Solving the puzzle of growth: making sense of India’s recent political developments

The Complex Puzzle of Growth:

The word “complex” is inevitably a part of the discourse on South Asia. SAPAC’s discussion with Partha Ghosh this week on the “Complex Puzzle of Growth in India and China” perhaps testifies to this. It’s difficult to paint a holistic picture of South Asia without acknowledging its complexity —something that is relevant to my last blog on the changing role on women in South Asia as well.

The discussion that we held on growth in India & China, came at a momentous time in Indian politics – given that the annual budget is being decided in Parliament, as well as the recent elections, especially in the state of Uttar Pradesh. As Mr. Ghosh pointed out in his discussion, U.P. is essentially excluded from India’s story of growth. With a population of nearly 200 million, India’s most populated state has a per capita GDP that is third from the bottom. An interesting study by the Economist reveals that it’s population is equivalent to Brazil’s while it’s GDP is similar to that of Kenya’s.

So, this is why we call it a puzzle. This narrative is one that most are familiar with, that India has great inequality and disparity.  Yet the story isn’t one of complete despair. In a democracy numbers speak volumes, and the largest voting population speaks power during elections, whose results were much awaited in U.P. What implications will these results have for leadership at the center? was one question that has gotten a lot of media coverage. Here at SAPAC, one of the more important questions, in lieu of our chosen topic, was what does this mean for growth and development in the region, or lack thereof? What kind of governance do people want in order to see this growth and progress?

The democracy-development conundrum:

We often turn to the democracy versus development conundrum, especially in comparing India to China, and whether our democratic system has slowed down our growth in comparison to China. But I think what came out of this discussion was that it isn’t enough to look at democracy as an elusive concept, but the actual nature of governance and leadership. In India, this is key to delivery, especially with respect to growth and development.

Lately this has been one of the biggest shortcomings of our political system. The political paralysis, with several pending legislations in parliament has slowed down reforms that are crucial to development, and the rampant corruption that manifested in civilian unrest have all been indicative of the inefficiency in our political structure. Yet, this is not to say that democracy has failed us as a system.

A democracy in the works:

What started off as a centralised power structure that India inherited from the British, has become more representative over time. The reason behind this is again harks back to our complex narrative — the heterogenous composition of our population. Diverse ethnic, religious and linguistic groups make up the meta-narrative of what we call India. While regional diversity has been institutionalised in our multi-party system of governance, its real victory was with the rise of the BJP in the 1980s, a legitimate opposition at the center, which challenged what was in theory a multiparty system, but in practice remained dominated by the a single party: the Congress.

Yet, political affiliations in India, have not been polarised around these two parties. Our system is fundamentally different from the way in which Western democracies function in that they are grounded less in ideology and more around leadership, and group interests. When this came up during our discussion, a student pointed this out as an obstacle to substantive development, because regional parties actively seek to divide our country by pandering to single group interests. However, two observations can show us why this may not be true.

The first is in an article I read earlier, by James Manor on “Ethnicity and Politics in India” who argues that diversity in India cannot be compartmentalised. Group affiliations are overlapping —one can speak a different language & belong to a different caste— and so priorities are constantly shifting, which prevents the emergence of lasting fault lines. Thus even if the intention was to actively divide groups, this would be difficult to achieve given the nature of diversity in India. The second is again related to the recent elections.

The polls in U.P. in Punjab where elections were held, perhaps reflect the beginning of a new political era: “the second decline of the Congress.” People are looking less at charisma, and more at who will actually facilitate change.  As the Wall Street Journal recently wrote, “Indian voters demand growth.” Whether the new leadership will bring this in U.P. is still uncertain, but the outlook remains positive. What this does demonstrate. however, is that our democratic system is flexible enough to incorporate the diverse interests and changing priorities of voters. And the good news is that these interests seem to have risen above single group interests, to looking at the goal of long-term development. If this demand for growth can ultimately be represented at the center, we may finally be able to attribute development to democracy; and ultimately solution to the complex puzzle of growth.