Wednesday, May 19, 2004

# Posted 4:06 PM by Patrick Belton  

OXBLOG'S ESTEEMED INDIA CORRESPONDENT ANTARA DATTA helps us continue our conversation about India's tumultuous elections:
Dear Patrick,
Two quick points about the post on india:

1. I'd be wary about the statistics indicating a drop in poverty. Poverty rates declined because the Indian government switched over to World Bank prescriptions to measuring poverty. In particular, this involved questioning people about their 'weekly consumption' rather than their 'monthly consumption'. Since the sampling method changed, rates too changed. I'd be more curious about the total number of people below the poverty line.

Also the definition of the poverty line in India is a hugely political question. Various definitions abound and were suggested by various committees set up by different governments in power, all determined to prove that poverty had declined during their tenure. So as I said, I'd be very wary of using data based on poverty lines in India- it's a political tinderbox!

This is not to say that poverty hasn't declined. And that things haven't gotten better under BJP rule. But we've also seen the highest suicide rate among farmers under them as well. So makes me wary again of making generalizations about how far their policies have benefitted the poor. As far as the upper middle classes are concerned, there is no doubt that we are certainly better off...but for the rest, perhaps this election was an indication that all is not well. Also, a lot of the reforms began under the Narasimha Rao led Congress government, and if we accept that it takes almost a decade for most reforms to bear fruit, it is a bit rich for the BJP to take credit, and then claim that the Congress would reverse these reforms!!

There is also a tendency in Western media coverage of Indian elections to think of the average voter as poor and illiterate. That they might be, but my experience of rural life in India, however limited, has shown that they are also incredibly politicized and know exactly what the crucial issues at stake are, so I would really respect the decision of the Andhra electorate as a good indication of what was happening within the country, especially in the agricultural sector.

The BJP called the elections six months early because they hoped that a good monsoon would benefit them. What they forgot was the unprecedented drought in north India last year, which they hadn't handled very well (despite the fact that we have fairly large quantities of foodgrains rotting in our warehouses). And after all, you can't really take credit for a good monsoon, can you?! I also find baffling the reactions of the stock market. If Sonia was going to be PM, Manmohan Singh was definitely going to be Finance Minister and would set the agenda on reforms. So how does his becoming PM alter the agenda so much, that the stocks make such a rapid recovery? I'm not sure what the stock brokers were really thinking. Also, it would be foolish to take the Left's statements very seriously. In my home state of Bengal, they've been vigorously trying to attract foreign investors, and besides, they are staying out of government anyway. So they can't really influence government policy all that much. I honestly suspect that on the important question of economic reform, not much will change at all. I also suspect that P. Chidambaram, a Harvard educated lawyer will be the next FM, and he's extremely pro-reform. So that should set some doubts at rest.

2. On Sonia:

It's a brilliant move from her. She's removed the last real 'issue' that the BJP could have used against her. She's made them look very silly (especially the Chief Minister who resigned yesterday morning to launch a campaign against her, only to find that she'd withdrawn). Now they really look like poor losers, and many of their supporters are quite dismayed by what they see as blatant political blackmail. In fact, from what I've been reading in the media for most of today, there is a reasonable groundswell of opinion lauding her act, and many former detractors are quite stunned at what is seen as an act of 'political sacrifice' quite unprecedented in Indian politics.

Part of the reason why the BJP were so taken aback is because most of them couldn't even imagine someone being offered PMship on a platter, and refusing it. So they expected Sonia to become PM, and this to be their main agenda for at least a while.

The other aspect is this: when the BJP says it's launching a 'nationwide agitation', it has ominous overtones. It means that they would have fomented trouble in the villages by targetting minorities. (also remember that Sonia is a Catholic, and the more extreme wing of the RSS has been saying for a while that if Sonia came to power, she would take her orders from the Vatican and so on...) If anything, the fear of what that would do, might have forced Sonia to make up her mind. Note she refers to maintaining the 'secular fabric' of the nation in her speech, which would otherwise seem odd, unless you read it in this context.

In the light of what I said in my last email, yes, I am indeed disappointed that in a way, the BJP's agenda has won the day. But I think, there is a silver lining to all this. And frankly if you vehemently oppose the BJP, like I do, I think this is the best possible thing that could have happened. And it's a really shrewd move from her. Makes me think that she's not as politically inept as most people think!

Anyway, I really ought to get back to revision!!

take care,
Thanks, Antara!
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