Despite being hit by the global recession, the ruling Congress Party-led coalition swept to an unexpected victory in India’s general election, mainly because of rural prosperity in a country where 70 percent of the population is rural. Good monsoons and high agricultural prices—linked partly to the global commodity boom—helped agriculture grow at a record annual rate of almost 4.5 percent for five years. The combination of high prices and high output yielded a happy peasantry. High food prices did not outrage rural workers because of a new rural employment scheme guaranteeing up to100 days work, and this helped despite corruption in implementation. Many states raised minimum wages too, raising worker pay faster than prices, and this was sustainable because of high crop prices. The government had partly or fully forgiven bank loans to small farmers, and this too won its votes.
However, this policy will encourage loan defaults in future: far better would have been cash payments to the needy, while maintaining loan discipline. The world commodity boom made it possible for the government to hike its support prices for crops as well as minimum wages, but such happy conditions will not last. India needs agricultural reform that focuses on raising productivity rather than loan waivers and hikes in controlled prices. And it must carry on its good work in improving rural infrastructure.
Most election forecasts predicted a hung parliament and an unstable government. But Congress’ victory means India will have a stable government for five years. Unlike last time, it will not depend for survival on the Marxist parties, which thwarted several economic reforms and opposed the nuclear deal and defense framework agreements with the USA . Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s courage in risking his government on this issue has been vindicated, and the two countries can now raise cooperation to a higher level. This could be especially important in checking Islamic terrorism, a serious problem for both countries.
The Congress must now proceed with legislation earlier thwarted by the Marxists—on pension reform, allowing private investment in coal mining, and raising foreign investment limits in insurance, telecom and retail. Victory and stability should also make it politically possible to avoid brazenly protectionist measures advocated by some sections of industry. The new agenda should include education reform—school vouchers to promote choice, liberalized rules for private schools, permission for foreign universities to set up shop in India . India badly needs administrative reforms to make civil servants and the police more accountable to citizens. A perceived lack of justice is an important cause for Maoist insurrections in some states, to which force alone cannot be the answer.