Can politics be driven by reason? Can policies be driven by reason alone? The politics of change is not easy to disentangle, particularly in the Indian context. It is not unreasonable to expect that the primary objective of a politician is to remain in office through successful re-elections. The pursuit of sensible policies is in the belief that these measures would help his re-election. The preferred policy matrix can be greatly felicitated by the academic community. Indeed academic research invariably brings out policy options and a menu of change. Beyond this in garnering a constituency for change, the support of the academic community is invaluable. The credibility of policies which have academic underpinnings can make both academics and politicians natural allies. Nonetheless, in actual life, cross-fertilization between academia and politics is an exception rather than the norm. So what are some of the policy choices which the cross-pollination of ideas can be beneficial both to society and to politicians? These ideas are largely in the area of economic and social policies.
- Growth vs distributive justice, or the pursuit of relative and absolute gains in income – is rising inequality acceptable if those at the bottom end are also getting richer? Is it socially sustainable? Moreover, are the steps often taken to promote inclusive growth also conducive to high growth? People have differing ideas of what it takes to achieve growth; growth occurs at different paces for segmented groups in different places and policy choices mediate this pattern and this sequence. Obviously there are win-win situations such as improving infrastructure, which not only opens up economic opportunities for a broader swathe of the population, but also lowers costs of business and improves competitiveness, contributing to general growth. But what about redistribution? This is a debate that is not unique to India.
- Growth vs Populism. The contradictions of managing a right balance between the objectives of growth and the compulsion of populism require political choices and a judgment. Subsidies, for example, represent a sizeable item of the government’s non- plan revenue expenditure. The arguments both in favour of and against subsidy are equally strong. No doubt a country like India needs subsidies on merit goods due to various reasons like poor social safety net arrangements. Providing minimum consumption entitlement to the poor by subsidizing items of necessary consumption have multiplier welfare gains. But, the benefits can be maximized only when the subsidies are transparent, well targeted, and designed for effective implementation without any leakages. Attempting to reform the subsidy regime requires convergence among political parties in the interest of fiscal prudence. The right blend of politics with development priorities have gainful multipliers.
- Growth vs Environment. The trade-off here is sharper in the short run than the long run, but we live in the short run. Whether to build a coal-fired plant or a nuclear plant or emphasize demand-side reductions does imply different cost and financing profiles that do have opportunity costs in terms of funds available for social services and other infrastructure.
Academics are invariably engaged with the development issues in the broader sense of the term. Long term societal good as well as fostering innovations improving the frontiers of knowledge pose difficult choices both for harnessing and optimal resource utilization. Research and scientific studies have an abiding value of their own. However, governance which engages politicians can never be divorced from its end objective namely improved social welfare. The relationship between governance and development is complex and often episodic. The ingredients of good governance have no fixed paradigm except by experience we know that it results in faster growth process. Nonetheless, issues of equity and inclusive growth alter our perspectives both on what is good governance and what is a desirable pattern of growth. Both academics and politicians are an integral part of the social dynamics of change.