May 24, 2019
Regardless of who wins, many challenges awaits the victory of India’s mammoth elections.
The results of India’s elections, out on Thursday, will have a huge impact on the direction of the country over the next five years. Exit polls seem to suggest that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party will remain in power, though others have warned that these surveys have hardly been reliable in the past.
If the BJP does return, critics of the government have argued that its willingness to attack Indian institutions and even nominate a terror-accused as a Parliamentary candidate could irrevocably change India. Supporters of the BJP, however, argue that if a motley crew of opposition parties comes to power, India will lack stability and be torn apart by internal contradictions.
While either of these things may end up being true, the results of elections alone will not change everything about the country. Over the past 10 Sundays, Scroll.in’s poll-focused newsletter, the Election Fix, covered the major themes connected to these elections and drew out the challenges that India will face, no matter who comes to power.
Five years ago, low oil prices and determined action from both the outgoing and incoming governments as well as the Reserve Bank of India saw the country’s macroeconomic fundamentals improve dramatically, such that the stubborn inflation of the previous decade dropped to extremely manageable numbers. Since then, however, a series of domestic decisions, particularly demonetisation, and worsening global conditions have left the country’s economy looking shaky. The finance ministry has officially recognised a slowdown, the consumer economy appears to be in danger and the twin-balance sheet problem remains front and centre. And this is without even bringing up the question of whether we even know what is happening in the economy, considering all the questions about the accuracy of statistics.
We started off this election season with competing promises from the two national parties to put money directly into people’s bank accounts. The BJP’s PM-Kisan programme involves depositing Rs 6,000 worth of cash into the accounts of poor farmers, while the Congress’ promised NYAY scheme would give Rs 72,000 per year to the poorest 20% of the country. While the efficiency of both of these programs has been debated aplenty, they both acknowledge the fact that India remains a deeply poor country and even as the government attempts to spur growth, it also has to ensure that development is equally distributed.
Another key portion of the last few years has been India’s rural economy especially agriculture. Several drought years coupled with demonetisation has properly hit the farming sector, leaving many in debt and with no clear way out of it. Governments have tried farm loan waivers as well as other measures like hiking minimum support prices and, as with PM-Kisan and its state-level predecessors Rythu Bandhu and Kalia, putting money directly in farmers pockets. But the situation remains dire for millions of Indians and the path towards improved efficiency and better income for farmers remains hard to spot.
Both climate change as well as the explosion of industralisation across India has meant that the country is facing a severe water crisis. Data from a government report makes this clear: “Around 2,00,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water, 21 major cities will run out of groundwater by 2020, 75% of households do not have access to drinking water at home and 70% of India’s water is contaminated.” Parties have suggested ways to get over this, but many promises tend to be repeated by both sides in manifesto after manifesto, while the situation continues to get more dire.
One of India’s biggest public policy headaches is how to address growing healthcare needs. India has among the lowest public expenditure on healthcare in the world, despite the deeply troubling numbers on a number of health indicators. The BJP-led government attempted to address this with an insurance-based plan called Ayushman Bharat, while the Congress has promised a “Right to Healthcare”. But experts don’t believe either approach will shift India towards solving its healthcare problems unless more money is spent and in more efficient ways.
The biggest danger for Indian policymakers over the next decade or so may well be the fear that the huge chunk of young people that represents the country’s “demographic dividend”, will not get an education or skill training and will end up unable to secure a job. Tests offer a dismal picture of the state of Indian education, and participation in the system at a higher level continues to be low. The next government has a big task on its hands if it is to turn India’s youth into an advantage, not a burden.
Religious and caste discrimination
Changing the social fabric of the country has been a clearly stated agenda of the BJP, which has ruled India for the last five years. Its efforts have been so successful that it appears to have shifted the ground further to the right, making it hard for other parties to evoke a different view of India that doesn’t depend on majoritarian politics. Whichever government comes to power, the people of India will have to grapple with a cultural fabric where questioning each person’s right to live in the country seems to have become fair game. And though the question began with Muslims, other religious minorities and oppressed classes, are not far off. Indeed, though caste has not been discussed separately here, each one of the items has an element where India’s continued casteism only makes the country’s challenges even harder to overcome.
In the same vein, there is the question of gender discrimination. Despite progress in things like the #MeToo movement, India remains incredibly inequal, and has a well-earned reputation for being terrible when it comes to safety of women, as well as entrenched patriarchy. The lipservice given to the question of women in politics, which is one way to start solving the problem, is a reflection of how hard it will be to change anything, no matter who comes to power.
National security & foreign affairs
Regardless of the result, Pakistan will continue to sit on India’s Western front, and China will continue to grow in power up north. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure has seen things go from bad to worse in Kashmir, and his Pakistani policy has gone from early outreach to being on the brink of war just this February, with little sense that there is a credible policy underpinning individual actions. Meanwhile, globally, the US and China are moving towards a trade and tech war, while the international deal with Iran is falling apart. Whichever government comes to power will be doing so at a time when the international situation is fraught, with things not being much better domestically.