Saturday, January 26, 2013

An aspiring young India needs a new liberal party

India is a nation in ferment. People have taken to the streets because they no longer trust the existing political order. The old way of doing politics is under challenge but a new way has not yet been found. No one knows quite what the next eruption will bring. After Anna Hazare, Kejriwal, and Nirbhaya, there will be another outrage and another protest, and this will not stop until the political class learns to cope with the aspirations of a new, young, self confident nation. There were hints of this realization last week at Jaipur but no one had the courage to say so at the Congress conclave, not even Rahul Gandhi.

The aspiring young are about third of the country now, and in a decade or so they will be half. This is the new aam admi and it finds it has no one to vote for in 2014. The existing parties continue to view voters patronizingly as poor, ignorant, grieving masses. So, they resort at election time to the same tired populist formula of bribes and giveaways--free booze, loan waivers, free power and TV sets, caste reservations, subsidized food, NREGA jobs and now cash transfers. The giveaways benefit only a section of the people. But Nirbhaya’s lesson is that people want public goods which benefit all citizens. Everyone gains from efficient law and order, corruption free governance, good roads and schools, whereas only a section gains from reservations, free power, and PDS rice. Everyone benefits where the police quickly file an FIR and the judge gives quick justice.
The aspiring young cannot understand why their tolerant nation, which offers the most astonishing religious and political freedom, fails to give economic freedom. Why must amazingly free India rank 119 on the global freedom index? Why must it reform by stealth? In a country where three out of five people are self-employed, why should it take 42 days to start a business, and the entrepreneur is victim to endless red tape and corrupt inspectors?
India ends up reforming furtively because none of the political parties has explained to the people the difference between being ‘pro-market’ and ‘pro-business’. To be ‘pro-market’ is to believe in competition in the marketplace, which helps keep prices low, raises the quality of products, and leads to a ‘rules based capitalism’. To be ‘pro-business’ means to turn over the market’s authority to politicians and officials, and this leads to ‘crony capitalism’. Competition means that some businesses should be allowed to die because they are poorly managed such as Kingfisher Airlines and Air India, and should not be bailed out. Not making this distinction has led to the false impression that reforms make the rich richer when they actually help the poor. The aspiring young demand rules based capitalism, and to get there will mean shifting our politics away from populism towards the centre.

Protests awaken a people but do not solve the problem. Only the hard work of politics can do that in a democracy. It would be smart for one of the two major national parties to recognize this opportunity and come into tune with the new aspiring, secular aam admi. But that seems a hopeless prospect. The DNA of the BJP is not secular; the DNA of the Congress is statist, populist and socialist. Neither has shown the commitment to drive institutional reform needed for good governance. The regional parties lack a national vision and left parties do not believe in market-based outcomes. The Aam Admi Party could have filled this space but it has illiberal tendencies and does not endorse economic reforms. So, while the last thing India needs is a new party, it is the only alternative.  

A young aspiring, secular India needs a new liberal party of the 21st century which trusts markets rather than officials for economic outcomes, and relentlessly focuses on the reform of the institutions of governance. Only thus, will the country begin to move away from crony capitalism and towards rules-based capitalism. It may not win votes quickly but it will bring governance reform to centre stage and gradually prove to voters that open markets and rules-based government are the only civilized ways to lift living standards and achieve shared prosperity.