Political competition is one of the key attributes of a healthy democracy. A multi-party democracy, India certainly has no dearth of political competition, with 37 political parties being represented in the current Lok Sabha. However, the manner in which political competition is often played out leaves a lot to be desired. One only has to look at states such as Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, etc., to grasp this phenomenon. In this column, I use the example of a specific non-governmental intervention to call attention to what I term destructive political competition. This form of political competition is one that is not confined to electoral seasons, but pervades daily life.
Political competition can be termed destructive when political parties and leaders focus more on obstructing development than on enhancing the extent and spread of benefits that could accrue. So while there are measurable gains that development interventions initiated by external agencies can achieve, they risk being undone by local political parties that favour their supporters and victimize those perceived to be aligned with the opposition. This form of vendetta can be used as a political strategy by both the party in power and that in the opposition.
In a previous column, I covered the graduation pilots operational in multiple sites across the globe. The term “graduation model” stands for a targeted intervention where an external agency invests in the poorest of the poor (usually identified using participatory appraisal techniques with community members) with a suite of financial and non-financial services. The 10 pilots across eight countries have been accompanied by rigorous quantitative and qualitative evaluations, thereby throwing up valuable lessons on various aspects of the model and its implementation. One of the pilots was from 2007-09 in West Bengal, implemented by Trickle Up (a non-profit international development organization) in partnership with a local non-governmental organization, Human Development Centre.
A recent study report by a resource centre BRAC Development Institute’s Anasuya Sengupta examined qualitative evidence from the West Bengal pilot. The report focused on the sustainability of the programme outcomes, nearly three years after the pilot was concluded in 2009. One can surmise that sustainability of outcomes of the graduation pilot hinge critically on the ability of the state to absorb the participants into the safety net of public services. While the impact of an externally funded graduation pilot may be diluted in the context of a highly responsive state apparatus, the absence of inclusive state-sponsored safety nets weakens the chances of long-term sustainability of the outcomes achieved by the pilot.
The West Bengal report also mentions that access to basic services ranging from individual services such as subsidized rations, wage employment, etc., to the provision of public services such as roads and nutrition programmes are closely linked to political party affiliations. Participants in the pilot also complain of violence by political parties that obstruct them from accessing these public services.
While the existence of destructive political competition does not seem intuitively surprising, it is interesting to hypothesise scenarios which may give birth to this phenomenon. First, we are likely to see this play out in arenas where the political competition is intensely personal and are predicated largely on demonstrating power in a physical sense (muscle power). A second instance where such political competition may come into play is where political parties have little confidence in delivering tangible benefits to their constituencies by making a productive use of state resources. In situations where one or more of these scenarios holds true, political competition is likely to be destructive and will obstruct the natural course of development projects.
An intervention such as the graduation pilot operates within a political context. The concept of graduation also furthers our understanding of social protection policies of the state, going beyond the confines of external agency-led interventions. Destructive political competition presents a barrier to the possibility of the poor and vulnerable communities accessing such public safety nets. Further, it is not only external agency-led intervention that is at risk of being negated by this phenomenon. The implementation of government schemes are at risk as well. What is even more worrying is that this kind of political competition can corrupt the bureaucracy as well as local government representatives. With regional parties coming to play such an important role in our country, it is absolutely essential that political parties abstain from such destructive political competition at all levels. This is key to the sustainable and inclusive development that India needs today.