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Trust, Trump and Grumpy Indians

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-03-2017 Manas Chakravarty

Only 35% of people in the US trusted their national government in 2014-15, according to the recently published United Nations’ Human Development Report, 2016, or HDR. That’s even lower than Brazil, whose leaders have been mired in corruption scandals and where 36% of the population said they trusted their government. That low level of trust, well below most of the countries at a similar level of development, may have been a factor in the rise of Donald Trump.

Among the nations with a very high level of human development, the HDR says that South Koreans had even lower levels of trust, with a mere 28% saying they trusted the national government. Small wonder they have lost no time in sacking their president, who is now facing impeachment.

ALSO READ | India ranks 131 on Human Development Index, Norway No.1

That brings us to the interesting question whether low levels of trust in governments could be a reason for the rise of anti-establishment parties in the developed nations?

Consider France, where the attention of the world is focused at the moment. HDR data, taken from Gallup polls, show that only 33% of the French trusted their government. That disaffection may explain the rise of the French far right under Marine Le Pen.

UN’s HDR 2016 shows only 35% people in the US trust their govt. That low level of trust may have been a factor in the rise of Donald Trump

Why are US citizens so distrustful of their government? There are, of course, many reasons, but one of them may be high and rising inequality. Apart from the basic human development index (HDI), the HDR also computes an inequality-adjusted HDI, defined as “A measure of the average level of human development of people in a society once inequality is taken into account. It captures the HDI of the average person in society, which is less than the aggregate HDI when there is inequality in the distribution of health, education and income.” In 2015, the inequality-adjusted HDI score of the US was 0.796. But the value of this inequality-adjusted index was 0.799 in 2010. This means the average level of human development in the US when inequality is taken into account is lower in 2015 than what it was in 2010. That should be enough reason for folks to get angry.

US President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Of course, inequality need not necessarily lead to disaffection, and there may be many other reasons for distrusting the government. More importantly, it needn’t be the right-wing that may benefit from people’s distrust. In Italy, for example, only 26% of the people trust their national government. But the main beneficiary of that distrust has been the comedian Beppe Grillo, the leader of the rather bizarre Five Star movement. In Spain, where only 28% of the population trust their national government, it is the left-wing Podemos that has gained support. In Portugal, where the HDR says the level of trust for the national government was a mere 20% in 2014-15, we now have a leftist coalition. Perhaps all that the low levels of trust show is that anti-establishment sentiment is high and much depends on which group in a country is strong enough to take advantage of the disaffection.

Where does India stand in all this? The HDR says that in 2015, as much as 69% of the people said they trusted the national government. That should be a feather in the cap for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India is a highly unequal society, but it is unlikely that inequality is enough to destabilize any government here

True, India is a highly unequal society, but it is unlikely that inequality is enough to destabilize any government here—we have been used to obscene levels of inequality for millennia. Perhaps what could matter is what the HDR calls “the overall life satisfaction index”, taken from Gallup polls. Between 2006 and 2009, India’s ranking on this score was 5.5 (10 being totally satisfied and 0 being completely unsatisfied); in 2014-15, it was down to 4.3. We Indians seem to be a grumpy lot, less cheerful than the Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Pakistanis whose “overall life satisfaction” indices are all higher than India’s. And we seem to have become grumpier of late. How do we square this with the huge amount of trust in the government? Well, for starters, our level of trust isn’t particularly high for the region. 75% of the Sri Lankans said they trusted their government, as did 76% of Bangladeshis. True, only 46% of Pakistanis trust their government, but even that figure is too high, given what goes on there. And 78% of people in the Central African Republic, at the bottom of the HDI tables and in the throes of a civil war, also display a touching but entirely misplaced trust in their government. A pinch of salt here might come in handy.

India’s ‘overall life satisfaction’ score is lower than her neighbours. And our level of trust in the govt isn’t particularly high for the region either

Perhaps the high level of trust in the government in India is based on hope that the promised “achhe din” are in the offing. In order to keep that trust, there are in particular two yardsticks from the HDR the government needs to keep an eye on. The first one is the metric, “Youth not in school or employment”, defined as the percentage of people aged 15–24 who are not in employment or in education or training. This was a high 27.2% between 2010 and 2014 and needs to change urgently.

And secondly, 80.8% of employment in India is “vulnerable employment”, defined as people engaged as unpaid family workers and own account workers—for the most part, these are poor people eking out a precarious living, with little security. This measure for India is far above the norm for most developing countries and reflects the lack of decent jobs. If the government wishes to keep the high level of trust it currently enjoys, it will have to ensure more jobs and better jobs for the masses.

Manas Chakravarty looks at trends and issues in the financial markets.

Respond to this column at manas.c@livemint.com.

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