Judge not Politicos by Policies

Even as campaigning for the general elections gets more and more hectic, prime ministerial candidates say less and less about policy specifics. This is, perhaps, good politics. No sense in upsetting people by saying something sharp on any issue in terms of policies meant to be pursued once in office when latitude in policy-making can be preserved by keeping the electorate riveted by attacks on the opposition.

With sledgehammer criticism becoming the message, informing the voters about the contents of promised policies is rarely attempted. The premium for parties is rather in homogenising their message, on reducing public statements to reassuring slogans, ambiguous catchwords, and invocation of iconic leaders (Atal Bihari Vajpayee by the BJP, Ram Manohar Lohia by a slew of paper socialists—Mulayam Singh, Lalu Yadav—and the trimurti of Jawaharlal Nehru-Indira Gandhi-Rajiv Gandhi by the Congress) to legitimise their standing.

Thus, even though there are very deep differences between the economic thinking of the Narendra Modi-led BJP and the Gandhi Family’s Congress party, there is no detailed articulation of Modi’s economic philosophy other than mention of the “Gujarat model” of growth. But such “Modinomics” as is bandied about seems only another version of a policy-set subscribed to by finance minister P Chidambaram. One knows instinctively that this is not the case because Modi trusts the private sector to produce growth that makes possible more resources for better delivery of social goods, including development, at the grassroots level. It is an approach that is anathema to the Congress stuck on Sonia Gandhi’s outdated entitlement economics stressing populist schemes of dole and freebies overseen by a creaky nanny state and predicated on perpetuating poverty for the masses the more easily to project the party as the messiah of the poor.

Sixty years of cretinous misgovernance has, however, not prevented liberal economists, such as Amartya Sen, who are safely offshore and do not have to put up with the daily aggravations of dealing with government from municipality all the way up to the central level, from singing its praises. But for Modi to aggressively push his “government has no business to be in business” philosophy may be to court disaffection. After all, the bulk of the aspiring sections of society are voters from the lower and lower-middle classes who may have benefitted just enough from the populist programmes to believe they are worth retaining as safety net but are increasingly mindful of its limitations, and convinced that Modi’s policy of unhindered economic growth offers greater opportunity and the next big step up. In this context, for the Gujarat chief minister to publicly espouse self-help as economic mantra would be to put voters in a quandary, the almost six decades of Gandhi Family rule having habituated the Indian people to the mai-baap sarkar. It has forced Modi to pussyfoot around the themes emphasising individual effort and enterprise, and the work ethic.

Modi’s reluctance to plainly articulate his basic economic beliefs frees Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) to misrepresent him as a tool of a cabal of crony capitalists—the Ambanis, Adanis, and the Tatas. Crony capitalism is at once a stage all open economies pass through and a constant with excesses by the fat cats leading to the system’s correction and the obtaining of a more even economic playing field by legislative and regulatory means. Indeed, courtesy Kejriwal’s public skewering, Modi will be more careful than ever to avoid giving the impression he’s a puppet of the plutocrats. The truth is that the government has always played sugar daddy. The Congress in Mahatma Gandhi’s days had special relations with the G D Birlas and the Jamnalal Bajajs which, post-Independence, were parlayed by these businessmen into licences, government permits, and burgeoning empires. It was this essential aspect of operating in a state-dominated economic milieu that Dhirubhai Ambani and his ilk learned only too well. Thus the Ambani aircraft ferries both Sonia Gandhi and Modi. That’s the way it is; this is the nature of the beast.

The larger point is that in all democracies there is a tendency of plutocrats to shape state policy beneficial to their interests. In the United States the US Senate Majority leader from President Barack Obama’s Democratic party, Harry Reid, recently charged the phenomenally rich Koch Brothers of funding extreme right-wing parties and politicians, and undermining the country. In Britain, Conservative party prime minister David Cameron is accused of entertaining wealthy entrepreneurs “to line Tory pockets”. But in the more mature democracies the power of the plutocrats is balanced by the political awareness of the people and norms of accountability, which restricts the extent to which elected rulers can profit the moneyed sections.

The difference between the US and the UK on the one hand and India on the other hand is that the menace conjured up by a Reid has nothing like the negative impact on the bulk of the population in America, which is generally well off and socially and politically conscious, that the spectre of an Ambani or Adani can potentially have on most of the Indian people living in subsistence mode who now have villains to blame for their own misery and misfortune. And that’s the problem confronting Modi and the BJP should Kejriwal persist in his line of attack and succeed in creating a popular demonology.

The irony is that parties with socialist pretence —the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh, Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Yadav, Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayawati, et al, like the Congress party of the Gandhis they are modelled on, are family enterprises dressed up as political organisations, and even more compromised in terms of corruption and being in hock to corporate interests than the cadre-based BJP. Think Subrata Roy’s Sahara and Mulayam springs to mind, Jaypee cannot be dissociated from Mayawati, ponder the biggest scams in the history of the republic and the Gandhis emerge front and centre. Yet, Modi, a clean and strong leader and able administrator to boot, can more easily be painted as threat to the commonweal!

[Published New Indian Express, 21st March 2014, available at http://www.newindianexpress.com/opinion/Judge-not-Politicos-by-Policies/2014/03/21/article2120538.ece#.UyugbT-Sw7s ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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9 Responses to Judge not Politicos by Policies

  1. Subhhash Bhagwat says:

    The problem with Indian intellectuals living in western countries is well described here: They forget the fundamental difference between India and the United States that the latter’s per capita GDP is one of the highest in the world whereas the former’s is one of the lowest. Wealth needs to be created for one to worry about its equitable distribution! For six decades of Congress rule wealth creation itself was considered an evil, yet its distribution was considered the only important goal. The result was largely an equal distribution of poverty! Mr. Modi’s approach is to create wealth; he needs to keep in mind that timely steps to ensure that it does not accrue only in the hands of a few. Only then will wealth creation become sustainable. America abandoned that lesson starting with Ronald Reagan which has cost the country dearly in terms of economic and social outcomes. If India can profit from any foreign “model” it would be that of post WW II Germany. Between the Capitalist and Socialist models there is the “Socially Conscious Capitalism”, known in Germany as “Soziale Marktwirtschaft”. It would be advisable for Mr. Modi’s team to study the German model.

    • The (West) German model rooted by Chancellor Adenauer in the Fifties, is indeed an excellent scheme to replicate except for one major thing: Germany outsourced its security to the US and NATO — something India can’t do. It is this necessary, recurring, heavy expenditure on defence and national security that we have to provide for ourselves — but it can be done — as I have argued for some two decades now — by having smart military priorities and acquisition programs..

  2. Subhhash Bhagwat says:

    Germany’s entry into NATO did help free some resources but the country paid large amounts to purchase hardware from the US and maintain NATO bases. Every adult German male served in the armed forces for 18 months, not a small investment either. The scenario for India will look somewhat different but can also serve as an economic driving force provided right policies foster defense research and production at home. How many Indian scientists and engineers could have been brought back from America and elsewhere since independence but were not because institutional infrastructure and good governance failed? We are proud when Indians achieve success overseas but don’t honor them at home. This is where I see a great hope if Indians give a resounding mandate to Mr. Modi.

  3. satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    Looks like whichever new government will be formed, it will not be as opposed to the independent pursuit of our national interest as the Sonia-MMS government was. In that case, there is one issue for such a government to ponder about: given that our economy and defense industrial base is currently way behind that of China, trying to match China’s conventional strength in the near future is virtually impossible. The only reasonable way for us to guarantee our national security in the long term is therefore, a credible nuclear deterrent (in this, we can probably take a page out of Pakistan’s book).

    Besides speeding up Agni V testing and giving the go ahead for Agni VI, a new government will have to order more nuclear tests at some point of time or the other, if it is serious about a credible deterrent. While there would be some sanctions if we do this, how serious would they be ? I do not think they would be very serious.

    Also, in the event of a test not working as expected (hope RC does not still retain a hold on BARC), would China take an opportunity and quickly do a repeat of 1962 to grab Arunachal ? How capable are we as of now of resisting a Chinese attempt to seize Arunachal ? Surely, the situation would not be as hopeless as it was in 1962 ?

    As for a repeat testing, it may be better to do it when the economy is down (like it is now) and then work towards rapid economic growth by creating a business friendly environment overall than have to do it when there is a booming economy (when sanctions will put some brake on growth).

  4. Chinese PLA will be unable to repeat the 1962 act 52 years later. There are some three Divisions in the Tawang sector — that’s an awful lot of forces easily to shove aside. An interesting take that about resumed N-testing exacting bearable costs at a time when the Indian economy Is still in the dumps than if it were on the up and up and prospering. You may well be right..

  5. satyaki says:

    But isn’t the PLA+Pak armed forces combine far stronger than our armed forces ? Also, don’t we suffer from severe deficiencies in terms of obsolete weapons, lack of ammo stocks, etc as pointed out some time ago by Gen. V. K. Singh ?

    Given PLA’s rapid modernization and the huge availability of artillery (155mm pieces as well as a large number of MBRLs), are the three divisions we have in the Tawang sector still adequate for preventing a 1962 repeat ?

    • No. It is a common mistake to believe that the theoretical possibility of Pakistan or China making common cause with the other in its war with India, can become real. China has scrupulously kept away from aiding Pakistanis in any operational way in the past, and Islamabad would have too much to lose by siding with Beijing — the reason why Ayub in 1962 desisted from exploiting the opportunity when India was preoccupied with fighting the Chinese.

  6. satyaki says:

    Also, “1962 repeat” need not necessarily mean capture by PLA of as large an area as they did in 1962. Any PLA success in Arunachal that has the same psychological effect should also be called a repeat of 1962. Are we capable of fending such an outcome off with what we have at present ?

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