Learn­ing from Dilma

Dilma Rouss­eff's re-elec­tion as pres­i­dent is a les­son on fac­ing de­vel­op­ment chal­lenges in an un­equal econ­omy


Modi can take a les­son or two from the re-elec­tion of the Brazil­ian pres­i­dent about de­vel­op­ment chal­lenges

Telec­tions in Brazil have sev­eral HE RE­CENT sim­i­lar­i­ties with In­dia’s last gen­eral elec­tions in April-May. Like in In­dia, Brazil’s rul­ing gov­ern­ment faced the chal­lenge of a slid­ing econ­omy, of­ten cited as the fall­out of a large num­ber of wel­fare pro­grammes. Like the then In­dian prime min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh and his United Pro­gres­sive Al­liance (upa), Brazil­ian pres­i­dent Dilma Rouss­eff faced charges of cor­rup­tion and of lead­ing an in­ef­fi­cient de­liv­ery mech­a­nism of wel­fare pro­grammes. Both the regimes were fac­ing anti-in­cum­bency. So, Rouss­eff ’s vic­tory, how­ever prov­i­den­tial it may be, holds lessons for In­dian politi­cians, par­tic­u­larly for the rul­ing Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance led by Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi.

Let’s look at how Rouss­eff won the elec­tions. She won by three per­cent­age points— the nar­row­est mar­gin in the coun­try’s mod­ern his­tory. She de­feated Ae­cio Neves, a cen­tre-right­ist, just like Modi. In 2013, she faced protests of mostly mid­dle-class vot­ers against cor­rup­tion and in­ef­fi­cient ser­vice de­liv­ery.One can draw par­al­lels with pub­lic protests in In­dia on sim­i­lar is­sues two years be­fore Singh was to face elec­tions. Small won­der that Neves got the de­ci­sive num­ber of votes in the coun­try’s eco­nom­i­cally bet­ter off south­east and south­ern ar­eas. But like in In­dia, the Brazil­ian elec­tions turned into a ref­er­en­dum be­tween so­cial spend­ing and eco­nomic growth. So­cial spend­ing was termed as doles and eco­nomic growth as de­vel­op­ment. Rouss­eff scraped through by get­ting a bit more votes in the poor ar­eas.And this is where the les­son lies.

Rouss­eff ’s Work­ers’ Party and her pre­de­ces­sor Luiz Ina­cio “Lula” da Silva scripted the world’s most lauded wel­fare pro­grammes. The upa had shaped most of its wel­fare pro­grammes by tak­ing cues from th­ese Brazil­ian ex­pe­ri­ences.Its di­rect cash trans­fer pro­gramme is a clone of one such highly suc­cess­ful Brazil­ian pro­gramme, which helped one-fifth of Brazil’s pop­u­la­tion, or 40 mil­lion, es­cape the poverty trap in just 12 years. The mea­sure of in­come in­equal­ity—the Gini co­ef­fi­cient—im­proved from 0.56 at the be­gin­ning of Lula’s vic­tory to 0.49.This shows equal­ity in in­come. The econ­omy also grew fast dur­ing Lula’s regime. Dur­ing Rouss­eff ’s time it slowed down; the fis­cal deficit widened; cor­rup­tion in­creased; and ser­vice de­liv­ery be­came in­ef­fi­cient. The Western me­dia pre­dicted an im­mi­nent de­feat for her party.

Modi’s dilemma will be sim­i­lar to Rouss­eff ’s even though he will face elec­tions in 2019.His gov­ern­ment has be­gun di­lut­ing or dis­man­tling many of upa’s flag­ship pro­grammes, such as the ru­ral wage pro­gramme and food se­cu­rity law.The same can be said about long cher­ished laws like the For­est Rights Act and the Land Ac­qui­si­tion Act. All this to get the econ­omy back on the growth tra­jec­tory, which Singh en­joyed dur­ing his first ten­ure. Look­ing at the Brazil­ian ex­pe­ri­ence, it is clear that the poor, mid­dle-class and rich vote on the same broad is­sue: ef­fi­cient ser­vice de­liv­ery. It is just that the def­i­ni­tion of “ser­vice” is dif­fer­ent for dif­fer­ent groups. For the rich, the ser­vice is fa­cil­i­ta­tion of business while for the poor, it is ac­cess to ba­sic ser­vices like wage and food. Modi may bring back eco­nomic growth and thus re­tain his mid­dle class vot­ers. But th­ese votes alone can­not en­sure his re-elec­tion.

In the last elec­tions, ru­ral and poor vot­ers might have voted Modi be­cause of anti-in­cum­bency fac­tor and poor ser­vice de­liv­ery of the upa. But it is surely not a man­date to do away with ru­ral pro­grammes. As the new gov­ern­ment starts shap­ing up its ru­ral pol­icy, it must keep in mind that the pro­grammes im­ple­mented by the last gov­ern­ment have not nec­es­sar­ily been re­jected by peo­ple.The ru­ral job guar­an­tee pro­gramme, for in­stance, has been pro­jected as the mother of all bad schemes.But the fact is it is the pro­gramme where In­dian ru­ral pop­u­la­tion par­tic­i­pated the most in the past six decades.Any changes in this to fix the eco­nomic downslide will have an elec­toral side ef­fect.


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