In the last decade or so, we have witnessed that political parties of all stripes have become harder to distinguish in their attitudes towards the large economic trends of our times. Some are self-appointed cheerleaders, others are busy embracing corporate style liberalisation for their backyards, notwithstanding their hypocritical admonition of other parties for doing much the same thing in New Delhi. The Congress itself is apparently leaning to the economic right, but its public pronouncements are customary cliches of the left – ‘pro-poor’, ‘reforms with a human face’, etc. On balance, support for the rhetoric of free markets has found its way into the policies of every political party, and the differences have more to do with method. One might argue that the widening common ground is indicative of the general merit of liberalization – after all, if parties of all economic leanings can identify with it, surely there must be something good in it? Maybe. Still, it is noteworthy that the strongest proponents of free markets are Western nations who developed their relatively greater social equity and economic potential gradually, and having later warmed to liberalization, don’t practice much of it themselves. India and other developing nations, on the other hand, are being forced to adapt to diluted roles for government in the delivery of public goods far more quickly, and with far less preparation to manage the enormous implications. It is one thing for developed nations with substantive per capita incomes and public investments in infrastructure to debate on the future of social security, employment security and health care costs for their relatively better off citizens. It is even natural that some of those debates are likely to attract a left vs right partisanship. But for a developing nation like India, governments must find ways to meet human development goals because it is the democratic thing to do, not because the left or the right says so. In toeing the line from developed nations, we may be acquiring in fast-forward mode the same kind of economic leadership in the political class that some countries in the West have been perfecting for decades. Our mammoth interest in equitable development is being reduced to little more than the sum of the interests of its big businesses, with other considerations subjugated to this formulation. In effect, we are hearing that what’s good for Premji, Ambani, Tata – take your pick from a number of other brand names – must be good for India; and what may be good for 40 million rural workers isn’t. Consumed by this mantra, the states are in virtually unending competition to dole out subsidies of land and tax relief to the already wealthy, in the name of progress. The bottom line appear to be this. We treat entitlements as mere expenditures, and tax waivers to businesses as incentives. All of this reduces to one assessment – reforms are good, but those that are tweaked to be especially free to favoured institutions and lobbies are even better! The rural poor, despite plenty of colourful choices for their political representation, lack an identifiable and powerful constituency in the organized sector to present their needs in terms of the prevailing modus operandi in economic policy-making. The nature of debate and the shackles within the system would perhaps matter less, if the poor themselves mattered more.