felt by the larger citizenry. The rural population, especially, who were once enchanted by Oli’s rhetoric during the elections, must realise that their chosen representative has delivered.
In a country where development has traditionally been Kathmandu-centric, the digital divide, for example is huge. While the digital drive has entered Parliament and assorted municipalities, rural people have largely been left out. Following Modi, the government wants to focus on a digital Nepal for prosperity, but the dream cannot be actualised without improving online infrastructure and increasing internet connectivity in the remotest parts of the country. Merely providing ample photo-ops of ministers sitting in front of brand new laptops will not suffice.
But over time, barring a few exceptions, what has become more evident is not the promise of development, but the personality cult of the prime minister. Much like his Indian counterpart, our prime minister revels in promises. Be it when he says he wants to open technical institutes in all rural municipalities without a concrete action plan or when he whimsically claims that no Nepali will ever die of cold anymore, or that pipelines will funnel gas to all households. Such loaded promises, like his pipelines, remain distant. The PM also has a coterie of people whose inputs are sacrosanct. For example, various medias have been reporting that a tight-knit group comprising his advisor and a few cabinet members often take important decisions without any consideration for wider deliberation.
The immediate danger here is that the head of government will be fed limited information motivated by the vested interests of a few party insiders. Consequently, the government will progressively lose touch with the wider citizenry—the people at the grassroots, who believed in the government when it promised them a better life.
The government needs to take stock of their decisions and measure their actions carefully. As a largely rural country, the people at the grassroots cannot be overlooked. This majority government’s term is not as long as it might think—five years can seem like a fraction of a second. And when the mandate is over, it might be too late. As they continue to be disappointed, their seething anger will become evident at the ballot box. This is a situation the government will want to avoid. If Oli and the government are half as smart and farsighted as they think, the Indian assembly election results should be a wake-up call.
- Pandey is an Op-Ed editor at The Kathmandu Post.