The missing counterfactual in Indian politics

Evaluations, in order to assess the impact of a programme/policy, sometimes make use of a counterfactual. A counterfactual, as the word suggests, means “counter to facts” – and operationally, is the answer to the complicated question: “what would have happened in the absence of the programme/policy that we are now studying” or “what would have been the alternate scenario”? As one might expect, the answer to this is extremely difficult to find outside a lab, because we usually cannot go back in time; nor is it easy to create clones that operate in identical environments that we can observe.

It follows therefore, that it is impossible to really answer the question: What would have happened if the UPA had not come to power in the 2004 general elections? The probable counterfactuals are the following: the BJP-led NDA would have retained power; or a non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front would have come to power. Since neither of this can now be observed for 2004 (or for 2009), in this case too, the counterfactual does not exist. Therefore, one really cannot say what the impact of the UPA has been on India. One cannot logically make any assertion on questions such as: would corruption have been any less?; would our economy be doing any better?; would our foreign relations be any better?, etc. Given how UPA’s second innings has gone, it would seem BJP got lucky that they did not win in 2009 and conversely, Congress might be ruing having won a second term at all. But once again, I am talking without a counterfactual.

Say one tries to construct a theoretical counterfactual – what data do we have to do this?

  1. What we have on governance is the record of the various parties that have been in power in the different states. There is really not much to differentiate between say, Uttar Pradesh (Bahujan Samaj Party and then, Samajwadi Party), Maharashtra (Congress-led coalition) or Karnataka (BJP and then Congress) – all ruled by opposing political parties for a bulk of this term – the same three states are also ideal examples if one considers the maintenance of law and order and a the state governments’ efforts to maintain social harmony and a liberal environment
  2. On poverty alleviation and implementation of social welfare schemes, again, states have varying records, that seem to go more with the individual Chief Ministers, rather than their political party that is in power in those states
  3. The Congress party has had the advantage of its long history when it comes to building political dynasties; but other parties have done the best they could in the limited time they have had – most regional parties definitely have; the BJP possibly a little less guilty of this as compared to many others.
  4. On political parties and their role in conducting business in the Parliament – again, almost all parties cut an equally sorry figure
  5. On economic policy – whether one talks of FDI, subsidies or GST, there is hardly anything to choose from, between the Congress and the BJP
  6. Performing Chief Ministers – Nitish Kumar (Bihar); Modi (Gujarat); Shivraj Singh Chouhan (MP); Raman Singh (Chattisgarh) and the mild mannered aam aadmi CM, Manohar Parrikar (Goa) and performing states like Kerala or Himachal Pradesh – each with a development record that is certainly debatable and not necessarily inclusive. Add to this, Congress’ trouncing in Delhi and Rajasthan in the recent assembly elections and it would seem that that no Congress state is comparable to the BJP-led ones.One ignores Delhi, where it is easy to see how national politics has a conflating effect and governing which, is by no means an easy task, as the Aam Aadmi Party is finding out as every day unfolds.

So on what basis are we being currently asked to make up our minds – certainly on very little scientific basis. What is going around can be be summed up as the following:

  1. Narendra Modi’s vacuous, but loud oratory; full of crowd-pleasing barbs at the Congress party; and on the other end, the reticence and/or incompetence of the Congress leadership
  2. The industry’s seeming adulation of Modi

Thus, what is going on is an exhortation to the voters to vote on the basis of some blind hope – the hope that things cannot get any worse. At the same time, one is also being warned of the alternate scenario where a ragged alliance somehow might come to power in the event of a hung parliament. The unfortunate scenario, where no party has been able to demonstrate their ability as a credible alternative – the lack of a convincing counterfactual – is perhaps the tragedy of Indian politics today


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