Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sonia wants a bigger state as her estate

By Swapan Dasgupta

Congress President Sonia Gandhi's reluctance (or inability) to speak extempore has often invited ridicule from other members of the political class. To politicians who live by their wits and declamatory skills, this may be a shortcoming. However, in most evolved democracies people in positions of importance are loath to speak casually: their speeches are preceded by preparation.

It is the element of pre-meditation in the Congress President's infrequent public interventions that make them significant. Last Friday, the Congress chief delivered a significant speech at the inauguration of 10th Indira Gandhi conference—an event which may be of no consequence to the sound-bite media but happens to be something she takes very seriously.

This year's theme was Social Democracy, a European phenomenon that some of the intellectuals around the family consider paramount in defining the future course of the Congress. In an article that is worth perusing, considering the author's importance in the informal think-tank around Sonia, the academic Sunil Khilnani has proposed an "unconditional annual cash payment", what he calls a "Citizen's Growth Dividend", to be paid to both "Mukesh Ambani and the beggar outside his gates" that "would add a sense of social and economic citizenship to the political citizenship embodied by the vote."

Academics, particularly those detached from the wealth generation process in India, are known to be partial to grandiose visions of a paternalist state. Jawaharlal Nehru was attracted to such ideas, as was Indira Gandhi. Both contributed to a bloated state with a huge bureaucracy and an elaborate regime of controls. Yet, despite apparently good intentions, the results of their social engineering were not very encouraging. Indeed, as an exercise in counterfactual history, it is worth considering India's missed opportunities in the first 45 years of Independence. India is today one of the world's fastest growing economies and an object of international envy and admiration. But the country still has a long way to go before it can reach the levels of the Asian Tigers, not to speak of Western Europe. Would the gap have been so daunting had Nehru and his daughter allowed Indian entrepreneurship to flower, instead of suppressing it?

It is not merely the inherent inefficiencies of state-sponsored development that need to be considered. There is ample evidence to suggest that corruption and cronyism—both go hand in hand—further dragged India down. Indira Gandhi's role in promoting a political culture based on both sycophancy and venality is not something that has been hidden from history. To some people she was Durga, a personification of feminine Shakti, but to others Indira Gandhi was the passport to self-aggrandisement. Those agitated by the Adarsh Housing Society scam and the loss suffered by the exchequer on account of A.Raja's misplaced generosity, would find it worthwhile to re-examine the scam that unseated A.R. Antulay from the chief ministership of Maharashtra and the Kuo oil deal, if only to appreciate the historical pedigree of corruption.

Nor was Nehru's reign the Golden Age of idealism, as it is often portrayed. In a telling essay published by Seminar and Business India in 1998, Shiv Visvanathan dissected the first Prime Minister's ambivalence to corruption in the cases related to Pratap Singh Kairon and T.T.Krishnamachari. For example, Nehru equated Kairon's nepotism—not very dissimilar to the charges that are plaguing Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yedyurappa—with Mahatma Gandhi's embarrassment over his son. When someone reminded Nehru that Gandhiji had more or less disowned his errant progeny, Nehru glibly replied: "All of us are not Mahatma Gandhi." "Corruption to Nehru", concluded Visvanathan, "was a bit like pollution to the economists. It lay outside the system. He didn't really see it, especially in his enthusiasm for state-building. And yet it is Nehru's softness towards corruption that sets the stage for the deeper cynicism and violence of the Emergency years."

On the face of it, we should be grateful that the kerfuffle of the past fortnight has compelled Sonia Gandhi to acknowledge the damaging consequences of corruption—something she preferred to ignore at her AICC speech earlier this month. "Our economy", she noted in her speech to the Indira Gandhi conference, "may increasingly be dynamic, but our moral universe seems to be shrinking…Graft and greed are on the rise. The principles on which independent India was founded…are in danger of being negated."

No one would seriously disagree with her assessment. However, there are grounds to question the importance she attaches to the war on corruption. Like Nehru, who believed that corruption was a minor irritant in the grand construction of a socialist India, Sonia's priority is a paternalist state, doing good works and looking after the poor and vulnerable. The Government of India has done everything to accommodate her Lady Bountiful act. There is the NREGA, the Right to Education and the proposed Food Security Bill. India's parlous fiscal deficit and the diversion of resources from infrastructure owe much to the Government's belief that her wish is their command.

The paradox is that the bigger the state the more the resources and discretionary powers of minister, and more the corruption. Rajiv Gandhi spoke of 15 paisa of every Rupee of government expenditure reaching the beneficiaries. Sonia doesn't even speak of it. She just wants a bigger and bigger state that will be her estate. As for corruption, she could take a leaf out of her mother-in-law's book and shrug it away as an "international phenomenon."

Sunday Pioneer, November 21, 2010

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