governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

The national hype around the “beef ban” issue and the rise in the price of toor daal has done what the combined political force of other parties could not do — humble Narendra Modi in Bihar. Both are self-goals by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

humble modi

photo credit: http://www.arun-wicfy.quora.com

Whose duty is it anyway to regulate agri. and food?

The regulation of land, agriculture and food is a mandate of the state government in the Constitution. But Central governments, including the BJP, have been happy to meddle in this mandate via the provision of trade and commerce in food in the Concurrent List of the Constitution. They do so to appear muscular and confer favours on farmers, traders and consumers. The setting of procurement prices for food crops at much above the market price, the physical management of publicly-owned food stocks and the subsidisation of consumer prices are low-hanging fruits for both populism and patronage.

Far better if the Central government had stayed clear away from this area and told voters frankly that it was for the Bihar government to manage the price of daal. On the beef ban, the BJP should have stuck to the constitutional position that the cow is to be “preserved” per the Directive Principles, and it was for state governments to decide local policies regarding preservation.

Instead, the BJP ground troops have raised a national ideological furore over a non-issue. Beef is an inferior meat internationally because of its adverse health (high cholesterol) and environmental (high carbon emissions, high water consumption per unit) consequences. In India, it is an inferior and cheap meat, eaten mostly by the poor. Rich Muslims would rather eat goat or chicken biryani, much like Hindus and Christians, rather than beef.

But it was not to be. It seems the BJP ground troops will not easily allow Prime Minister Modi to grow out of the narrow, Hindu, nationalist role they have set for him. This was expected, but what is surprising is his inability to control the foot soldiers.

Bihar matters

Winning in Bihar would have raised the Prime Minister’s image of “invincibility” sky high. The “crabs” within the BJP would not have liked this. They were happy to hang on to his kurta tail and be carried along by the tsunami in 2014. Now that the next day of reckoning is only in 2019 — a full four years away they prefer a Prime Minister, dependent on their individual support. What could be a better opportunity than to play the Hinduism-under-threat-from-beef card in the middle of the Bihar elections?

On the price of lentils, Mr Modi’s penchant for muscularity is primarily to blame. It is not the job of the Central government to keep prices in check. State governments should have mechanisms for doing this. Importing food in short supply from outside the state or from overseas to keep prices regulated is one option. But, more importantly, isn’t it about time our governments got away from the business of setting market prices for all segments of the food value chain?

Re-regulate agriculture and food

Price spikes and troughs provide important signals to growers and traders, and dictate what farmers sow. Expectations of price intervention by the government distort these signals and inhibit farmers from their legitimate right to profits when a crop fails just as they would suffer a loss when there is an oversupply.

To insulate poor farmers, farm workers and poor urban folk from extreme price fluctuations, direct cash transfer is the answer. Who can say what consumers would do with the extra cash the government gives them? They may not buy toor at astronomical prices at all. They may opt for other, cheaper varieties of pulses — moong, masur or channa, or prefer milk, meat, lobia or nutri nuggets, or a mix of all these.

Is there a BJPnomics?

The BJP has yet to grow a coherent economic philosophy. Often it glories in being market and business-friendly. At other times it shies away from this label, just like the Congress Party, because it is perceived as being anti-consumer. Many within the BJP are more socialist than the communists! They want to preserve the public sector and they want visible, often unnecessary, intervention by the government in everything — what to wear, what to read, what to see and what to eat.

This ideological clutter needs to be cleaned out. Otherwise, the BJP risks looking like a more stridently Hindu version of the Congress, rather than a modern, nationalistic party which believes in markets, equity and inclusive growth.

Next two years- a blur of elections

The good news is that the Uttar Pradesh elections are still one year away and there is still time to repair the damage for a “real” contest between the Samajwadi Party and the BJP. The Samajwadi Party is a homegrown party of Uttar Pradesh with an indifferent governance record. It is perceived as a dynasty, caters mostly to Ahirs and enjoys strong support from Muslims via their champion Azam Khan of Rampur — the erstwhile “princely state” in western Uttar Pradesh, adjoining Moradabad.

azam khan

photo credit: http://www.indianexpress.com

An understanding between Bhenji (Mayawati) of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the BJP would strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand to define the electoral line-up. Both the BJP and Bhenji, have a good record in the management of law and order, and both appeal to the rainbow spectrum which Bhenji tried to create earlier, spanning the upper castes and the dalits. This consolidation is what the BJP attempted in Bihar. It remains a viable strategy for Uttar Pradesh despite the outcome in Bihar. It will also be useful for the BJP in adjoining Uttarakhand in 2017.

bhenji ambedkar

http://www.rakeshjhunjhunwala.in

But it is a long way to the Uttar Pradesh elections in 2017, past Pondicherry, Assam, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala in 2016, and, thereafter, Goa and Punjab. The BJP would do well to be conservative and focus on Assam, Kerala, Goa and Punjab, leaving the other states to regional partners. Selectivity of political effort will free the central leadership to also do some work in pushing the reform agenda in tax, infrastructure and digital governance.

Unlike in Bihar, the BJP must start grooming regional leaders in all these states so that it is not a solo effort by the Prime Minister. Identifying regional leaders broadens the table and gives more elbow room all around commensurate with the size of India. Inclusion is of the essence in a democracy.

Adapted from an article by the author in Asian Age October 23, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/beef-toor-frying-bjp-bihar-058

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