In 1976, Indira Gandhi amended the Preamble of the Indian Constitution to insert the words "socialist" and "secular" in the description of the Indian republic. It is not clear to me what she meant by "socialist", but 34 years later, we still don't have a social security system or any kind of safety net for the vast majority of our people. We have a "public distribution system" for essential commodities, that is decrepit and corrupt but is pretty much the only resource for the poor. Our healthcare and education are terrible. We know that Mrs Gandhi, like her father, admired the Soviets, but in what respect, other than autocracy and midnight arrests, did she attempt to emulate them? (Mrs Gandhi made this amendment at the height of the Emergency. She did not choose to remove the word "democratic" from the Preamble, presumably because the Soviet bloc had its own definition of that word, as in "German Democratic Republic" -- the former East Germany. Why change words when you can merely change their meanings?)
The motivation for the above reflections was the recent decontrol of petrol prices. Now, subsidising petrol is the sort of broad-based subsidy that makes no sense to me: it benefits the rich as much as, or more than, the poor. I am all for removing such subsidies. I think we should also be charged more realistic amounts for water, electricity, and other things that we take for granted. I seldom pay more than Rs 5 for parking my car, and usually I pay nothing: our cities could earn huge revenue by just charging parking fees that bear a closer relation to the price of real estate. There is no possible argument for subsidising car owners to this extent.
But the question is, what will we get in return for removing the subsidies? Can the poor be assured of affordable food, good healthcare and education? The government has passed the "Right to Education" act but there is no clarity on how it is to be implemented, and I am worried that the only effect of the act will be to hamstring the existing private schools without providing any alternative. There seems to be zero movement, and indeed zero interest, on any of the other things that an allegedly "socialist" government should be providing to its needy people.
Balancing the budget is all very well, but there is surely no short-term rush for that: if we manage to lift 300 million people out of poverty in the next generation, the government's tax revenues will shoot up too. As George W Bush said, we need to make the pie taller. Besides, there are enough wasteful government schemes that we can trim without hurting millions of people in the process. But I do not for a moment believe that the poor will become magically prosperous via GDP growth alone. Thanks to India's spectacular recent growth, the urban middle class earns ten to fifty times as much as it used to a generation ago; but we remain every bit as stingy in paying servants and workers, haggling for the last rupee. That's not going to change.
Meanwhile, without an education, the poor simply face no better prospects than unskilled labour -- whether in farming, industry, construction or homes -- and no means of fighting exploitation.
So while I am, in theory, happy to pay more for my petrol, I want to know what the government plans to do with my money, other than cut the deficit. Indira Gandhi made "Roti, kapda, makaan" a slogan: a generation or two later, a huge number of Indians lack even those essentials of life. Healthcare and education? Perhaps a century or two from now.