Dispatch #19: Weekend Linkfest

Here is a curated list of a few good articles from the world of policy, politics and development.

1) Will class politics replace caste politics in India?

In this insightful article, Rahul Verma and Ankita Barthwal talk about whether a class politics will emerge in India that transcends the traditional caste based politics. The write, “Does caste continue to rule politics as always? Or is there a new class consciousness emerging in the country? Our reading of the tea leaves suggests the latter. Three key factors seem to have raised the salience of class in India’s polity today, we reason. Rising inequality in the country, widened by the pandemic, is the first and most immediate factor. The second factor is the emergence of a new aspirational class with its own values and expectations from the state. The final factor is the fragmentation of old caste coalitions and the interplay of caste and class in recreating caste coalitions and political affiliations.

However, they argue that class politics in India face several challenges, “Thus, the emergence of new class-based politics is unlikely to entirely displace the conventional axes of politics in India. No party is going to ignore caste. But it is likely that old caste-based coalitions and configurations will give way to new, with class interests providing the common glue.

Similarly, no party is likely to turn its back on the welfare state. So the real contest would be on different welfare models political parties can offer. The Bihar elections were a prime example: the two main alliances promised jobs, but while the opposition alliance promised jobs by filling government vacancies, the National Democratic Alliance promised jobs through private businesses.

The final limits on class-based politics comes from politics that can transcend class through more potent overarching narratives. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections are a case in point. In the year before the elections, the narrative of economic stagnation and rural distress gained traction.”

2) Farmers’ protest may be bringing a small beginning of normal politics, of negotiation and compromise:

Suhas Palshikar, in this insightful article writes about how farmers protests have forced the PM to resort to negotiation, a trait that has been missing while dealing with other dissenting voices in the last six years. He writes, “The ongoing farmers’ agitation will be closely observed for yet another reason. The chant that “the leader can do no wrong” reverberates through all governance. The government and the prime minister recently “commemorated” the anniversary of demonetisation as something daring, essential and beneficial. This staunchness is glorified as decisiveness. By agreeing to negotiate with the farmers, the BJP government has taken the risk of denting that image.

Enough media yarn will be spun if and when a negotiated settlement takes place. Yet, the agitation may have finally forced the messiah to be reduced to a mere prime minister who has to consider the exigencies of politics. In itself, a prime minister agreeing to negotiate is not a shortcoming, but after having built an aura of non-negotiability about his wisdom, a settlement would mean the first step in converting the all-powerful and all-knowing supreme leader into a more routine political player.

3) Farmers’ protest shows Modi’s politics is caught between India’s two middle classes:

On Modi’s middle class politics, Asim Ali writes, “What is often missed is that even though the ‘aspirational middle classes’ or neo-middle classes might share some of the same critiques of State corruption and State inefficiency as the traditional middle classes, that does not necessarily make them votaries of economic reforms, especially because it affects their own interests.

As political scientist E. Sridharan had demonstrated, a majority of the broad middle classes (58-75 per cent at the turn of the century) are either public employees or rich peasants that were themselves dependent on State subsidies. Therefore, unlike Western countries where the middle classes advocate economic reforms that cut subsidies for the poor, in India, much of the middle classes are themselves dependent on the State.

In fact, the ongoing protests in Punjab and Haryana were initially led by rich farmers who would ordinarily be assumed to support an expansion of private economic opportunities. But they not only remain deeply invested in the minimum support price (MSP)-mandi infrastructure, they in fact demand an expansion of the MSP regime, and thus the role of the State in agriculture. Meanwhile, the smaller and marginal farmers, who have also joined the protests in large numbers, seem even less enthusiastic at the prospect of being left to negotiate with big agricultural interests.

Therefore, the middle-class lenses of politics applied to the countryside, which assumed that the promise of less State regulation and greater economic freedom would attract the support of certain entrepreneurial classes of farmers, has shown itself to be unmoored to reality.

4) Why farm politics doesn't win elections in India?

Sanjay Kumar writes, “Unlike terrorism, which generates a nation-wide appeal and unites disparate castes and communities, farm issues have not gained similar salience in elections even though a majority of Indians depend on farming for their livelihood. Like other occupational groups, farmers have often given greater preference to caste and community considerations while voting. Apart from caste-wise differences, the wide divergence in the fortunes of farmers across different regions of the country works against pan-India unity. The average size of land-holdings, for instance, is much higher in the northwestern belt than in other parts of the country.

5) Who wants federalism?

On Indian federalism, Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes, “The third thing that sustains federalism is the political and institutional culture. But alas, the culture of both the BJP and the Congress was, to put it mildly, committed to the most extreme interpretation of flexible federalism, including procedural impropriety to oust opponents. The only thing that might have changed significantly in the political culture is what Neelanjan Sircar and Yamini Aiyar call attribution effects in politics. Because of the increasing presidentialisation of national politics, a single-party dominance with powerful messaging power, and change in forms of communication, the attribution of policy successes or failures might change, diminishing the stature of chief ministers considerably. The other source of institutional culture might be the Supreme Court. But there is little in the Court’s conduct that allows us to predict where it might come down on federalism issues. To be fair, there was mostly a bi-partisan consensus on honouring the technical recommendations of institutions like the Finance Commission, and we will have to see if this last bastion of formal impartiality is eroded.

6) Poverty, depression, and anxiety- Causal evidence and mechanisms:

In this brilliant piece for Science magazine, Vikram Patel and others have writen about the ‘the mechanisms whereby poverty triggers mental illness and how mental illness compounds poverty.’

The authors of the paper conclude, “The causal relationship between poverty and mental health we have described could not be more pertinent than in the ongoing pandemic, which has already adversely affected both of these outcomes. Given the surge of deaths of despair in the United States in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, we have grave concerns about the mental-health implications of the economic recession confronting the world. The pandemic has disproportionately affected the poor and may have lasting adverse impacts on their economic and mental well-being. A massive investment in mental health was long overdue even before the pandemic and has become critically urgent now. Beyond more money, this is also an important opportunity to invest wisely in lower-cost innovations that provide quality care to low-income and disadvantaged communities and to integrate economic interventions with mental health care to reduce historic disparities in both wealth and mental health.