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Stress test for ‘dolonomics’

New Delhi, Dec. 8: Campaigning in rural Madhya Pradesh in mid-October, Rahul Gandhi narrated the story of how his unwell mother had refused to leave Parliament the day it voted on the food security law till the bill was passed.

“I told her ‘let’s go to hospital’,” Rahul told his potential voters in a series of rallies across Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where he stressed on the multiple rights his mother Sonia Gandhi’s leadership had brought to the nation. “But she refused. She said ‘I will not leave until the food bill is passed’.”

The Congress-led UPA government at the Centre had introduced laws on the right to education, information, rural employment and now food, and has counted on these policies to return to power even as the economy tanked. Its state governments have followed suit, with Ashok Gehlot’s government in Rajasthan offering free medicines and wheat.

But the Congress rout in Sunday’s poll results across Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi suggests that voters in these states have rejected what some have dubbed as Sonianomics — policies of handing out freebies in times of high inflation and low growth.

“This is a referendum on dolonomics,” economist Surjit Bhalla told The Telegraph. “And the message is clear. It’s an outright rejection by the people.”

Two of India’s best-known economists — Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Columbia University professor Jagdish Bhagwati — had framed the debate on Sonia’s economic policies earlier this month, around the release of their latest books.

Sen, who has repeatedly contended that public expenditure actually helps pull more people into the mainstream economy, raises their spending and leads to growth, challenged those who questioned the food security law that was then before Parliament.

“I may want to see changes in the bill, but if the alternative is to have no bill at all, I’d rather have this bill,” Sen told a panel discussion on the bill in May in New Delhi.

But Bhagwati, viewed as a candidate for the Nobel in economics on multiple occasions, had criticised the UPA government for the food law, its freebies at a time of high debt and low growth, and praised the BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s model of development instead.

This past week, Bhagwati called India’s food security law a “folly” and criticised the country’s decision to hold the World Trade Organisation talks to ransom until it was granted an indefinite exemption from grain hoarding norms.

Bhagwati and his close research collaborator Arvind Panagariya feel that instead of Sen’s prescription, India must focus on first prioritising growth, and then letting its benefits spread to the population. Reforms, not freebies, they argue, should be India’s focus.

But activist Nikhil Dey, whose work with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan has involved pushing for many of the entitlement-based policies picked up by the UPA, said the poll results indicated a desire for better governance and not a rejection of rights-based initiatives.

“I don’t think you should evaluate an election on these terms (as a verdict on rights and schemes) at all,” Dey said. “What has happened, and it’s a good thing, is that people want better governance, better implementation of these schemes and policies.”

Economist Prabhat Patnaik said high inflation and corruption were responsible for the Congress debacle — and dismissed the suggestion that rights-based policies like the food or education laws had been rejected.

“In fact, the Congress won in 2009 because of initiatives like the rural employment guarantee law,” Patnaik said.

But Bhalla felt that a “single-minded focus” on freebies had blinded the Congress to development that the nation’s youth was most concerned about. “I met Ashok Gehlot ahead of the elections when I was travelling to Rajasthan, and all he told me was that ‘I’ve started this scheme, and I’ve started that scheme’,” Bhalla said. “He never once mentioned growth or job creation.”


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