Plenty will be written, said, read, and heard around the return of the Congress to Karnataka. Plenty will also be said about how the incoming chief minister plans to fix Bengaluru, the ailing capital city. As if this party did not have opportunities in the past.
At the end of this article, I’m going to summarise what this verdict means to me. I will also add a few key areas where I would like to see real change. But before that, let’s take a deeper look at the context under which our elections are being fought and won. I will also decode apathy for you without the judgmentalism of the self-righteous.
Some of this is all economics. I am not an economist, so I will not write this part like one.
There are two levels at which I am seeing politics played out in India. One is patronage, and the second, aspirational. During the just concluded Karnataka assembly elections, both were seen. The aspirational one is a baby movement getting louder by the day. But let’s do first things first.
In patronage politics, our MLAs and their parties are expected to help in the providing of many services for the citizens. Water, housing, electricity, schools, roads, drains, waste collection, religious trust funds, regularising property titles, jobs, BPL cards, you name it. Most key of these are schooling, health care, electricity, housing and water. Governance has by and large continued to fail low-income people in these areas.
As a result you find that during every state election, the same cries come out each time, many getting louder. People are desperate for whatever their MLAs can do. My domestic help voted for the sitting MLA because he helped bring a ‘transformer’ to her area for electricity and promised to get new government sites allotted. And of course, she took money from all the major parties this time. Equally, she took part in rallies where low-income people like her are paid Rs.250-750 to attend meetings.
In patronage politics, MLAs are like the extended arms of state power (the political executive) reaching directly into the constituencies. Government is like an octopus with 224 arms. Lawmaking glory is not for our MLAs. Ever heard of an MLA proudly boasting about a reform law passed in the state assembly that changed the way things were done? Hardly.
Most importantly, in patronage politics, all kinds of conflicts of interests are fused in, with no regulatory teeth to actually check or stop anything. Politicians are builders. Builders are politicians. Politicians run water tanker firms, contractors become city councillors.
Also, patronage politics is supported by a society that is still struggling to unshackle itself from being deeply hierarchical, caste-oriented and easily corruptible. Fundamental rights of citizens are not upheld here. A policeman could abuse you tomorrow and you will not get remedy easily. Journalists can be jailed on trumped up charges. In this world, MLAs are like ‘rulers’ not public servants, and ministers, ‘gods’. Corruption is still ‘accepted’, especially as a means to an end.
Ethics? It is best left out.
You know all this. Here is the problem though.
In better-off democracies, schooling, health care, electricity and water are considered entitlements and are delivered far better to all people. No country is perfect and there are problems everywhere. But in comparison to us, there are democracies that deliver the basics better. The result: Voters in those democracies are not en-masse struggling for these basics. If they fall ill, the expense does not push them back into poverty.
In turn, this allows people to plan for their future and invest in it. The assurance of the basics and upholding of fundamental rights levels the playing field and gives most citizens, if not every one, a shot at the good life. It is also the biggest counter-balance against apathy, which we will come to later. The broadest group that receives these entitlements in the so-called ‘mature’ democracies is the middle-classes. (How it got that way is another story altogether.)
The modern idea of holding governments accountable to citizens is built on top of this premise that the basics themselves will never become a struggle for the people. So the largest vote bank is itself the middle class, and they vote on the issues that matter to them. For instance, voters will support parties and candidates on whether ‘healthcare’ be made universal or not. They could vote on whether state government funding to protect forest lands be expanded or cut. Or cutting pollution in cities. That is where ideology and competitive politics comes in.
In patronage politics, this is not even imagined. The basic entitlements themselves are so far from being delivered that lower-income voters do not have any real autonomy, as citizens. Children go to dysfunctional schools and get unreliable health care. Fetching potable water kills a substantial part of a poor woman’s productive day time. Housing may be in an informal slum today, and it may get razed tomorrow. These citizens will take whatever money comes their way. Naturally, when elections come around, as was abundantly on display in Karnataka this time too, political campaigns here are rozi roti.
Which brings me to the second level, aspirational politics.
Aspiration politics is the new India. Here, citizens are earning more and are already setup to go up further. Even though the Indian middle-class is a much smaller percentage of the country compared even to Brazil’s middle class, lakhs of people are already better-off in Indian cities. Economists are also pointing to an income class in India which is below the middle class itself. This income group is much larger than the middle class, is well above the poverty line and is expanding. This group too contains citizens who are breaking from the grip of patronage politics.
Aspirational politics in a deeply hierarchical society like India is most defined by people speaking up. Speaking up is in fact picking up here.
Most voters at this level are not voting to ensure their tomorrow will not be snatched away or because of their identity. They are trying to rise above that. So freedom of expression, justice, equality, governance reform, integrity, accountability, rights, independence of regulators, vision, professionalism, problem solving, data driven debate, etc., all figure in the discussions at this level.
Also in aspirational politics, you cannot buy voters. They are already better off. You have to get them to come out and vote for you and your party with an ideology or with a promise of change or both. By the way, in each major political party there are a few individual politicians of this mould. It would be wrong to say that such politicians exist only on the fringes. But they are isolated cases in a system of patronage anyway.
However, it is still early times for aspirational politics in India. Voters from this sphere are still a trickle at the polls now.
So if it is as simple as this, some would say we need more economic growth to get the majority of Indians into the income levels that work for aspirational politics and by then, our political parties would have morphed by necessity. Politics itself will then deliver. Simple. Why not just wait it out, new India?
Sorry. This is where the comparison between India’s journey and that of the more evolved democracies fades out. Several problems complicate matters for us. I will only list two here. (Ask leading economists, political scientists and environmentalists, they have even more.)
One, the better-off classes in India are also what political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta calls the world’s largest privatised middle class. Because of caste, as well as how this country was colonised, run by the British, and run after political independence in 1947, our story is unique.
Today, our better-off citizens do not rely on government for two most important and public-creating entitlements that citizens in mature democracies usually do: public schooling and healthcare. Better-off Indians go to private school and get private health care. (Central government-run Kendriya Vidyalayas do not count as normal government-run schools. They are on par with private schools, and cater to government staff at the same middle and upper income levels. This itself is shameful proof of how our governance creates hierarchies in taxpayer-funded schooling system.) As for water, the better-off in cities like Bengaluru just buy it outright when the state system fails.
So take a city like Bengaluru. At the local level, for better-off citizens, it is roads, electricity to some degree, and waste management that governments provide as ‘basic’ services. Which to put in one word is ‘infrastructure’, with roads dominating everything. This is why you find every politician and party promising ‘infrastructure’ when they campaign with people at the aspirational level.
But, let me take a small detour here to explain voter apathy. Political scientists note readily that middle and upper classes have historically been the smallest numbers in voting in India. But not voting is only one-half apathy. The other half is a real response to stake. The better-off know that they are only reliant on state and local government for infrastructure. But here again, look at the manifestos. All the parties talk infrastructure anyway. So why vote, when anyway you know they will all promise 100, deliver between 20-50 and take turns coming to power to do that?
Flip over, and look at it for the parties. Promising infrastructure always looks good. And they do not need a higher-income-voters’ mandate to justify infrastructure anyway. Why? In patronage politics, infrastructure building is 'cool'. Politicians get rich, builders get rich. Voters understand this, cynically. That is the win-win. This is the other half of apathy you do not hear much about.
Herein lies the deeper problem for aspirational politics in the higher income groups: The minute patronage politics makes tall infrastructure promises, it is like a drug, especially in the media. It neutralises the progressive and real purpose of dialogue on governance reform. All conversations about integrity, accountability, and fairness in public spending become secondary. They want to give you infrastructure, that is great, so take it.
The second thing that complicates matters is language. At the aspirational level, there is a duality of language choices for discussion. While some citizens prefer local languages, other citizens prefer English. This changes the game because it creates a parallel political process, with each side not necessarily emotionally comfortable with the other. It also creates the need for bilingual mediators to bring both aspirational spheres together. If you ask Ramachandra Guha, he worries that there are simply not enough bilingual intellectuals emerging.
I would argue that language, as issue, is by far the messiest factor.
Seen this way, there are two publics in our polity. One is the patronage politics-public, running in local languages everywhere. The other is the aspirational politics-public which works in the languages to some degree, and is also very vocal in English, especially in the major cities, and ethnically diverse one like Bengaluru.
Despite these complications, more and more people are waking up. As seen in Bengaluru this month, the better-off did vote in higher numbers. Voting jumped to highest level in since 1994, in India’s apathy capital. Voting is starting to get recognised as progress itself.
Which brings me to the Karnataka verdict of 2013.
To me, the verdict is simply a change of guard from one patronage politics player to another. The manner in which politics itself is conducted and plays out has not changed.
And, recognising the two publics, the new government, like the previous one, will play at both levels. To the less better off, ministers and MLAs will play ‘gods who roll the dice’. You may get water, you may not. You may get better teachers and school buildings, you may not. To the better-off, they will talk infrastructure. We’ll give you expressways, corridors, industrial townships, and what not. There is a lot of money in that. Wink, and win-win.
So what are the chances of aspirational politics to get a transformative shot?
Hard to say. If you are searching for a silver lining here, there is one slightly promising factor from recent history.
When the Congress-led UPA government came to power at the Centre in 2004, it came on the back of a campaign where it derided the BJP for India Shining. There was something new in the air then, I still recall. The National Advisory Council was set up with great expectations. That is how the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (there are critics of this one) were also passed.
Both were strokes of aspiration politics, not patronage. But in its second term, the Congress at Delhi has more or less mirrored the BJP’s first term in Karnataka, stroke for stroke, scam for scam. Patronage politics prevailed.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that the incoming Karnataka government sees itself as having been given a chance to lead the way forward. Focusing only on Bengaluru, here is a litmus test of the new leaders' capacity to transcend the old culture. Just examples, you may have other ones. The new cabinet is not even going to be a coalition, so they have five continuous years.
Water: Bangalore is in deep, deep trouble. Tanker firms are holding sway at the peripheries. Unchecked and illegal borewell drilling is still the norm. Massive real estate activity still happens without water planning. The water agency is not fixing its own massive pipe leaks and is squandering the most precious resource. Solutions exist as always. But patronage politics must yield for solutions to flow in.
Public lands: Over the past few decades massive theft of government lands in the greater Bengaluru region has taken place, as showed by both the A T Ramaswamy and V Balasubramanian reports. The city became a real estate playground. After all, land theft is the hallmark of patronage politics. The Karnataka Congress party, if it really means change, can do something new here to stem the rot. (At the time I wrote this, their High Command in Delhi is busy negotiating the storm that the latest Coalgates and Railgates have stirred up.)
Decentralisation of state powers: Our cities are like bloated children on steroids. Without decentralisation of state power, Bengaluru has grown, but did not grow up. I argued in an open letter to Manmohan Singh two weeks ago that I do not want world-class infrastructure, I want world-class city government. Many friends found so much clarity in the letter that they asked me to get Dr Singh to read it. That article was premised on aspirational politics. I intend to give it to the new chief minister anyway. Fat hopes they will act, you might say.
In the meantime, the people in aspirational politics will simply have to keep chipping away to take power back. There is no comparable model anywhere on the planet for the complex and transformative political journey this country and its cities are going through. Something will have to break on the ground, hopefully sooner rather than later.