Friday, November 01, 2013

The Stupid Voter - Another Indian fairy tale

An MP wrote to a head of a public sector unit demanding jobs for locals in the factory located there. Unskilled, manual labor jobs. This was cited by the newsanchor of an example of practices of intimidation and corruption. The same day a friend of mine narrated to me how he had Rs 3 crores of goods meant for his IT establishment in Kerala held up - reason, local labor had to be employed from the Union to move it from the lorry to his office. High rates plus its a 3 day festival weekend etc. The Indian govt lays down minimum local content rules on non-Indian entities and state government often stipulate jobs for local citizens. The latter two are legal, the former is a corrupt MP and thuggery.

So what’s with the stupid Indian voter (SIV), who elects corrupt and thug representatives? That’s the theme across a lot of the media, political spectrum and the middle class. He still votes for communal forces, caste based voting etc.

Some characteristics of the SIV, a fairly large number of us qualify:

1. Employed in the informal sector, viz., most laws don’t get enforced here on anything. There is often no written contract either. 90% of India’s working persons belong to this sector. “Informal” is also a euphemism for “We can’t do much about this section”.
2.  The govt overall doesn’t give the job, he looks for work everyday. A secure job for is a govt job, become part of a union and get many other benefits. You can’t lose the job for the rest of  your life. That job could come with recommendations.
3.  Monthly expenses are on food, transport (to get to work), educate children, plus doctor expenses. If these can be kept low, then life can be better on the earnings.
4.  A lot of the work is through referrals. The person, who is not very educated or skilled, lives in an area for his whole life. His residence is in a community, that’s (amazing!) his community. Big surprise, MBAs and doctors must be choosing to live in communities comprising traders or music groups and artists. Only these sections live amongst their own.
5.  The person has an unrecorded life, barring hearsay from the community he lives in. So bank accounts, if there is one, don’t track his regular earnings; employers don’t give referral letters or email addresses for future employers to consult and the education may be from an unknown school or college. As a graduate from Sant SomethingDas College or St. Anyoneatall College, people don’t have such glitches. They work anywhere, everything is on record and can be tracked quickly.

On the political front, the Member of Parliament or MLA does not decide how the budget is spent. In a centralized governing system, its decided collectively at Parliament and the funds are never enough for all (Parkinson’s Law modified at work - govt expenditure always rises to exceed Income). Implemented through the local district administration as per rules normally the size of an encyclopedia. Besides the Local Area Development Fund, MPs have little direct say on how money is spent. MLA’s have to rely upon the favor of the CM to get their share out of state allocations and most states are fairly broke - so its not surprising CMs are so powerful.  What an MP can do is:

i) Recommend or provide referrals to job applicants. Including prevent or cause transfer through influence. If they exercise diligence, they’ll provide such recommendations to persons they know better - likely from their own community - professionally and or personally.

ii) Fight for local jobs for their constituents. There is no legal basis often for this, so the only other option is mobilize collective force - a body politic.  Do-Good organizations call this “community mobilization”, others call this communist, still others call this “participative democracy” and some call this “thuggery”. Depends on your political viewpoint and bias, not on what’s happening here.

iii) Support any measures that will bring down prices of necessities. They don’t really see the fancy Geniusowitz Curve or Growthopadhyay Effect on the macro-economy. Bus fare is lower, rice costs reasonable and the doctor isn’t ripping me off.  And that boy who is eyeing my young daughter wrongly, can be beaten up.

The nature of poorer communities (money and skill) is immobility. They can’t trade much except their own bodies - as manual labor. They live amongst their own. The referrals they need will come easier if through their own community. This is not dissimilar for an IIT alumni network - even if you  don’t know the person, he is about a two phone calls away. The MLA and MP is one who is two phone calls away for this voter.

End result for the voter, who is not relying of government for his daily earnings, is - votes for the guy who is reachable, can make recommendations and willing to fight for things locally. If he has brought some low cost benefits to daily living, he gets the vote. If he can settle disputes (the law is too complicated and time-consuming), great. Not surprising many local leaders are powerful businessmen or even dons.  The Taliban’s biggest contribution to daily life in Afghan has been settling local disputes - often over land or livestock - as per a news feature I saw.

Enter into this mix i)  The rich - who really aren’t affected by the small stuff - just the way the voter above doesn’t really care if WalMart is allowed to open a shop in India. and ii) The middle class - perpetually on the cusp of rich and the cusp of poor. All the cheap food and hospitals will be through more taxes - not directly on incomes, but on consumption.  They scream the loudest about all this.

The stupid Indian voter is not voting communal. His access to a better life happens to more likely with someone who is reachable - very likely his community. Unfortunately, the distinguishing characteristic is caste or religion and not an engineering or management school. Its generally true of poorer regions or regions with less mobile populations in any democracy - they pick the guy they can reach.

What a stupid reason.