In 66 years, free India has seen many triumphs and many more tribulations. In its first few decades, India was seen as a great shining democracy, but also the poorest, most destitute nation. In the last twenty years, our democratic credentials have strengthened, but the rapid rise of China keeps reminding us that autocracies can be more effective in delivering development than slow, plodding democratic India.
In 2013, we’re growing slower than before, but on this Independence Day, I’m heartened that our democratic prowess is itself contributing to the accelerating our development tempo, rather than being a hindrance. If you ask Vedanta or POSCO or any other big company, they might differ. However, if you ask each one of the 5,000 MLAs and MPs what keeps them awake at night—I’m sure that they will allow reply that it is their continuing failure to live up to the increasing expectations of their voters.
The mood in Delhi or Mumbai is despondent. But in every one of our 28 (and counting) state capitals there’s choked traffic, new flyovers being built, new schemes being inaugurated, and a vibrant local media that’s holding the government to account. In the last ten years, every big state election has been fought on the “development” plank. (Except when Mamata defeated the Communists in West Bengal.)
For decades, democracy was seen as a cross to bear. It was good, but … China was doing so much better. But … India will never progress because of its “million mutinies”. Most of the electorate votes only on the lines of caste or religion—so politicians are interested only in dividing the cake.
Today, all this has changed. Yes, some voters still vote with their heart for “their” party out of allegiance to religion or community, but this is a declining share of the total vote. More and more voters are voting with their head for parties that deliver. Thus in all the BIMARU states, the last election or two has been fought on the “development” plank. Even big, bad UP has voted for a young man who went beyond the tired rants of the past or the politics of complaint.
This politics of aspiration is playing itself out messily. Free laptops are coming on top of free rice. But this itself is a sign of change. The proportion of space in party manifestos devoted to sops, freebies, and other development-related schemes is much more than the part devoted to mandir, masjid, or caste. Once an MLA is elected, she or he is most concerned about the delivery of government services or the execution of new projects.
Yes, corruption is pervasive. Since there’s more money, there’s more corruption, which has spread to panchayats and municipalities. But corporators or MLAs or MPs know that they can be as corrupt as they can get away with, but if they want to be re-elected they have to deliver development. And, our voters are getting smarter. They just don’t want schools and hospitals (more capital spending), they want their teachers and doctors to deliver better outcomes (service delivery).
Private provisioning of infrastructure has also seen greater democratic acceptance. Few now object to paying tolls on highways or to paying market prices for petrol. The small, monthly increase in the price of diesel is a good example of solving a difficult development challenge—reducing subsidies—in a way that makes democratic sense.
Our federalism is also proving to be our strength. Innovations in one state are being replicated in others. Tamil Nadu’s mid-day meal scheme is the first. But the way Tamil Nadu procures medicines for distribution to its hospitals and PHCs has also been emulated by many states. Giving cycles to girls has now spread from Bihar to elsewhere. Laws that guarantee timely delivery of public services have also been enacted in many states after having first been done in Madhya Pradesh. Chhattisgarh’s improvements in PDS are being copied elsewhere. Many cities are trying to do what Indore did in improving public bus services. Delhi’s decision to distribute sanitary napkins to adolescent schoolgirls will also, I expect, be followed in other states.
Other successes have come from NGOs combining with governments and citizens to do specific tasks. The successful pulse polio eradication program (pioneered in Delhi, replicated nationally) couldn’t have been possible without the cooperation of so many groups. Akshayapatra is a shining example of using NGOs that use corporate efficiency techniques to deliver hot cooked food to more than 1.3 million children every day. Started in Bangalore, it has spread to eight other states, because democratically elected governments invited the organization to their state realizing that it was better to have Akshayapatra (which is backed by a religious group) to do something that they could not do themselves.
Democracy will grow stronger and deeper in India as our elected representatives become more responsive to our needs. This is catalyzing more development across more states for more communities through public, NGO, or private providers. On our 66th Independence Day, let us celebrate this long-awaited coming together of two powerful forces, which were the twin goals of our freedom struggle.
Harsh Shrivastava is the CEO of the World Development Forum. Before that he worked in India’s Planning Commission, helping manage the process of making the 12th Plan. He’s also been Prime Minister Vajpayee’s deputy speechwriter. He has an MBA from IIM, Ahmedabad