The first BJP government in the South – how do you feel about that? Since the day BSY took office as the Chief Minister, I’ve asked many people this question. And I’ve got two kinds of answers.
Some people believe that the party can give governance in Karnataka a much needed boost of governance, and help the state attain a position of economic leadership among the southern states. The comparison to Gujarat is made often, perhaps because the government itself has made references to this. And there is plenty of optimism that BSY can – similarly to Narendra Modi – emerge as a second state-level leader of high stature within the party.
The Gujarat CM is also the one that the other voices refer to. For some people, any potential for governance and economic growth that the new leadership brings is also accompanied by the risk of social polarisation among communities, and the accompanying destabilisation that brings. So far, the BJP has studiously avoided this comparison, prefering to keep its focus on development, but given the baggage of rath yatras and riots elsewhere, there is some suspicion going about that eventually, the Hindutva agenda will emerge.
I think any new government deserves the benefit of its doubters, so let’s start with that. If, as promised, the development agenda for Karnataka – and its leading city, Bangalore – take hold strongly, there will be many celebrants. And the government has certainly got off to a good start on this front, with its visible shows of putting together the agendas for development on several fronts.
The consultations held at the National Institute of Advanced Studies on the party’s agenda for Bangalore were especially energetic; ministers as well as senior bureaucrats engaged citizens directly and collected a number of ideas and other inputs from them. It was particularly heartening to see how many people stood up to air their views without the usual deferences to officials and politicians – a lot of the conversation seemed like one between equals, as it should be. Similar forums are planned to be held in other cities too, and I look forward to seeing how those compare with the Bangalore experience.
There is, however, one thing that worries me. At one level, we can pursue ideas of development by looking in the mirror. We know how we are doing on various fronts – education, health, infrastructure, the justice system, etc. – and in each of these areas we can make some improvements over the next few years. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that on many indicators, Karnataka will be better off in five years than now.
But will that be attributable to the government, and especially to the ruling party? That’s more tricky. Consider this – although economic development in India has taken wide root since the early 1990s, there are very few state or Central governments that have been re-elected thanks to their economic agendas. At some level, voters seem to think that progress on economic fronts is the automatic result of the way ideas and efforts play out, and this has very little to do with the party in power. They notice that even as we do better, so are others. For instance, state GDP and Human Development Indicators for Karnataka have risen during the last 4 decades, but this has been the case with many other states, and compared to those others, Karnataka is only average.
The real challenge, therefore, for the ‘first BJP government in the South’ will be to demonstrate that its ideas for governance are distinctive, and that it doesn’t pin its hopes for the future on mere improvements in governance, which many other states will also deliver.⊕