Thursday, April 16, 2009

Politics, Good and Bad (April 17, 2009)

The Congress is either in denial or in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

By Swapan Dasgupta

It has become customary for an alienated intelligentsia and sanctimonious editorial class to berate the absence of “real issues” from the election campaign. TV anchors who go gush-gush over Priyanka Gandhi’s sombre pronouncements on brother Rahul’s likely post-poll alliances have habitually snubbed bewildered party spokespersons for failing to rise above something called “petty politics”. Young op-ed writers, fresh out of some American college, have drawn unfavourable comparisons between the discordant din of rival candidates and the focussed approach of their latest poster boy, President Barack Obama. “Why can’t we have leaders like Obama?” is a question often encountered among those who measure success through the per capita distribution of modern shopping malls.

The articulation of dissatisfaction with the culture of politics may leave a lot to be desired. Yet, there is something to be said for those who genuinely believe that Indian democracy is dysfunctional because it is centred on what old-style Marxists loved to call “false consciousness”. The contention is that, unlike some more compact democracies, Indian voters exercise uninformed choice. The assumption is that issues of caste or religious identity and purely local issues have no place in the election of the government at the Centre.

In a strange sort of way, President Bill Clinton’s famous jibe—“It’s the economy, stupid”—has come to personify the ideal, “true consciousness” voters are expected to display while voting. Deviations from this path of “economism” naturally invite the ire of those who have assumed the role of custodians of the national spirit. By this logic, it is “good politics” for parties and voters to be concerned with Singur and Nandigram but “bad politics” to be swayed the nativism of Raj Thackeray and the somewhat tasteless invocation of Hindu interests by Varun Gandhi. As the hoardings in Ranchi sponsored by a Hindi newspaper put it starkly, “Do you want more IITs or more temples?”

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this definition of wholesome politics is accepted, it is instructive to assess the 2009 election campaign in terms of its ability to raise “relevant” issues, i.e. those that have a direct bearing on the material well-being of voters.

On April 11, at a press conference in Bangalore, the chief economic adviser to the Finance Ministry Arvind Virmani asserted that it was “absolutely essential to counter the worst recession in 60 years.” Virmani’s intervention was brutally candid: unlike others in government he used the dreaded R-word quite unequivocally. Hitherto, P.Chidambaram had fallen on the mantra that “the fundamentals of the Indian economy are strong” to brush away the dip in the Sensex and the ever-cautious Pranab Mukherjee had preferred “meltdown” to describe the present economic uncertainties.

Virmani’s admission of a deep recession in India, quite predictably, never made it to the Breaking News of TV news channels. It was discreetly tucked away in the business pages of general newspapers. Likewise, the news that India’s most high-profile IT company Infosys had issued pink slips to 2,100 permanent staff in April didn’t become a big talking point—unlike the proposed dismissal of 1,900 Jet Airways staff last October. True, Infosys cited indifferent performance as the reason behind the dismissals but this looks like a piece of adroit spin. The fact is that all over India there has been a wave of unpublicised job losses and enforced pay cuts. It has generated a wave of fear, experienced by those who have lost jobs and those fearful of losing theirs.

There are no reliable estimates of the quantum of job losses in the past eight months or so. The estimates vary from the laughable government admission of five lakh redundancies to the figure of 1.5 crore put out by the Bharatiya Janata Party in its advertisements. The estimates also don’t take into account the salary cuts and imposition of shorter working week by companies that have seen a loss in business. Nor does it take into account the load-shedding of manpower in the non-organised sectors such as retail and household services. A shopkeeper employing three helpers has quietly let go of one while the executive who was employing a chauffer has been compelled to drive to work himself. And, finally, there is the sharp shrinkage of demand, both skilled and unskilled, in the construction industry.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh enjoys an exaggerated reputation as an economist but he has earned some brownie points for his constant invocation of “inclusive” development. It is, therefore, odd that he has chosen to conveniently gloss over this tragic human problem. The Prime Minister and his party, it would seem, is either living in denial or cloud cuckoo land—trying to obfuscate the problem with ridiculous seven per cent growth projections. Indeed, the denial has merged with insensitivity. A new Congress Party TV appeal and outdoor publicity portrays a burst of energy (josh) as the aam aadmi celebrate the government’s economic success. The misplaced bacchanalia is on par with Marie Antoinette’s advice to eat cake.

Economists are known to be unappreciative of popular concerns. The Prime Minister, it would seem, is no exception. So enmeshed is he in the tax-and-spend culture of a statist party that he saw it fit to denounce, at last week’s interaction with women journalists in Delhi, the BJP’s espousal of a “low tax, low interest rate regime”. With a fiscal deficit that has already touched more than 10 per cent of the GDP and government debt at an unsustainable 80 per cent of the GDP, this was the clearest indication that a future Manmohan-led dispensation will have tax increases high on the agenda.

It is a measure of the opposition’s failure that it has failed to make this “it’s the economy, stupid” election. The BJP was right to hit at Manmohan’s weaknesses through its “strong leader, decisive government” campaign. Where the BJP faltered was in not anticipating that the Congress would cash its media IOUs and launch a full-scale assault on L.K. Advani’s own credentials. At the time of the first phase of polling, a sustained offensive by the Prime Minister, Congress President and the heir apparent has seen the focus shift to the challenger rather than the incumbent.

The Congress has done something quite interesting. On the plea that it is the only party that practises “good politics”, i.e. dwell on development and economic matters, it has mounted an attack on its opponent that is exclusively centred on “bad politics”—the blame game over Kandahar. It has quite deliberately tried to shift the agenda away from the economy, including Advani’s campaign against loot in Swiss banks. For a man who was said to be most comfortable interacting with fellow economists and donnish leaders such as Gordon Brown, the sheer imperatives of political survival has forced Manmohan Singh to fall back on “bad politics”.

If the BJP succeeds in the coming weeks to invoke the subliminal fear of recession in the electorate and highlight its low tax promise, it could yet push the Congress into the back foot. The Prime Minister is innately not strong in political sparring—the reason he shied away from a debate with Advani—but he has been forced into this unlikely role because he is most vulnerable on his area of core competence.

India is suffering from a monumental loss of hope and a slide into pessimism. Quite inexplicably, the opposition isn’t even exploiting this dramatic mood shift.

The Telegraph, April 17, 2009

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