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Secularism or development: Making the right choice

At long last India’s democracy is moving in the right direction in offering voters genuine choices in the upcoming general elections. One of these is a choice between “left of centre” and “right of centre” economic policies — a polarization that exists in many democracies and ends in educating citizens about two distinct paths to prosperity. The two main parties, Congress and the BJP (after Narendra Modi became its official candidate) now reflect this polarity.

The Congress party’s starting point is an immediate and massive attack on poverty. It focuses on spending on social welfare and on subsidies to the poor. Its assumption is that a better-fed population will be more productive, and this will lead to more inclusive growth. Modi’s BJP, on the other hand, believes in direct measures to induce growth. Some of these are investment in power, roads and ports, cutting red tape, and encouraging entrepreneurs to invest. The resulting investment creates jobs, raises peoples’ incomes, and brings in higher taxes for the state. The higher taxes, in turn, provide the resources to attack poverty, illiteracy and ill health.

Obviously, a successful nation needs both growth and equity in the end but resources are limited and governments are forced to prioritize. The right of centre Modi-led BJP gives priority to economic growth whereas the left of centre Congress gives priority to equity and redistribution of growth. This choice was underlined recently in the much-publicized dispute between India’s two global superstar economists, Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati.

A second choice before voters is between competing styles of leadership. Modi is a strong, determined leader, who leads from the front while Rahul is shy, reticent, and leads from behind. Rahul is more likeable and compassionate; Modi is dictatorial but with his obsession with implementation, he is more likely to get the job done. Both are reasonably intelligent, but we make a mistake in overvaluing intelligence. Our current prime minister is hugely intelligent but he has failed to deliver results because he lacks determination, which in the end is more important in delivering results. Modi, on the other hand, has shown willpower and purposiveness in trying to root out corruption in Gujarat. Incidentally, business leaders make the same mistake in over-valuing intelligence when they recruit new employees. It is always better to hire for attitude and train employees in skills.

In the past two weeks, both leaders have made welcome moves to overcome their personality deficits. Rahul showed determination in overturning the Congress’ immoral ordinance on criminals in politics; Modi showed concern for the poor and a secular mind-set when he declared “shauchalya before devalya”, toilets before temples.

A third choice before the voter concerns the important issues of secularism and corruption. The BJP is a Hindu nationalist party and is inclined to see the world through majoritarian eyes. The Congress professes to be secular but its secularism often amounts to appeasing minorities in order to win votes. Still, a voter deeply wedded to secularism, will choose Congress over the BJP. When it comes to corruption, the Congress has broken all records and is seen by many to be profoundly corrupt. The BJP too has skeletons in its closet but the voter is likely to be influenced by Modi’s cleaner record against corruption in Gujarat. Thus, there is a third polarization — does one vote for a nonsecular BJP or a corrupt Congress party?

Sharp choices bring clarity to decision making for the confused, middle of the road voter, someone like me. Ultimately it amounts to this: Should one risk India’s precious secular and collaborative traditions for the sake of good governance and prosperity? But by choosing secularism over development, one might deprive millions of young Indians a chance to realise their capabilities, to rise above their lot into the middle class, and the nation a demographic dividend. It is an unappetising choice. It would be easier if Modi were more secular and compassionate, or if Rahul Gandhi showed more determination, gave more priority to growth, and was less tolerant of corruption.

Alas, it is not a perfect world and the best one can hope is to choose the less worse of the two candidates and call it a “wise choice”.

Gurcharan Das November 7th 2013

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