The National Food Security Act, which came into force on 5 July last year, was to be implemented within a year by all state governments. D-day is just a week away, but as of now “20 states and five Union territories have not implemented the food law…So we have decided to extend the deadline by 3 months," Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan said few days ago (26 June). So a Right to Food law meant to give super-cheap food (rice at Rs 3 a kg, wheat at Rs 2 and coarse cereals at Re 1) to two-thirds of the population is now being resisted by two-thirds of the states in the country. Paswan said the Act is being extended by three more months so that that states can comply.
A few months before the general election, the UPA government declared Jains a national minority. Jats were also offered reservations. Neither sop worked with the intended beneficiaries. A few days ago, the Maharashtra government offered quotas to Marathas and Muslims. No political party will oppose it, though there is a public interest litigation now underway to stop this nonsense.
The common thread linking all the above three illustrations is this: there is universal acceptance of bad ideas and bad laws because politicians have a very low opinion of the voter’s IQ and of their own EQ (emotional quotient). They think some voters are purchasable with sops and the rest will not mind. And they also don’t think that they have any ability to convince the voter with anything beyond freebies. They believe there is no such thing as honest communication between leaders and voters – and if it is there, they are not the ones to do it.
Unlike the BJP-led NDA, which is not spoilt for talent, the Congress had some of the best and brightest in its ranks – from Manmohan Singh to P Chidambaram to Pranab Mukherjee to Kamal Nath to Jairam Ramesh to Shashi Tharoor, and from C Rangarajan to Montek Singh Ahluwalia to Sam Pitroda, among the non-politicians. Any one of them, or even all of them, could have told Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi about the negative consequences of pushing their bad, populist ideas. But they failed.
What was true of the Congress may be true of the BJP as well. For every minister who wants to reform the economy, there may be two or three advising Narendra Modi to do the opposite to woo voters. The partial rollback of railway suburban fares, and the postponement of the gas pricing decision are evidence that there are enough people in government willing to frighten the government from acting.
This leads us to the fourth moral: Even good leaders pursue bad ideas in their pursuit of power.
Does this mean representative democracy is a graveyard for good ideas and a fertile ground for bad ideas?
Actually, this may not be true. The very fact that Modi was elected without promising one single freebie suggests that voters are no longer enamoured of the words “free” and “cheap.” Not that anybody objects if things are free or cheap, but this may not be the only reason why they vote one way or the other. The public has also figured out that giving something free has a cost. And suspects that this cost may be biting them elsewhere, without their knowing it.
Maybe, just maybe, the Indian voter is not as dumb as our politicians presume her to be. What this implies is that if an intrepid politician takes the trouble and the risk to tell the truth and explain why things are being done, and how the dots connect from policy action to medium-term benefits for the people without giveaways, the voter will listen.
Voters are tired of being taken for fools. The first politician who takes this bold step may gain disproportionately. Will it be Modi or someone else?