Indian Old Rope Trick

None is needed, but if any were, Thomas Friedman’s latest thoughts on Indian voting patterns provides yet more evidence that he’s less a journalist, more a transcriber of the opinion of powerful friends. Read his insights here. Below, my letter to the editor of the New York Times, which won’t get published because it’s late, ornery, and not quite elegant enough.

Thomas Friedman’s thoughts on Indian farmers (“Think Global Act Local”, June 6) are untroubled by economics, history, or a sensitive reading of Indian politics. India’s previous government, the nationalist BJP, certainly increased India’s economic exposure to the rest of the world. But the BJPs did not author this program – India’s globalization strategy was installed in the early 1990s by a faction within the Congress (I) party, led by today’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.

Central to this strategy of globalization was a reduced role for government and an increased role for the market. Crucially, the mechanisms of redistribution that would allow transfer of income from rich to poor states, from cities to rural areas, and from the wealthy to the impoverished, have been knocked away by Indian globalization. Rural development expenditures as a share of GDP declined from 14 percent in the late 1980s to less than 6 percent of total GDP in 2000, and today 233 million people are malnourished in India, at a time when the country has more wealth than ever before. [Sources and further data available at http://www.foodfirst.org/pubs/policy/pb10.html]

India’s rural millions understand this only too well, and their sophisticated voting behavior demonstrates this amply. The Indian population voted not only for the Congress party, but for a spectrum of parties to the left of Congress, parties that are keen to raise taxes in order to redistribute, increase state support for agriculture, and rebuild a strong welfare system for India’s poorest. The votes were, in other words, votes for policies that reverse Congress’s earlier globalization program. It’s hard to think of a clearer signal that Congress should not treat its rural power base as casually as it did in the 1990s.

Perhaps Mr Friedman might have observed this had he followed his own advice and asked an Indian farmer, instead of spinning the tired rope dangled to him by his friends in Delhi.