Who represents the poor?

Firdous Ahmad Malik & Maajid Hussain Bhat
Donate! ‘In the name of Almighty,’ is the
repeatedly heard maxim if one visits a market place, religious shrine or any
other crowded place in India. The problem of begging though serious in India is
not confined only to the India but is a problem of almost every developing country.
The number of poor and degree of poverty in India is depressingly high and
unfortunately not showing any signs of fast recovery. In the last seventy
years, poverty in India has been debated vastly and various policy plans to
eradicate it, have been the priority of almost every ruling government. Various
issues like begging, child trafficking, exploitation of workers, etc. find its
roots in poverty.

When the most unattended problem of our
society, ‘begging,’ is put to question, in order to solve the problem, many
good-to-ear solutions pop up, like to address the very root cause of this
problem. The root cause as always ends up to be the, ‘chronic poverty,’ which
most of the developing nations face. When one looks deeper into the problem,
one finds numerous interconnected things taking place which ultimately adds up to
the problem. Migration of unskilled population from rural to urban areas forms
a whole new subset of the population termed as, ‘urban destitute.’ Low to
negative job creation in a heavily populated country leads to extremely low
wages in the informal sector, where this migrated population is hit the
hardest. Due to migration, there is a rise in both the number as well as
density of the slums in cities, which are a gloomy reflection of urban
Analyzing the causes of and designing the solutions
for the problem may be the important questions but what are the, ‘right
questions,’ to be addressed. The right questions as per the situation are why
are the public policies always disappointing? why there seems to be a lack of
will at the part of the government in framing and running policy programmes in
order to pull the population, ‘the governments very electorate,’ out of this
vicious circle? Only when one works in this direction, a new but very basic question
emerges. Are we choosing the right government? There is a noticeable vacuum in
the government functionaries. Representation of the poor, labourers, farmers
and other underprivileged lot is quite deceptive. Hence people resort to
begging; some as a means of their livelihood and others for attention. If one comes
from a poor, lower middle class or a rural family, wholly and solely dependent
upon farming, it comes naturally to their mind that they do not have a
representation. The need of the hour is to address who represents the poor? One
will find politicians projected as the representatives of different religious
groups, caste subsets, lingual minorities etc. but hardly will one find a
politician projected as the representative of the poor. The problem of
representational crisis of the poor in the policy making government
functionaries is a double tragedy.
We are living in times where education
ministers are celebrating fund cuts in the respective sector. We have health
ministers eulogising the privatisation of health sector. The welfare objective
is turning out to be a distant dream. Here comes into the scene what one knows
as the concept of public choice. ‘Public choice theory,’ emerged in 1950’s and
got attention in 1986 when James Buchanan, one of its two leading architects
(the other was his colleague Gordon Tullock), was awarded the Nobel Prize in
economics. Public choice is often read and discussed under the big umbrella of
economics, but always applied to the web of political processes, choosing the
government and functioning of the government. Simplifying the concept, public
choice is incorporating the concepts of economics to determine how collective
choices are made. In a society every individual’s interests are the outcome of
their respective motivations. This affects the collective decision making and
thereby the idea or belief that, ‘politics is destined to work for what is
truly in public interest,’ is rejected. The dilemma of whose interest qualifies
to be public interest in the contemporary political scenario is turning out to
be a tragedy. The presumption that every individual concedes to what a good
government is, becomes disputable when one starts thinking about the entire
apparatus of things government actually does. On the off chance, that the
voters differ about what the government is supposed to do; there will be no,
‘right choice,’ for all the individuals or subsets of the electorate. This
being the situation, the political parties will contend not just on the premise
of how great they will be at executing the government functioning towards
welfare, but also how that welfare should to be defined. In 1974, J Helfgot in
a very important study found that “it appears that government-sponsored social
change efforts may be permitted to exist only as long as they remain
ineffectual. Once a potential for change in power relationships becomes manifest,
support is quickly revoked.” At last, when one is thinking about a massive
electorate, indeed, even the presumption that voters all around are educated or
rightly informed also becomes questionable. In a country like India, there is a
huge divide in the population on the basis of different factors like religion,
caste, language, region etc. In the words of Eamon Buttler, “we live in a world
of value-pluralism.” Different groups and subsets of population value different
policies differently. This leads to the clash of interests of the people and no
agreement on what may constitute the ‘public interest’ is reached.
Buchanan and Tullock in their book, ‘Calculus
of consent,’ discussed at large the issues in simple majority voting system.
They were of the opinion that constitution must be based on the unanimous
agreement, otherwise the majority will always explore to design systems and
minority will be exploited. In 1965, Mancur Olson came up with similar
conclusions in his book, ‘The logic of collective action.’ He brought to forefront
the presence and impact of special interest groups on the political processes.
Olson’s important finding was that, the otherwise large interest groups in the
form of taxpayers and consumers fail to mount the optimum amount of pressure in
comparison to small but powerful lobbying groups having special interests. The
reason Olson gave for this was problem of free-riding which the larger interest
group (Citizen) faces. Anthony Downs, a student of famous economist Kenneth J
Arrow, known for his application of rational choice theory to political
processes observed that, the objectives of the political parties for which they
make actions (rational) are income, prestige and the power they enjoy from being
in office, rather than any policy or welfare of the public. However for voters,
Downs believed in the existence of rational ignorance. He viewed that, for a
voter it is difficult to analyse the manifesto of each and every contesting candidates.
Since the chance of any individual’s vote to decide the government is
microscopic, voters do not consider it worth to spend time on extracting
information about the candidates and political parties. This way, a large
majority of the people vote on party labels or do not vote at all. In the
Indian context, as mentioned earlier, this leads to voting on the basis of caste,
religion and gender etc. Since the majority of the electorate remains ignorant,
a small but well informed group exerts its influence on parties as well as the
Rising inequality, chronic poverty,
multiplying slums, and hunger are some questions which are still haunting
India. Healthcare is in shambles, education is witnessing the most drastic fund
cuts, employment generation which was anyway low in India has declined to a
sadistic low, small scale industries are facing problems, privatisation of
public institutions and industries is getting swift, employees are being laid
off, banking sector is in trouble and the nature has signalled for a change, a
metamorphosis in the economies. The pandemic has taken over the world.
Yesterday’s superpowers are begging for medicine and healthcare equipments at a
time when they have the world’s largest ammunition depots full, at a time when
they sell death to each part of this world. The nations boasting of their
armies are facing a crisis of doctors and paramedics.  A new world order is in the making.
The question of the hour is shall we go
back to the normal which was never normal to convince the poor, that there life
is normal. Is it normal to have a large population left unrepresented and their
issues not making it to political debates? Will the earlier normal be normal
enough to pull out the poor and under privileged out of their tragedies? Shall
we not embrace a new model of politics and economy with the maxim incorporated,
‘welfare for all.’ Scholars, scientists, economists, political scientists
and other informed lot of this country keep on warning those in power about the
miseries of people and the disaster it can unfold anytime but to no avail. Is
this the reality that development is not the primary agenda but a mirage shown
to people at the time of elections. This behaviour of politicians and
governments repeatedly going unaccountable has made the process of elections
akin to begging. The only difference between the ‘literal’ begging and ‘political’
begging is that when a beggar asks for money, he/she doesn’t assure you of
anything in return but a political beggar takes you to a tour of development,
showers promises and what not, only for securing his vote bank. The result
however remains the same. The comparison here has not been made to harm the
dignity of those who beg out of poverty and other genuine causes but to un-wrap
the fraudsters in the white but not so clean khadi.
Of late, we are witnessing that now even
the development hardly makes it to the speeches of the candidates contesting an
election. The interests of the larger group, those who vote, those who work day
in and day out in the development of this nation- the working class, the
farmers and of course the urban destitute- the beggars, are repeatedly thrown
in the trash bin. Are we consciously choosing the wrong government? Or our
voting system is not fit for choosing a right government in a multi-party
system? Has the time come for a shift in the voting system from
First-Past-The-Post commonly known as the plurality voting system to a more
inclusive Ranked and Instant Run-Off voting system commonly known as the
Majoritarian voting system? May be, we can design a new voting system- more
inclusive and transparent, only if we acknowledge that the existing one is not
in the interest of the public at large.

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Firdous Ahmad Malik ([email protected]) is Doctoral Fellow, Department of Economics, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh-226025

Maajid Hussain Bhat ([email protected]) is Doctoral Fellow, Department of West Asian Studies Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. Uttar Pradesh