Sunday, May 31, 2009

PM can no longer bask in inaction (May 31, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

If past political conduct is anything to go by, there is a strong case for believing that the Congress leadership took an inordinately long time to decide on the new Council of Ministers because it was buffeted by an infuriating array of pressures that are always difficult to handle. These ranged from alliance compulsions, fierce personal ambitions, community and regional pressures and the overweening desire to have a stake in the so-called ATM ministries.

Despite the large-heartedness with which the baring of fangs was viewed by a country desperate to get back to a semblance of governance, the first hiccups of Manmohan Singh’s second innings indicated that old-style politics is still firmly entrenched. The first statements by the new Law Minister and the HRD Minister also indicated that identity politics is still alive and kicking. The surfeit of English-speaking progenies of the fat cats of yesteryear and the Prime Minister-in-waiting’s two-day-stubble style statement shouldn’t distract from the cynical (or is it reassuring?) belief that it takes more than an election to change the ground rules of Indian politics. As one of the more erudite colonial chroniclers wrote about the attempts to break down the caste system, “ripples on the surface leave the depths unmoved.”

Yet, there is a more charitable view of the quiet kerfuffle that generated countless hours of speculative chatter. And this has to do with the root of the confusion: the uncertainty over the mandate.

It’s a no-brainer to say that Manmohan Singh’s victory was a vote for a stable, five-year Government. But beyond this vote to strengthen the hands of a decent, well-meaning Prime Minister, there is a complete lack of unanimity over what is the mandate. The argument that Indians prefer a middle-of-the-road approach is reassuring but anodyne. It also goes against the grain of the vocal assertion by the babalog brigade that people want a generational change.

The 79-member Team Manmohan makes a mockery of freshness. The real decision-makers are those who cut their teeth in politics in the heydays of either Indira or Rajiv Gandhi. They are experienced but also quite jaded and not normally given to original thought. The wannabe Obamas have been left to grace TV studios and revert to page-3 glamour; they are expected to guard their inheritance, not make policy. Even the completely redundant Ministry of Sports and Youth Welfare escaped their clutches.

Maybe, the “new look” is being kept on hold for the inevitable mid-course transition when the Prime Minister is expected to assume a less exacting responsibility on Raisina Hill. The ambiguity of the mandate may be reflected in the wariness to experiment with impetuosity but it has graver policy implications. The Congress fought and won this election on a basket of issues. There was, of course, the anti-BJP and anti-Third Front dimension of the campaign whose relevance ceased after the results. Then there was the expensive Bharat Nirman campaign which proffered very different imageries ranging from the trip to the moon, modern highways, youthful energy, happy students with computers, smiling peasants and the NREGA. This Indian kaleidoscope was bound together by a stated concern for the aam aadmi.
The triumph of imagery over substance is at the root of the confusion that has gripped the new Government. Many Congress MPs believe, and with good reason too, that the priority to social expenditure in the past five years helped the party ward off anti-incumbency and recover ground among the poorest of the poor. This, coupled with some token minorityism, it is said, was the prime factor behind the Congress reclaiming the social coalition that was lost in the 1990s. The implication is that the new Government must rediscover the legacy of Indira Gandhi with some modifications and press on with ambitious NREGA-type programmes.
The only problem with this triumphant return to big Government socialism is that the requisite resources to fund the creation of an elaborate welfare State may not be as easily available. With the growth rate down sharply from the boom years, a global slowdown, high interest rates, tax collections down and the fiscal deficit at an all-time high, the Government no longer has the elbow room to address all facets of the Bharat Nirman imagery. It has to exercise hard choices — at least till high growth returns.

It is simply a question of resources. A desire to do everything at once will necessitate two measures: sharp tax increases and disinvestment. Any significant tax hikes will further erode competiveness and anger a middle class which voted quite resoundingly for the Congress. Disinvestment, while extremely desirable, is an ideological no-no.

Ironically, it is the successful please-all election campaign that is making choice difficult. Owing to political compulsions the Government has lived in denial, pretending that India was somehow insulated from the global economic crisis. Worse, the political class swallowed this disingenuous piffle with the result that the Government is now faced with unmanageable expectations. The India-lives-in-the-villages poseurs dream of an European-style welfare net with Indian-style leakages; industry wants modest interest rates and infrastructural upgradation; the middle class desire low taxes and aspire for a better quality of life; and the international community wants India to regulate farmers subsidies and carbon emission. All these can’t be met simultaneously.

The easy problem Manmohan faced was deciding who should or should not be a Minister. His most daunting challenge is defining the Government’s priorities. For five years he was the good guy; now the management-by-inaction approach won’t do. Just because the BJP got thrashed in the polls doesn’t make its prescription of “strong leader, decisive Government” any less relevant and desirable.

Sunday Pioneer, May 31, 2009

Friday, May 29, 2009

The winner takes all (May 28, 2009)

An effortless return to the Indira and Rajiv Gandhi era

By Swapan Dasgupta

The extent to which life can be cruel on the loser was best illustrated by the hapless Amar Singh imploring a TV anchor, “Don’t laugh at me.” The occasion was the Samajwadi Party’s gratuitous letter to the president of India offering “unconditional” support to the Manmohan Singh government. The triumphant Congress has so far ignored the gesture. With the second Manmohan Singh government looking more like a Congress government (with some extras thrown in for colour and ethnic flavouring), it is likely that the illusion of single-party dominance is going to become the framework of political discourse for the next few years, or at least until there is a crisis that proves unmanageable. This effortless return to the mental parameters of the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi era may not be a good reflection of ground realities. But resounding post-facto endorsement of the chattering classes for the Ruling Party of India has, unfortunately, never been marked by profundity.

The natural corollary of this winner-takes-all mindset is that after being at the receiving end of some initial mockery and derision, the vanquished will be left to lick their wounds in private, away from the intrusive glare of the media. Both the deflated ministerial aspirants in the Bharatiya Janata Party and the frustrated puppeteers in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) know that they have a lot of listening and explaining to do. But they also know that some perfunctory show of contrition will suffice to defray the immediate frustrations of the foot soldiers. Apparatchiks, particularly those who exist in a cloistered environment of the party offices, know that they can put off exercising hard options by falling back on the need to take a considered decision. Time and events being great healers, a rigorous post-mortem can be shelved indefinitely if the immediate pressure to take remedial action can be averted.

It is paradoxical that despite functioning in a democratic environment, the internal regime of India’s political parties is grounded in committee-room secrecy. This wasn’t always so. Till the late-1960s, the Congress, for example, had a reasonable degree of inner-party democracy. Elections to the All India Congress Committees and their state counterparts were held regularly, and were often fiercely contested. The annual AICC sessions were often marked by speeches that were robustly critical of the government’s policies and the party leadership. Additionally, there were ginger groups such as the Congress Socialist Forum, which played a role in mobilizing the ‘progressive’ wing of the party. Open, rumbustious discussion was also a hallmark of the socialists. Ram Manohar Lohia fought bitter inner-party battles with the likes of Ashoka Mehta, Chandra Shekhar, N.G. Goray and Nath Pai. His flamboyant followers, such as George Fernandes, Raj Narain and Madhu Limaye, were great ones for exercising the ‘change or split’ option.

Communism in India was nominally wedded to the Leninist tradition of party organization that ensured a paramount role of the central committee and politburo — the proverbial vanguard of the vanguard. Yet, and particularly after P.C. Joshi attracted a cream of intellectuals into the party in the mid-1940s, the undivided CPI boasted a vibrant culture of political debate and discussion. The subjects of concern — the class composition of the Indian State and the relevance of ‘bourgeois democracy’ were two all-time favourites — may have been abstruse. There was also an exaggerated reliance on what Lenin ‘himself’ or Mao Zedong may or may not have prescribed, and cravenness before discreet instructions from Moscow. However, despite these constraints, the political ‘line’ was thoroughly dissected at different levels and transmitted both upwards and downwards. The communists moved seamlessly from ‘correctness to correctness’, having internalized the party line with both passion and conviction.

The tradition of political openness received a grave setback after the Congress split of 1969 and the Emergency. The emergence of an all-powerful leader and the dynastic principle meant that decision-making was abrogated to the one and only leader. This may explain the steady stream of regional leaders and social constituencies that felt stifled and broke away from the Congress, never to return. In the 1990s, the Congress suffered three grievous electoral defeats and a complete washout in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal — states that accounted for more than 160 Lok Sabha seats. Yet, apart from one brain-storming session in Panchmarhi, the party did nothing to address the grave problem of political erosion. The Congress recovery in 2004, and the awesome advance in 2009, owed little to any well-considered plan of rejuvenation. It was an outcome of happy circumstances.

Rahul Gandhi has proclaimed his intention of democratizing the Congress, beginning with the Youth Congress. The intention is noble, and suggests that the heir apparent may have cottoned on to the root cause of the decline of political culture — a problem he has tried to circumvent by encouraging the growth of political families. However, the extent to which the Congress sheds sycophancy and reverts to its original moorings will depend on the calibre of its top leadership. It is one thing to promote inner-party democracy in the good times. But bad times often prompt a regression.

Jawaharlal Nehru loved debate because he possessed an intellectual rigour that his successors lacked. Nehru could coexist with the likes of P.D. Tandon and Pandit Sampurnanand because he believed they could be defeated in debate. Indira Gandhi couldn’t countenance the likes of Morarji Desai, K. Kamaraj and Atulya Ghose in the same party because her leadership style was based on manipulation and instruction. She was temperamentally suspicious of leaders with independent standing.

Curiously, it is the BJP which faces a problem not dissimilar to that of the Congress. If the Nehru-Gandhi family acts as an adhesive in the Congress, it is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that plays pope in the BJP. The BJP’s problems have multiplied on two counts. First, the RSS has lost its moral authority and social influence, thanks to its unwillingness to face contemporary realities. Secondly, success in electoral politics has triggered a breakdown of ideological certitudes and added to the charms of aggregative politics. The RSS has tried to hold things together by issuing whimsical three-line whips on organizational and political matters. Diktat has replaced informed choice, and this enforced regimentation has, in turn, stymied the party’s renewal.

After Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, the party’s presidents have lacked the depth to pursue creative politics. Since the defeat in 2004, the BJP has more or less shed all pretence of inner-party debate, not least because the RSS minders and their chosen nominees have lacked the calibre and self-assurance to handle challenges. After the May 16 defeat, there is a strong possibility that a beleaguered RSS may insist on eschewing all debate altogether and settling for greater control. If that happens, the future of the BJP may be bleak.

Restoring the credibility of politics and the political class is a national challenge. As democracy evolves and strikes deep roots, more and more people would want a say in how parties behave and who they project. The Primary was once an American quirk, but it has now become crucial to the British system as well. In India, people are offered choices on election day, but have no say in determining the shortlist. No wonder stories of the sale of party tickets abound. To strengthen the quality of democracy and the efficacy of political parties, a system of constant interaction involving the top and the bottom is imperative. David Cameron’s reinvention of the British Conservative Party suggests a possible way. It is time the political culture incorporated the argumentative Indian.

The Telegraph, May 28, 2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Vanquished In The Rear-View Mirror (May 30, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

AMONG THE more fascinating features of an Indian election is the fact that the writing on the wall isn’t apparent till after the event. This was as true in 1971 and 1984 as it was last week when the electronic voting machines revealed a clear mandate in favour of the Congress-led UPA. If the BJP didn’t expect to be mauled in two successive elections, the Congress never imagined the electorate would give it a firm thumbs up after five years of indifferent governance. But while the winner can afford the luxury of post-facto smugness, the loser suffers grievously from the hangover of miscalculated triumphalism.

It is natural for the defeated to get into a tizzy over what went wrong. It is also customary for the vanquished to focus less on what the other side did right and more on what it did wrong. Wisdom in hindsight, convulsions and recriminations are the inevitable consequence of political defeat. It happens in all democracies.

For the BJP, the defeat in 2009 is qualitatively different from its unexpected failure in 2004. The failure in 2004 was a shock but it was perceived by the party as a fluke defeat caused by one wrong campaign slogan and over-confidence. The post-mortem exercise that followed was, consequently, perfunctory and superficial. There were no real corrective steps because there was no feeling that there was a fundamental problem — an impression bolstered by the series of victories in state Assembly elections. The party lived in denial, looked for signs of the UPA’s premature death and convinced itself the electorate would rectify its 2004 error at the earliest.

The results of Election 2009 have shattered this self-delusion. Unlike 2004, this was a conclusive verdict for the Congress- led UPA and against both the BJP-led NDA and the Third and Fourth formations. Apart from Bihar, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Assam and, to a lesser extent, Gujarat, there was a national swing in favour of the UPA. Compared to 2004, the BJP lost ground to the Congress in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. Its national tally was a notch below its 1991 level. The incremental gains the BJP made under Atal Behari Vajpayee between 1996 and 1999 were decisively lost.

In social terms, the message for the BJP was quite devastating. First, there was definite evidence that the BJP’s stranglehold over upper caste Hindus had been significantly eroded by the Congress advance in the Hindi heartland. The Congress, in fact, appears to be regaining its old social coalition of upper castes, dalits and Muslims.

Secondly, the loss of urban seats which the BJP viewed as a function of over-confidence in 2004 was even more marked in 2009. In 2004, the BJP lost in the metros (except Bengaluru) but held on to the cities elsewhere. This time, not only have the metros (Bengaluru apart) rejected the BJP—in Delhi the Congress polled over 50 per cent of the votes—but the party lost Jaipur and Bareilly, seats it has won since 1989, and Kanpur. It has clung on to Indore and Bhopal with wafer-thin majorities.

The middle classes were once the mainstay of the BJP. Indeed, it used to be taunted earlier as a middle class, urban party. In this election, the BJP has seen its middle class fall steeply — a situation it encountered only once before, in 1984.

Finally, the BJP has seen a complete decimation of its standing in the youth. This is not merely on account of LK Advani’s octogenarian status. For the past 10 years, the BJP has not conducted itself in a way that suggests it is accommodating towards the post-market economy generation and responsive to its impulses. On the other hand, despite the nominal presence of the septuagenarian Manmohan Singh at the helm, the Congress went out of its way to demonstrate its partiality for fresh, young faces. In hindsight, it would seem that Rahul Gandhi’s series of meetings in colleges, particularly outside the metros, and the media’s fascination with the young inheritors who were elected to the Lok Sabha in 2004 paid handsome dividends. Despite being a dynastic outfit, the Congress ended up as more appealing to the youth. The BJP by contrast seemed completely hidebound and unresponsive.

Unfortunately for the party, this impression is likely to be strengthened by the Parliamentary Board decision to reanoint Advani as the Leader of Opposition. There may be good reasons why a knee-jerk response to a defeat had to be avoided. However, to the average Indian, the imperatives of taking a “considered decision” are likely to be misread as unresponsiveness to popular sentiment.

If it is to survive as a national party and an alternative to the Congress, the BJP cannot afford to brush the implications of a second defeat under the carpet. The familiar explanations centred on injudicious candidate selection, local antiincumbency and tactical blunders during the campaign are no doubt relevant but they don’t address the basic problem of a larger loss of momentum. The BJP isn’t exciting today’s voters in the same way it did in the 1990s.

A Pavlovian response to setbacks is to fall back on certitudes. Already there are whispers that the BJP erred in deviating from the path of assertive Hindutva — the factor said to be responsible for the muted involvement of the larger Sangh Parivar in the election campaign. The problem with such an approach is that it only addresses the concerns of the committed, not the average voter. It skirts a larger question: has “modern” India tired of identity politics?

Advani was one thing till 1996, another in government and a third thing after the Jinnah controversy

The answer seems self-evident. Apart from the 2002 Gujarat Assembly election which was fought in exceptional circumstances, all elections in India have been won or lost on the strength of normal issues such as development, antiincumbency and even personalities. This includes Narendra Modi’s win in Gujarat 2007, Lalu Yadav’s defeat in Bihar and Mayawati spectacular triumph in Uttar Pradesh. Identity politics may be a factor in patches but it is on the retreat nationally. True, this may abruptly change following some dramatic occurrence but this seems to be the trend.

To a very large extent, the BJP has acknowledged this. Since 1998, it has fought all national elections on conventional political lines, without raising the emotional temperature. Unfortunately, it is burdened by the countervailing pulls and pressures of a small unreconstructed minority that exaggerates its own importance and influence.

Orissa is a classic example of how irrational exuberance leads to strategic miscalculations. Naveen Patnaik broke his alliance with the BJP because he was exasperated by the image of incoherence his administration was conveying as a result of the inflammatory posturing of a few BJP hotheads. In a sense, his problem was not dissimilar to Manmohan Singh’s problems with the Left and the Samajwadi Party. By mistaking its own cadre’s dissatisfaction with Patnaik for the public mood, it tried to box above its weight and ended up looking very foolish after the results were out.

DESPITE THE Congress advance, there is vast political space available for those who are inclined towards a Right-of-Centre approach grounded in alternative policy formulations. Of course, Hindu nationalism cannot be discounted altogether. But the question is the strategic weight given to identity vis-à-vis governance issues. The BJP has made an encouraging start with a manifesto that promotes deregulation, low taxation and a zero tolerance approach to terrorism. These are planks that take time to register with the electorate. The party has to persevere. In the past five years, the BJP was disdainful of parliamentary intervention and casual about projecting alternative policies. Its bizarre emphasis on “nationwide agitations” that never took off and Mickey Mouse issues have cast it in an ugly light.

With the government likely to last a full term, the BJP has time to reflect and take remedial steps. It will need new faces to promote it. The choice should reflect the future priorities and direction. Advani was one thing till 1996, another thing in government and a third thing after the Jinnah controversy. His inconsistencies epitomised the waywardness of the BJP. His successors must be consistent.

The BJP will always be politically significant; the coming days will determine whether or not it remains relevant.

Tehelka, VI (21), May 30, 2009

Why Rahul charmed voters

By Swapan Dasgupta

In December 1984, Rajiv Gandhi secured by far the most categorical endorsement from the Indian voter. The landslide victory was described by many as the ‘sympathy wave’ that arose from Indira Gandhi’s assassination. However, chroniclers also noted that the grief over Indira’s death was accompanied by an expectation of change. Rajiv, it was clear even during the campaign, was different from the run-of-the-mill khadi-wearing Congress leader. His idiom was markedly different, and even anti-political in many respects. As Arun Singh, his close associate with whom he fell out subsequently, put it evocatively, Rajiv symbolised the coming of age of the “Beatles generation”.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Some 25 years after Rajiv’s famous victory, it is tempting to see parallels with the just concluded Lok Sabha poll. True, the mandate for the Congress is nowhere as categorical and the party’s candidate for the top job is far removed from all manifestations of youthfulness. Yet, it is undeniable that the crucial swing votes which enabled the Congress to win more than 200 seats on its own came from two sections that are in the frontline of change and modernity: The middle classes and the youth. The inference is that, as in 1984, the Congress received an endorsement both for the present and for the future.

Disaggregated surveys will reveal the magnitude of ‘modern’ India’s support for Congress but the instant conclusion is that Rahul Gandhi helped tilt the balance in favour of the incumbent. His energy and willingness to take risks complemented the note of reassurance provided by Manmohan Singh. These considerations will weigh heavily on the Congress when it charts its future course.

To reduce the appeal of Rajiv in his prime and Rahul in this election to merely a function of age would be unduly simplistic. The Congress didn’t field that many ‘young’ candidates this election. Most of its candidates were tried and tested political functionaries-in fact often the very ones who received a drubbing in the 1990s. In Delhi, where the party registered its most categorical victory, only two of its seven candidates corresponded to the so-called new look and both had tasted their first parliamentary victory in 2004. In Uttar Pradesh, where the party recorded a spectacular advance, its victorious candidates were mostly old political hands. There were about five exceptions.

This is not to suggest that the impact of Rahul in this election has been exaggerated. Rahul, it would seem, bolstered one of the main attributes of the Prime Minister: He enhanced the decency quotient of the Congress.
The association of decency with the Congress may seem quite galling for a generation that still remembers the Emergency, the high-handedness of Sanjay Gandhi, the brazen cover-up that was attempted during the Bofors controversy and the bribery of MPs that occurred during Narasimha Rao’s regime. To this may be added the wheeling-dealing that took place during the trust vote last July.

Why were these misdeeds of the Congress overlooked in the 2009 poll? One of the obvious answers is the moral equivalence drawn between the Congress and BJP. The BJP, which was once noted for its disciplined dedication, was perceived to be as much a problem as the old guard of the Congress. The Congress’ integrity quotient didn’t rise; the BJP's fell dramatically in the past decade.

If there was a dismal but level playing field between the Congress and the BJP on the integrity front, the Congress stole a march over its rival on the decency front. Manmohan came across as upright but politically somewhat innocent, and Rahul’s appeal was his energy and earnestness. This doesn’t imply that LK Advani was viewed as being disreputable. Advani commanded respect but it was a veneration that was befitting the family patriarch. The BJP’s “majboot neta” campaign would have been spot on if voters saw the election as a presidential contest involving Manmohan and Advani. Unfortunately for the BJP, the people not only voted for their today but also their tomorrow. On the latter count, the BJP didn’t have a message. The idea of a Resurgent India which the BJP successfully sold in the 1990s was lost in transmission this century.

This disconnect owes quite substantially to the party’s low decency quotient. The fact is that there is something in the overall ethos of the BJP which argues against a new common sense that has developed in India. The BJP has not fought any election on the basis of assertive Hindu nationalism since 1996. Its best victories were won on the strength of bread-and-butter issues of stability, development and anti-incumbency. Gujarat 2002 was the only exception. Despite this, the party has come to be associated with menacing communalism of the Ram Sena and Kandhamal varieties and tasteless hate speeches. Against this, Rahul’s innocent earnestness and desire to “do good to people” has been preferred. The BJP has been seen to be caricatured politicians cast in the 1990s mould; Rahul and Manmohan are viewed as non-politicians and, therefore, more decent.

But the Congress isn’t the only beneficiary of being more responsive to the new common sense. In Orissa, Naveen Patnaik has redefined the calculus of electoral politics on the strength of his personality. After a decade in power, Patnaik’s command over the vernacular remains halting and his Government's achievements are modest compared to, say, Gujarat. But Patnaik exudes sincerity, epitomises personal integrity and, despite his ruthless streak, doesn’t correspond to people’s mental image of the ugly politician. He personifies the blend of sincerity, uprightness and humility that voters have found irresistible.

These are also the qualities the people upheld in 1984 and have reaffirmed once again in 2009. With Rajiv, the euphoria proved woefully short-lived and triggered the Mandir-Mandal backlash. If the Manmohan-Rahul experiment falters, the reactions could well be equally spirited.

Sunday Pioneer, May 24, 2009

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Congress won conclusively (May 17, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is a facile explanation that many of those who neither anticipated nor wished for a Congress victory in the general election may fall back on. It goes something like this: the Congress and UPA surge was contributed by its spectacular successes in Kerala, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu where its principal opponent was either the Left or another constituent of the ramshackle Third Front. The implication is that the NDA by and large held its ground.

Such an explanation would be an exercise in complete self-delusion. The harsh reality which should be obvious to all is that the Congress won the match quite conclusively. The formal numbers may suggest that the pre-poll UPA will need some outside help to cross the 272 barrier but this nominal under-achievement does not distract from the magnitude of the Congress’ achievement. There was a national swing to the Congress and India is posed for a stable government which, barring some intentional act of self-destruction, should last a full term.

The NDA has not merely fallen significantly below its own psephological expectations; it has been rejected by the electorate. Perhaps the rejection is not quite so categorical as that suffered by the Left and the partners of the Third Front (with the honourable exception of Naveen Patnaik). But this is really a debate about whether a 80 run defeat is worse than an innings defeat. After the 1991 election, The Economist had a report entitled, “The winner came second”, testifying to the BJP’s surge and its ability to dominate the agenda. This time there is not even pretence of a moral victory. The winner has taken it all.

In the coming days, debate in the BJP is certain to centre on the question: what went wrong? Such a debate is not only necessary but welcome. Unfortunately, past experience suggests that the discussions often veer in the direction of the peripherals. There will be hand-wringing over the “internal sabotage” in Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand; speculation over why Om Prakash Chauthala rather than Bhajan Lal was chosen as the coalition partner in Haryana; mutterings over whimsical choice of candidates in some seats of Uttar Pradesh; and the inevitable back-biting over the campaign in the mass media.

It is not that these concerns are unwarranted. However, presuming that everything had turned out perfectly, the BJP and NDA would, at best, have improved its tally only marginally by, say, 15 seats. It wouldn’t have made any material difference to the outcome. Voters, it must be remembered, aren’t automatically swayed by the same concerns as activists.

In undertaking a post-mortem, it is important to not lose sight of the big picture. The BJP and NDA lost because voters found the Congress a more appealing prospect. The question then arises: was because the Congress did something right and the BJP something wrong? Or was it because the BJP did more things wrong than the Congress?

To be fair, the Congress didn’t run a particularly inspiring campaign. It was wracked by confusion over allies, inconsistent messaging and the burden of an economic slowdown and nervousness over the country’s security. Against these, it had certain definite plus points. First, it is prudent to recognise that the “weak” versus “strong” debate helped the Prime Minister and enabled him to play on his image of innate decency. Secondly, the Rahul-Priyanka duo gave dynastic politics a fresh lease of life by focussing on wholesome youth power. This was contrasted to the media’s mischievous association of the BJP with hate speech.

There were two important constituencies the BJP failed to attract in this election: the middle classes and the youth. Both these segments were crucial in ensuring the party’s performance in 1998 and 1999.

It may be unfair to blame the projection of L.K. Advani as the reason for this failure. The so-called age factor was neutralised by the projection of Manmohan Singh by the Congress. And Advani brought a large measure of unity in the party. What was not neutralised was the overall image problem of the BJP—as a party that is backward-looking, too shrill and insufficiently attentive to contemporary concerns.

Arguably, such a regressive image of the party may be a consequence of media-generated “false consciousness”. But the fact remains that this perception has percolated down to a very large section of the population. And the BJP has done precious little to counter it.

In the wake of defeat, there is always a strong temptation to retreat into a back-to-the-basics shell. This is based on the foolish belief that people didn’t vote for a party because it wasn’t sufficiently pure. The belief is as ridiculous as the suggestion that the Soviet Union fell because it wasn’t adequately socialist!

The BJP’s problem is ideological but not in the way the votaries of identity politics see it. Its lapses stem from a non-application of mind to contemporary issues such as economic and strategic policy—witness its indifferent performance in Parliament for five years. Where themes of governance have been meaningfully addressed, the BJP has done well. But this has been at the state level. At the national level, image has come back to haunt the party—a problem compounded by leaders who believe it is more important to please activists rather than be responsive to ground realities.

After two consecutive election defeats, the BJP may be confronted by a problem of relevance. It has to either reinvent itself or suffer the ignominy of steady marginalisation. The loss of all seven seats in Delhi by huge margins is a pointer to the price the party has to pay for its refusal to keep pace with the realities of a new India.

Sunday Pioneer, May 17, 2009

This verdict will force leaders to think nationally (May 17, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

For a country confronted by two formidable challenges—an economic downturn of colossal proportions and a security threat stemming from a turbulent neighbourhood—the outcome of the general election is reassuring for two reasons. First, the election has led to a stable government that will not have to succumb endlessly to the irritations of coalition politics and the threat of a mid-term breakdown; and secondly, it has produced a broad national mandate and not been reduced to a clumsy aggregate of different state elections.

The second point is particularly significant in view of the fears that the idea of India was not being translated into political reality. The election result should go some way towards forcing our leaders to be mindful of regions but also think nationally.

Regardless of the fact that there was no outright majority for any pre-poll alliance, Election 2009 was an unqualified victory for the Congress. Contrary to initial fears of greater political fragmentation, the Congress has succeeded in renewing itself quite spectacularly. It has won seats from all corners of the country and its gamble of distancing itself from regional players with personalised agendas has paid handsome dividends. Its decision to persist with Prime Minister’s image of innate decency has proved a success, as has been its emphasis on the youth vote. In hindsight, the decision to have no truck with the Left was applauded by the people of West Bengal and Kerala. No wonder, Mamata Banerjee was unquestionably the woman of the match.

In 2004, the Congress didn’t win the election, the BJP lost it. Election 2009 is the nearest India has come to a positive mandate since Atal Bihari Vajpayee won the day in 2009. With an estimated nine per cent swing in its favour, the Congress will be justified in treating the verdict as its victory.

Predictably, a mandate of this nature comes with onerous responsibilities. Spared the torture of having to constantly accommodate sectional demands, the new government has no choice but to perform. Having won the “weak” versus “strong” debate conclusively—the PM’s contribution to the victory should not be underestimated—Manmohan Singh must now live to the faith reposed in him and actually exercise the tough options. Will he take steps to curb a fiscal deficit that has become unmanageable? Will he inject a sense of urgency into the security establishment so that terrorists, and not citizens, become the hunted? The voters have been very generous to an incumbent government which allowed too many things to drift in the past five years. But the season for excuses ended on Saturday afternoon.

This has been a terrible election for the BJP. It is not merely that a truncated NDA performed worse than in 2004 but that two consecutive general election defeats has shown up its shortcomings more starkly. The BJP was lax about reading the writing on the wall in 2004 and lulled itself into believing that anti-incumbency would do the trick. It tried to juggle between the imperatives of a modern party with a strong policy thrust and the comforts of old certitudes. The end result was an identity crisis that led to the loss of allies, its absence from a large swathe of India and the truncation of a hitherto reliable middle class vote. In the 1990s, the BJP was the natural party of the youth; today the Congress is the beneficiary of India’s demographic transformation. The party must ask why the children of BJP voters aren’t comfortable voting for the BJP.

After the 2004 defeat, the BJP desisted from asking the hard political questions that arise after a defeat. The belief that organisational consolidation alone can secure victory is self-deluding. The party’s surge in the 1990s and the Congress’ awesome performance in Uttar Pradesh weren’t on account of organisation. Voters are moved by politics. In the process a ramshackle organisation gets thrown up. The BJP must once again ask the question it once addressed but has conveniently forgotten to ask of late: is it content to being a sectional player or does it want to be a serious contender for power?

If it wants to be a serious challenger to the Congress in the coming years, the party would avoid preaching to the converted. There is a vast constituency in India that is instinctively uncomfortable with the “Congress culture”. Yet, it is uneasy with a party that shows a lack of intellectual depth, shows inconsistency (as on the nuclear deal) and is perceived to be preoccupied with peripheral issues.

As a democracy, India needs both a strong government and a robust opposition. Unfortunately, this election has only thrown up only one of these. Fortunately, even that is a huge step forward.

Sunday Times of India, May 17, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A lot at stake (May 15, 2009)

Four years have heightened the Left's parliamentary ambition

By Swapan Dasgupta

The short interregnum between the final round of polling and the declaration of results is usually the occasion for speculation, grandstanding and some day-dreaming. This year, the activity in Lutyens’ Delhi, while conveying a sense of frenzied purposefulness, is markedly unfocused. There is genuine nervousness in the major political parties over the likely outcome on May 16, a tension that has only increased with the release of sharply conflicting exit polls. Yesterday’s political rivals are no doubt in contact with each other but serious negotiations over coalition-building for a new government have been shelved pending the declaration of results.

There are, depending on political preferences and anecdotal evidence, sharp disagreements over what the electronic voting machines will reveal on Saturday morning. Yet, curiously, there is one feature of the coming 15th Lok Sabha that has become conventional wisdom: the belief that the combined tally of the four Left parties — the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc — will be considerably lower than the 60 they won in 2004. It is understood, and even conceded by Left loyalists, that the Left will probably lose a majority of Kerala’s 19 seats and will definitely record a slippage in West Bengal — it is only the quantum of the setback that is in doubt. If exit polls are anything to go by, the Left presence in the new Lok Sabha may not cross 40 or even 35 members of parliament.

In the old days, before the proceedings of every politburo meeting were minutely scrutinized in the media, the Left viewed its parliamentary intervention as a small diversion from the more pressing task of building the party organization and organizing the “toiling masses”. Elections were seen as an occasion to spread the message and Parliament the forum to make political points and expose the bourgeois parties. I recall a present politburo member telling a social gathering in the late-1990s, “In the CPI(M), the first-raters work in the organization; the second-raters go to Parliament.”

Unlike the CPI, which was more accommodating towards “parliamentary cretinism”, the CPI(M) was very clear in its mind that there was no question of participating in a government where the Left didn’t have the decisive say. This was the ideological justification for the party’s categorical refusal to allow Jyoti Basu to become the prime minister of the Congress-backed United Front government in 1996.

It is important to recognize that while the CPI(M) hasn’t quite admitted its “Himalayan blunder” in 1996, it has certainly travelled some distance in accommodating its parliamentary wing. During the United Progressive Alliance regime, the Left didn’t enter the government, but it ensured that a host of fellow-travellers were generously accommodated in important posts and positions, particularly those under the purview of the human resource development ministry. Somnath Chatterjee was given permission to be Speaker, but this was an exception. For its members, the CPI(M) preferred a more informal role, such as Sitaram Yechuri’s involvement in back-channel diplomacy with the Maoists in Nepal.

It is conceivable that had relations with the Congress not soured over the passage of the Indo-US nuclear agreement, the CPI(M) may have inched a little in the direction of the pre-1977 CPI. However, the sense of betrayal felt by the general secretary, Prakash Karat, at the Congress’s refusal to accommodate its “anti-imperialism” agenda has resurrected the latent anti-Congressism of the party. Yet, Karat’s priorities were not universally shared, particularly by some of the party veterans. For people such as Chatterjee, and maybe even Jyoti Basu, a meaningful understanding with the Congress was reminiscent of the united front against fascism that had inspired communists in the 1940s. This nostalgia was in sharp contrast to those like Karat, who felt that the Bharatiya Janata Party was a spent force and that the CPI(M) should devote its energies in forging a united front with non-Congress regional parties. Such an understanding would go a long way in undermining the importance of national parties and give the Left the requisite space to play a role disproportionate to its level of support.

There are two features of the CPI(M)’s present preoccupation with forging a “non-Congress secular government” at the Centre that are intriguing. First, it suggests that the four-year cohabitation with the Congress, far from lowering the party’s parliamentary ambitions, has, in fact, heightened it. Although the CPI(M) deftly used a measure of double-speak to create fissures in the Congress-Trinamul Congress alliance in West Bengal — a trap that the gullible Rahul Gandhi fell headlong into — Karat and his Left Front partners have been unwavering in their determination to give the Congress a run for its money after May 16. It is a measure of the Left Front’s determination that it is actually contemplating a meeting of the third front on May 17, followed by a joint delegation to meet the president. Such purposefulness in government-formation is not normally associated with the Left.

Second, the burst of activity around the third front has a more cynical objective. In normal conditions, the sharp fall in the Left’s tally would have provoked anger within and derision without. Drubbing by voters would also have been regarded as the rejection of the political line of the general secretary. By diverting the national debate into the possible future role of the Left — will it back a Congress-led government or will it stick to a third-front-or-nothing approach? — the CPI(M) has successfully put the focus away from the erosion of its moral authority to dictate the course of politics. By right, the Left should be in disgrace after May 16 — any other party leadership would have a lot of explaining to do — but, instead, it is readying to punch above its weight.

The extent to which it succeeds will, of course, depend on the totality of the results. For the Left, the ideal scenario would be a Congress slide, the emergence of the BJP as the number one party but without the requisite allies to go beyond, say, 210 MPs. This would enable it to rally the existing third front (or third alternative as J. Jayalalithaa prefers to call it), perhaps add a partner or two, and more or less browbeat the Congress into extending it outside support on the spurious secularism plank. Its worst nightmare would be a buoyant Congress, which breaks the third front and forces the Left to either repeat the 2004-2008 experiment or retreat into strategic abstention from the Opposition benches.

A contributory factor in the Left’s decision-making would be its performance in West Bengal. If the Congress-TMC alliance exceeds the Opposition’s best performance in 1984 of winning 16 of the 42 seats, there will be strong pressure from Alimuddin Street to break the mahajot at all costs by cosying up to the Congress. Rahul Gandhi has already indicated a willingness to leave the Congress local unit in the lurch and reforge a partnership with the Left. A section of the CPI(M) too has signalled its willingness to abandon the third front experiment after the election.

Over the past three days, as uncertainty mounts in New Delhi, a few Congressmen are considering the possibility of a chastened politburo and central committee delivering a snub to Karat. This may well be wishful thinking, but even Karat must know that he is going to have a torrid time unless he can demonstrate that his third-front-first approach has a brighter future than the anti-Congressism of the BJP. It is Karat’s future that will also be on the line on May 16.

The Telegraph, May 15, 2009

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Congress left to Left's mercy (May 10, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Ever since the heir apparent made a complete dog’s breakfast of his party’s avowed strategy at a press conference in Delhi last Tuesday morning, the Congress has been compelled to wage war on two fronts.

The first, naturally, is the battle on the ground for votes and seats. The second, unfortunately for it, is a desperate rearguard battle to allay two parallel perceptions. First, that it is an untrustworthy and selfish ally, forever willing to kick colleagues when they are down. Secondly, that it is terribly jittery about emerging as either the single-largest party or the largest pre-poll combine—the two yardsticks the President may use to decide who will have the first throw of the dice. The hapless Veerappa Moily may shout himself hoarse proclaiming that the Congress on its own will win 180 seats—Kapil Sibal added 20 more to the tally—but after Rahul Gandhi’s open appeal to all migratory birds to park in the family zoo there are concerns of the Congress’ initial over-confidence being unwarranted. It is, for example, noteworthy that the party quietly withdrew the triumphalist Jai Ho campaign before the fourth phase of voting and the blunderbuss Moily as spokesman before the announcement of results.

The extent to which Rahul’s gaffes will influence the voting preferences of the aam aadmi is debatable. Information in India takes a long time to percolate down and, if reports of the voting in Delhi are anything to go by, the Congress hasn’t been too adversely affected. However, Rahul’s remarks are certain to have a bearing on how non-Congress parties, particularly its other partners in the erstwhile UPA, view the Congress. The Congress is suffering from a trust deficit.

The past five days, for example, has seen the revival of talk of a Congress-Left cooperation in the formation of the next government. Those who were only too willing to denounce the Left as backward looking and ideologically hidebound in the aftermath of last July’s Trust Vote have begun singing the virtues of a “secular” alliance to keep the BJP out of power. Last Thursday night, the affable Sitaram Yechuri was more or less accused by a rather shrill anchor of a TV talk show of facilitating a Hindutva government led by L.K. Advani and Narendra Modi.

The pressure on the Left to once again play ball with the Congress is certain to increase in the coming days. That there are those in the Left who want the CPI(M) to play the part of the CPI in the early years of Indira Gandhi is not in doubt. Left-leaning notables and academics who were recipients of the UPA Government’s patronage in the past five years would like nothing better than to see Prakash Karat kiss and make up with Manmohan Singh and the Gandhi family. Rahul’s identification of a “common space” which will enable a Congress-Left cooperation has been cited as evidence of the Congress’ return to secular realism. The pressure is on for the Left to reciprocate at its Politburo meeting on May 18.

To what extent can the Left accommodate the Congress desire to have five more years of a coalition led by it? If Karat is to be believed, the Left is determined to usher a non-Congress, secular government. His talks with Naveen Patnaik last Friday afternoon was apparently centred on the need to draw Sharad Pawar into the Third Front. But is this the last word?

For the moment it would seem so. The Left nurtures a deep sense of betrayal after hving supported Manmohan’s government for four years. It made relatively little demands on the government—certainly nothing compared to what the Samajwadi Party wanted in the seven months of its honeymoon with the Congress—and even allowed economic policies it disagreed with fundamentally. On the Indo-US nuclear deal it was, however, unwilling to budge. The Left believes the Congress was guilty of deception. The charge may be exaggerated but the Left believes its own rhetoric. Hence its determination to teach the Congress a lesson it won’t forget in a hurry.

The trust deficit between the Congress and Left over the nuclear deal is compounded by CPI(M) understanding of political trends. The Left believes that national parties are slowly but definitely on the decline and that the ensuing vacuum is being filled up by regional parties which are broadly centrist and secular. The Left believes that its greatest chance of influencing the direction of Indian politics is to work with these regional forces and provide them the articulation and ideological compass.

The Left has fought the 2009 election with the understanding that its presence in the 15th Lok Sabha will be considerably less than in the preceeding House. That is not a cause of worry for it. What matters to it is the influence it will have in a future government. It does not need any rocket science to predict that the Left impact will be greater in a Third Front-led government than in a coalition led by the Congress. The Left fears the natural hegemonism of the Congress; it has no fears of any one party dominating a short-lived Third Front government propped up by the Congress. The calculation is that every election will witness shrinkage of the Congress and BJP.

The Left will bat for a Third Front government till the bitter end. If it can’t get its way, it would prefer to sit in the Opposition (though this may be coupled with strategic abstentions)..

The only thing that may prompt a review is if the 2009 verdict reveals a significant growth of the BJP. If the BJP is seen to be not on the decline, as was initially thought, the heirs of S.A. Dange and Mohit Sen will get a new lease of life. Karat’s success depends on both national parties registering an indifferent performance.

Sunday Pioneer, May 10, 2009

Britain gets that sinking feeling, yet again (May 10, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Nostalgia can be terribly uplifting. Yet those who experienced life in London in the 1970s have reasons to look back with mixed feelings. There was, of course, an exhilarating personal freedom. But this was coupled with fears: fear of high inflation, fear of a shrinking currency, fear of yet more taxes and, for my British friends, the fear of unemployment.

The 1970s was the first decade Britain tasted the everyday consequences of decline. The experience left it scarred. In one generation a nation which built the world’s largest empire and resolutely defied Hitler was transformed into an assembly of moaning minnies, a transformation that withstood Margaret Thatcher’s brave attempt to put the “Great” back into Britain. In hindsight, both Thatcher and her New Labour inheritor did their country a disservice: they created a delusion of recovery and delayed the realisation of the relegation to the second division.

The ongoing global recession has traumatised Britain more profoundly than at point in living memory. It is not merely that people have realised that the value of their homes and pensions are nowhere near what they imagined it to be and that more jobs are disappearing than are being created. Particularly galling for a country that has deftly managed to punch above its weight is the realisation that it may have to go begging to the International Monetary Fund—a prerogative of disaster zones such as Zimbabwe.

The harsh reality today’s born-again Keynesians stubbornly refuse to recognise is that countries like Britain are living well beyond their means, on borrowed money. British government borrowing this year is likely to be £175 billion or nearly 80 per cent of the GDP. By the time Gordon Brown—another economist Prime Minister—is voted out, he would have left behind a collective debt of £1.3 trillion. It is estimated that interest payments by the government will soon exceed spending on education and defence. As a feeble bid to narrow the deficit, the government has unleashed a pathetic class war—50 per cent tax on high incomes.

There is no inclination on the part of a socialist government to tighten its belt. It is politically imprudent to tell voters that the country can’t afford exorbitant funding of welfare, not unless the cake gets bigger. This was the harsh message Thatcher delivered in the 1980s and for which she earned the visceral hatred of the liberal intelligentsia. Brown can’t now tell voters that she was right after all.

The unpalatable fact is that Britons, like other Europeans, have developed lifestyles and consumption patterns that are excessive, wasteful, and unsustainable. If binge drinking in pubs and expensive holidays were curtailed, a mid-income family would probably have the cushioning to spend on private education and health insurance. State welfare has lowered the incentives for responsible consumption. British Indians have outperformed their native counterparts because they have practice moderation and uphold the family—Victorian values that today’s Britain despises.

Since they discovered the welfare state as an alternative to Soviet-style Communism, socialists have successfully spread the message that a “caring state” is more important than either families or social communities. In Britain, the state intrudes into every sphere of life from healthcare and education to providing unemployment benefits and pensions. It even tries to prescribe social attitudes. The result is a gargantuan bureaucracy and government spending that equals half the GDP of an economy that shrunk 3.5 per cent last year.

Britain is approaching an economic nightmare. But it is curious that its tax-and-spend profligacy is the ideal of those who tom-tom “inclusive growth” in India. Last week, Rahul Gandhi admitted that 90 per cent of welfare spending is frittered away in waste and corruption. However, rather than balk at this outrage both he and his economist Prime Minister have preferred a bigger role for government over more incentives to individuals and families. The PM doesn’t believe that a low tax regime is a moral imperative of good governance; to him good economics is mega spending.

In comparative terms, India is still a notch below Britain in both prosperity and economic promiscuity. But if a fragile and self-serving coalition assumes power after May 16, increases budgetary expenditure dramatically—which it surely will do—and adds to the already unsustainable fiscal deficit, Indians may once again experience that sinking feeling of the 1970s. The entrepreneur-driven national exuberance of a year ago may well be subsumed by a sense of helpless decline.

Actually, it will be worse than Blighty. The British state is well-meaning but bloated, plodding and intrusive; India’s will be uncaring, inefficient, corrupt and increasingly criminal.

Sunday Times of India, May 10, 2009

Sunday, May 03, 2009

India living beyond means (May 3, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

For the past 10 days or so, political circles in Delhi have been reporting the abrupt emergence of two new issues in the election campaign: the steep rise in school fees and the jump in the retail price of sugar. In short, what began as a lofty campaign on the leadership qualities of Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani, the future potential of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi and other personality driven issues, has in the final laps finally acquired a bread and butter focus—at least in the National Capital Region. Willy-nilly, these issues, which Kapil Sibal insists must not be politicised, have finally driven home the importance of the economy in future calculations of governance.

A small clarification may be in order. At one level the haunting fear of job losses and pay cuts –a reality in some sectors of the economy—has been agitating urban and suburban India for some time. Predictably, the ruling party didn’t want to focus on this facet of what they projected as India’s success story under an economist PM. But the Opposition also failed to capitalise on these fears—not least because the complexities of a slowdown weren’t sufficiently understood in the rush to promise development. The result was that the campaign lost its way in issues which, while of interest to those who think nationally, weren’t immediately apparent to those who judge politics through the prism of personal experiences.

The furore over school fee has, in a sense, highlighted the unreal assumptions of a political class which continues to act on the assumption that India’s growth story is uninterrupted. The generous pay increases awarded to government and deemed government employees by the 6th Pay Commission was a factor behind the Congress success in the Delhi Assembly election last year. Unfortunately for the Congress, the resulting hike in the salaries of school teachers has prompted school authorities in the private sector to pass on the extra burden to the students and parents. Apart from the Rs 6,000 or so one-off payment that schools have asked from parents to cover salary arrears of teachers, private schools have raised fees for the next academic year.

The additional burden may not matter so much to government servants who are beneficiaries of the 6th Pay Commission but has made life hellish for those employed in the private sector. The non-governmental sector has been the worst hit by the fall in growth rates from 8 per cent to below 4 per cent. Many private sector employees have experienced pay cuts of 20 per cent and some have lost their jobs. To this section, it is inexplicable that the government has rewarded its own employees handsomely while penalising those taxpayers who contribute to the government coffers. People don’t mind others doing well but they resent it if the burden of betterment has to be borne by only one section.

The iniquitous nature of this private sector-public sector divide can’t become a subject of political discourse because all politicians need the support of organised government employees. But civil society isn’t so inhibited, particularly since the public sector no longer occupies the “commanding heights” of the economy. They see the government as the problem rather than the solution.

The school fees issue is a foretaste of the problems the next government will have to confront. India’s fiscal deficit has touched something close to 10 per cent of the GDP—a level that international rating agencies find “unacceptable”. This is coupled by a mounting public debt which has touched nearly 80 per cent of the GDP. The bulk of this debt is the result of reckless government borrowing, particularly in the past five years. There are also reports that tax collections for the preceding financial year are down by nearly Rs 20,000 crore.

In this situation, the political temptation is to do either of two things: to continue borrowing recklessly till the point stage when the IMF has to intervene with a national bail-out package riddled with conditionalities; and to increases taxes to lessen the deficit, especially if the economy isn’t growing at the 8 per cent rate the PM has put his faith in. It is interesting that Britain, whose public finances are akin to India’s has raised the highest slab of taxation to 50 per cent and is considering approaching the IMF for assistance since there are few takers for fresh loans to the government.

Like in Britain, politicians in India are unwilling to consider another option: the sharp reduction of public expenditure. In an environment where every budgetary increase in support to government programmes is greeted by the thumping of desks in Parliament, the idea of cuts in public expenditure is anathema. Those who argue for less subsidies and an end to the profligate tax-and-spend culture are regarded as anti-development and dubbed reactionaries. In today’s intellectual climate it has also become fashionable to believe that Keynes is the resurrected guru. This also explains why there is scant regard for efficiency and accountability in government expenditure. The state can merrily spend Rs 200 crore and more in a wasteful advertising campaign and there are no eyebrows raised when evidence piles up about the leakages in the NREG programme.

The horrible truth that no one wants to confront is that India is living generously beyond its means. The country isn’t taking into account the fact that we can no longer afford to not put restrictions on the quantum of public spending and to monitor its efficacy. The school fees issue is a small pointer to the type of problems we are likely to confront if the political class continues to live in denial of a horrible economic crisis.

Sunday Pioneer, May 3, 3009

Friday, May 01, 2009

Ask them no questions (May 1, 2009)

India is marked by its collective penchant for deification

By Swapan Dasgupta

A marked feature of India, which goes a long way in explaining the nominal impact of critical thought in our intellectual life, is the collective penchant for deification. It has become customary to raise individuals to lofty pedestals and insulate them from the rigours of inquiry. The undefined “spirit of persecution” and the “unquestioning obedience… (to) some mantra, some unreasoned creed” that Rabindranath Tagore detected in 1921 when proffering his critique of Mahatma Gandhi has not abated in six decades of democracy. On the contrary, the spread of education and the media revolution have, in the guise of celebrating achievement, reinforced the desire to swim with the tide of conventional wisdom.

A small example may help illustrate this distortion. Last week, the Infosys “mentor” published the grand-sounding A Better India, A Better World, a collection of his speeches. In numerous interviews on the book, the pioneer of India’s IT industry who, had it not been for a mishap over the singing of the national anthem, may well have been a claimant to the palace on Raisina Hill, held forth sanctimoniously on the virtues of what he termed “compassionate capitalism”. It is an idea that is often spouted by social-democratic and Left-wing politicians who are aware of the limitations of state-driven enterprise but cannot bring themselves to admit the innate superiority of the market economy.

Not being a practising politician, Murthy isn’t obliged to have a coherent world view. However, it has been rightly presumed that the founder’s commitment to “compassionate” capitalism defines the corporate philosophy of Infosys. Indeed, the perception that Infosys is many steps removed from the greed and cronyism of business has contributed to its lofty status in public life. Infosys is the envy of Indian business for its unquestioned ability to secure both a wholesome corporate image and extract generous state support (in the form of concessional real estate) without expending money in either advertising or political contributions.

Yet, last month, Infosys did something that violated every tenet of the “compassionate” capitalism that Murthy upholds passionately: it succumbed to market forces and sacked 2,100 employees, ostensibly on the grounds of “non-performance”. In various interviews, its director Mohandas Pai spoke about the company’s “zero tolerance” of inefficiency.

In today’s economic climate, Infosys’ load-shedding is understandable. Throughout India companies have fallen back on closures, redundancies and pay cuts. Infosys is no exception. What is astonishing, however, is that an otherwise hard-nosed media didn’t think it fit to ask Murthy how his “compassionate” capitalism—including the advice to show “fairness to the less fortunate”—fits into the logic of mass sackings. In the West, they would have grilled him mercilessly and the tabloids would have had a field day highlighting the apparent mismatch. In India, however, Murthy is a holy cow who must be treated with reverence.

Sarojini Naidu used to wonder if the Mahatma knew how much it cost to keep him in poverty. It is worth considering the intellectual compromises involved in casting Murthy in a saintly mould.

This astonishing generosity is, however, not reserved exclusively to non-political achievers like Murthy and, for that matter, Amartya Sen. In the past few weeks it has extended to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

That Manmohan isn’t your typical politician and has to be viewed differently isn’t in any doubt. Questions routinely hurled at, say, Prakash Karat, Narendra Modi and Sharad Pawar, (Sonia Gandhi doesn’t deign to respond to queries) are, it is understood, inappropriate for India’s most scholarly Prime Minister. The consensus in the editorial classes and the intelligentsia is that while Manmohan is untutored in the byzantine ways of politics, the Indian economy is safe in his hands.

The Prime Minister’s scholastic reputation has intimidated the less qualified. It is unthinkingly presumed that what is passed off as Manmohan-onomics is built on sound intellectual foundations and, therefore, unworthy of simple-minded scepticism. When, for example, clutching a clipping from the editorial pages of The Telegraph, the Prime Minister pronounced to women journalists in Delhi last month that the BJP was guilty of non-application of mind in promising a “low tax and low interest rates” regime and repatriation of illegal money in tax havens back to India, it was presumed that he knew what he was talking about. After all, this was economics—a subject that the Prime Minister knows intimately.

The reality, unfortunately, is a little more unprepossessing. For a man who was thought to be preoccupied with the big picture of the economy, Manmohan has chosen to skirt economic issues altogether, preferring to spar with L.K. Advani on relative strengths and weakness as a politician. More curiously, the Prime Minister appears to have altogether discarded his economists’ turban altogether.

The most striking evidence of this is his steadfast denial of an economic crisis. Manmohan has, for example, stubbornly refused to review its assessment of a modest fall in the GDP growth from 8 per cent to what he claimed in Mumbai on April 13 was “a little less than 7 per cent”. Deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who has emerged as the government’s chief economics strategist, meanwhile proclaimed in Washington DC that India was set to achieve a 6 per cent growth. Ahluwalia’s revised estimate is still better than the World Bank estimate of 4 per growth in 2009-10.

The divergent estimates have a bearing on the election. Manmohan’s optimism has meant that the Congress has gone to the people with a campaign that is prefaced on a mood of contentment, even Jai Ho exhilaration. This is so markedly out of tune with the general buzz about job losses, high interest rates, high food prices and belt tightening. There are uncorroborated estimates of some 2.5 job losses, particularly in the unorganised sector, on account of the slowdown. A recent study estimated that the high-growth IT sector may experience one lakh job losses by September. Tax collections have fallen by some Rs 20,000 crore, the fiscal deficit has touched unsustainable levels and the public debt has crossed 80 per cent of GDP. In the last days of April, the official smugness over zero inflation was brutally punctured by grumblings over rising prices of food and anger over the sharp increase in school fees—a consequence of the 6th Pay Commission report.

Had Manmohan admitted the difficulties and chosen to reassure people that sensible policies and patient endeavour would see India out of the bad times, he would have struck a responsive chord. Just as people don’t see any magic wand solution to terrorism, there is an overall appreciation that coping with an economic crisis demands mature handling. Manmohan should have fitted the role of the kindly and avuncular family doctor attending to a patient with concern and low medication. Instead, by denying the illness altogether and choosing to battle on an unfamiliar political turf, he undermined his position as a voice of reassurance. The BJP may well have a collective IQ of 60 or less, as the haughty P.Chidambaram claimed last month, but this inadequacy hasn’t led to enhanced confidence in Team Manmohan.

The curious thing is that the intellectual establishment has shied away from telling Manmohan that he has done his reputation as an economist a grave injustice. In the academic world, a horrible misreading of empirical data would have prompted derision and accusations of being a charlatan. In the land of the holy cow, Manmohan remains untroubled by critical scrutiny.

The Telegraph, May 1, 2009