Growth pays, populism does not
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After its big 2009 victory, the Congress perfected the 'more populism-less growth' formula. It is not a coincidence that it has lost nearly every election since
Indian elections are always intriguing, and sometimes, even after the fact, revealing. The two recent general elections, in May 2004 and May 2009, confounded experts and politicians alike. The 2004 election was widely expected to be won by the BJP-led NDA, and the May 2009 election was expected to be a mirror image of the close 2004 election. As we now know, the Congress won only 145 seats in 2004, a number close to what it obtained in the 1996 and 1998 elections. In 2009, the Congress was not expected to do much better; but it did, winning 206 seats, a number within striking distance of P.V. Narasimha Rao's 244 seats in 1991.
So what caused these surprises? Speculation abounds that the NDA delivered stable aggregate growth during its tenure, but failed to deliver on the inclusion front. The Congress's aam aadmi (poor ordinary man), it is widely believed, trumped the BJP's "India Shining" (crony capitalism, growth only for the rich, etc). It is widely believed by Congresswallahs that it was the redistributive nature of the high growth during 2004 to 2009 that led the Congress to the resounding victory in 2009. They fulfilled their promise to the aam aadmi and were handsomely rewarded. Nothing succeeds like political success and so the Congress embarked on a kind of populism that would embarrass even Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. This populism, it was believed until perhaps only a few months ago, would propel the Congress to better Rao's triumphant 244 seats, and who knows, perhaps even achieve the simple majority of 273 seats.
The future is not known, but the past is. How accurate is the Congress belief that they (UPA 1) provided significantly more inclusion than the NDA it defeated in 2004? What we do know is that per capita GDP growth was the highest, ever, during 2004-09. Could it not be that the aam aurat rewarded the Congress in 2009 for delivering high growth rather than assumed populism?
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