Renu Pokharna

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Change and its limits

In Corruption, Electoral Reform, Parliamentary Reforms, Politics on January 7, 2014 at 2:09 am

The Aam Aadmi Party has had spectacular success, of that there can be no doubt. But even its most hardened and committed supporters will agree that the government in Delhi will last only a few weeks — at most, a few months. It simply will not have the time or opportunity to prove its capability to govern. Its success has ironically thrown into sharp relief the best and worst of our current political system. It has established the vibrancy of our politics and the maturity of the electorate. At the same time, it has made clear the disjunct between the exercise of individual franchise and the delivery of stable governance. What one must question is the positive of a political system which enables the expression of protest but does not promote a steady and enduring government.

Kejriwal deserves the accolade of “man of the year”. His conviction, tenacity and simplicity are admirable. But compared to another “aam aadmi” who has also had comparable impact, albeit on a much larger scale, his limitations are obvious. Unlike Pope Francis, he does not have the mandate or experience to deliver. This is not his fault, but that of our political system.

Pope Francis was a little known Jesuit priest from Argentina called Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The cardinals of the papacy surprised the Catholic community by electing him the 265th successor to St Peter a month after Pope Benedict had roiled the church by resigning. At the time, the church was engulfed in a sexual scandal, the Vatican Bank was facing charges of corruption, papal institutions had hollowed and parishioners were leaving in droves. Pope Francis could not have inherited a more difficult chalice. His response was “aam aadmi” in character. He rejected the “lal batti” Mercedes and stayed with his clapped-out Ford Focus. He did not move into the apostolic palace but chose a two-room abode. He celebrated his 77th birthday with four poor people and a dog. His every action has exemplified humility and compassion. More substantively, he challenged conventional orthodoxy. He commented that the church was “obsessed” with abortion and contraceptives, and in response to a question on what he thought about gay priests, he replied “who am I to judge”. Further, he sidelined the traditional synod of bishops and appointed his own group of cardinals to advise him on bureaucratic and institutional issues.

The jury is still out on whether Pope Francis will succeed in revitalising the Church, and there is comment that he might be more style than substance. But what is clear is that this “aam aadmi” priest has the authority and tenure to convert intent into policy. He is the supreme unchallenged head of the Church and unless he decides otherwise, he will stay in that position for life. He can change the shape and content of the Church. In contrast, Kejriwal is shackled and will be fighting another election in a few months. The AAP deserves its moment, and whilst no one can or should dilute the significance of its achievement, it must not be surprised if “good” and “honest” people everywhere feel uneasy about the longer-term impact of its leadership in government. After all, it is in for the short haul; avowedly populist; without experience; and its economic programme does not hold up to rigorous scrutiny.

The AAP phenomena will be franchised. Civic groups across the country will be emboldened to take up political cudgels. The electoral response to these new political movements could be disproportionately strong, especially in urban constituencies. This is a healthy trend, as it will shift the contours and narrative of politics. It will upend conventional wisdom. No one in the Cong-ress or the BJP expected the AAP to do so well. Their belief was that the voter would ultimately cast her vote conventionally. The voter would not vote for a party that had no chance to win. “Why waste a vote,” would be the logic. I suspect this is no longer the refrain in party headquarters. The realisation must have dawned that the 60-million-odd new voters are singing to a different tune. They are fed up with the lack of governance and corruption. They do not like the political choices on offer and are looking for alternatives. This is all good. The shake up of old-style feudal politics driven by money and opportunism is long overdue.

At another level, however, this franchisee phenomena does raise some concerns. For two decades now, we have had coalition governments at the Centre, and it has become clear that coalition politics does not allow for statesmanship. It does not give leaders the room to take decisions that pay off in years rather than months. It is also a major reason for corruption. This is because of the required “give and take” and the compulsion to raise finance for the next election, not to speak of the individual impulse to make hay while the sun is shining. The silver lining has been that most state governments have been governed by parties with a clear and decisive majority. This has facilitated clearer (not necessarily cleaner) and better governance. The question, therefore, has to be asked: What if the politicisation of protest movements were to push state governments into the miasma of coalition governance? Would that be in the public interest?

The conditions for a revolution are created when people feel alienated from and disgusted with the institutions of government and the quality of governance. These conditions translate into action when people with passion, leadership and language give expression and meaning to this feeling. The revolution endures if the new political structures and systems reflect and respond to underlying social and economic realities. Take, for example, the American revolution. The people felt alienated from the rule of colonial Britain and disgust at the gap between the reality of social hierarchy and the rhetoric that Americans were “born, the heirs to freedom” for decades before the revolution. They did not, however, take to the streets until George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson gave expression and organisation to this discontentment. The principles of the revolution have endured for over 200 years because the political system has in the main reflected and responded to the interests and aspirations of the American people. In similar vein, Kejriwal and the AAP have given language and meaning to the disgust felt by people towards traditional political parties. They have marshalled this disgust into a brilliant movement of protest. The first-past-the-post system of parliamentary democracy has not, however, given them the authority to deliver. The question that the AAP must thus contemplate is whether its impact might not be more enduring and positive if, rather than looking to govern and risking exposure as an emperor without clothes, it was to use its organisational skills to compel a review of the political system and better alignment to the longer-term demands of a pluralistic, diverse, young and subcontinental polity?

Indian Express, 6 Jan 2014

Disassembling dynasty

In Politics on June 8, 2012 at 5:09 am

Dimple Yadav’s likely win in UP brings back an old question: what is it about the organisational and institutional environment in India that encourages political dynasties?

Dimple Yadav, wife of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, will win the upcoming by-election for the Kannauj Lok Sabha seat virtually unopposed. With a powerful father-in-law in Mulayam Singh Yadav and an equally powerful husband, Dimple Yadav’s inherited political capital is at an all-time high. The biggest testimony to this is that two major parties — the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party — have decided to not field an opposition candidate to Dimple Yadav.

The recent assembly elections in Punjab and UP were also battles between political dynasties. Three of the five parties that contested elections in these states — the Akali Dal, the Congress and the Samajwadi Party — are now in the hands of leaders who are euphemistically termed “princelings”. This by itself is no surprise. Political success in India often depends on family ties of candidates. At least two data sets, independently compiled by Patrick French and by us, suggest that dynastic ties are important in Indian politics. Others have commented on the rise of the “bahu-beti” brigade, signalling that women with politically powerful husbands, fathers, brothers or in-laws are more likely to be taken seriously as electoral candidates.

There is, however, widespread criticism of dynastic politics and an obvious incongruity between the idea of democracy and dynastic parties. We find that there is a representation deficit when it comes to dynastic parties. In those areas where dynastic parties compete, voters are far more likely to say that the politician (MLA or MP) does not look after the interests of anyone in the constituency. It should come as no surprise, then, that dynastic politics is also associated with the vast number of political parties and electoral volatility that mark contemporary Indian elections. Our research shows that in those states where the two main political parties are dynastic, there are greater vote swings for a party from one election to the other, with the average vote swing reaching 7 per cent. Second, we find that independent candidates are more likely to be elected and win votes. The percentage of independent candidates winning moves from 10 per cent under non-dynastic competition to 14 per cent under dynastic competition. Finally, there is a proliferation of political parties, with the effective number of political parties moving from less than four to more than four.

In addition to voter discontent, there are other reasons for these effects. In a dynastic party the top spot is limited to members of a family. For ambitious politicians who want to rise to the top spot there is only one option — to form their own political party or to switch allegiance to another party that will give them a higher position. This leads to larger number of parties competing for votes and/ or greater vote swings.

We understand a dynastic party to be one where the top leadership comes from within one family, or the successor is appointed without an organisational election (like Mayawati’s appointment by Kanshi Ram). In India, the number of dynastic parties is too large to list. The Congress tops everyone’s list. The highest leadership position has stayed within the Nehru-Gandhi family, starting with Nehru himself and flowing to Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and possibly Rahul Gandhi. Many regional parties are also dynastic: the Akali Dal in Punjab; Shiv Sena in Maharashtra; NCP of Maharashtra; the DMK in Tamil Nadu; the TDP of Andhra Pradesh; the BJD in Orissa; and the SP in UP.

So why do dynastic parties choose leaders from a particular family? The simple answer is that there is nothing to stop these leaders from selecting their successors. If a party has a party organisation where other contenders to the chief post can form their independent bases of power or lobby groups within the party, it may be harder to sustain dynastic parties. This was the case with the Congress in the 1960s when a strong organisation could discipline the ruling Congress party. The CPM, a non-dynastic party, has a massive cadre-based organisation.

Second, if a party has strong ties to a civil society organisation that constrains the party leader from appointing kin as successor, the party will be non-dynastic. The classic case is the BJP. The RSS (in which the BJP is societally rooted) exercises enough influence over the choice of leadership to ensure that it is non-dynastic.

Third, and most important, is party finance. As long as politicians raise their own campaign finances illegally, their best insurance against disclosure is to keep the money in the family. If all politicians in India raised funds independently and openly (as they do in the United States) individual politicians could challenge the party leadership. In India this independence is discouraged and substantial campaign contributions are undisclosed or “black” and collected centrally. This centralisation of finances is essential to avoid detection. As many have observed, the bulk of the money for the 2009 election campaigns of various parties was allocated to Lok Sabha hopefuls by the central command. This gives the central party enormous control and the party leader is influenced by incentives that encourage keeping it all in the family.

Our research shows that political dynasties are found where they provide risk insurance for politicians. Even in stable political systems like Japan, dynasties are common. As Fukui and Fukui observe, in the 1990 general elections, 170 second-generation members ran for election to the Diet and 125 were elected. They attribute this to the electoral rules that led candidates to develop “highly individualistic campaign organisations built by and for particular Diet members and aspirants” and that since these organisations are “expensive to build, in terms of both money and effort invested, these organisations are valuable assets that are closely guarded by the incumbents and, upon their retirement or death, often passed on to their heirs, usually relatives or staffers.” Not surprisingly, then, dynasties have been seen in parts of the US, in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Colombia.

The existence of political dynasties in democratic India is not a result solely of a larger social context in which dynasties and family ties are acceptable and important. The key to understanding why dynasties exist lies in party organisation. In India, and elsewhere, if a political party does not have a cadre-based organisation, is not rooted in an independent civil society association and has centralised financing of elections, it is much more likely to be dynastic. Understanding the organisational and institutional environment that encourages the persistence of dynastic parties allows us to begin thinking in terms of scuttling dynastic politics by enacting rules and regulations that can limit the power of central party command structures.


8 June 2012,  Indian Express

Do not Disagree

In Politics on March 20, 2012 at 9:38 am

laming NGOs reveals the diminishing space for dissent in our democracy


Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s stray remarks on NGOs have unwittingly revealed two bitter truths about Indian democracy. First, Indian democracy has diminishing place for dissent. Second, our diminishing capacity for dissent paradoxically stems from a government that is both technocratic and weak.

On the surface, Indian democracy has a cacophony of voices. But if you scratch the surface, dissent in India labours under an immense maze of threats and interdictions. Of course, NGOs should be transparent and accountable in terms of their sources of funding. And the reporting requirements for NGOs are immense. It is not the threat that NGOs pose that should worry us; it is the ease with which government can go after them. However, what was disturbing about the prime minister’s remark is its construction of what dissent is about. We all pay lip service to the idea that in a democracy there can be genuine differences. But the only terms in which we can understand deep disagreement is by constructing it as extraneously motivated. Nothing is more fatal for disagreement and dissent than the idea that all of it can be reduced to hidden sub-texts or external agendas. You may be a supporter of Bt brinjal or nuclear energy. But you ought to worry if we became a culture in which no one was spooked after Fukushima, or suspicious of data on agricultural technologies. The idea that anyone who disagrees with my views must be the carrier of someone else’s subversive agenda is, in some ways, deeply anti-democratic. It does away with the possibility of genuinely good faith disagreement. It denies equal respect to citizens because it absolves you from taking their ideas seriously. Once we have impugned the source, we don’t have to pay attention to the content of the claims. The necessity of democratic politics arises precisely because there is deep, good faith disagreement. Reducing disagreement to bad faith betrays a subconscious wish of doing away with democratic politics.

This has serious consequences for dissent. Our actions and rhetoric are sounding increasingly like China’s. The state, when challenged, will often resort to all power at its disposal to pressure organisations and institutions. Make no mistake about it: seriously taking on the state is still an act of bravery in India. The state has enough instruments to hold NGOs accountable. But it chooses not to do so in areas that are legitimate, like transparency. Instead, it uses its power selectively when its interests are crossed. But this government is determined to increase the asymmetry between state and civil society. The new FCRA regime, the proposed changes in the Direct Tax Code for not-for-profits, are symptoms of the desire to control. Second, the rhetoric, that the world outside, particularly of NGOs, is a conspiracy to hold India back, is second nature to paranoid regimes. The Chinese construct dissent as motivated. Indira Gandhi revelled in it. But in her case, in the backdrop of Allende, global geopolitics, the CIA and the KGB, there was a touch of plausibility. Now these arguments have so much a touch of farce to them. But they are pretexts to increase state control. Third, think of the pattern with this government. Like the Chinese, we have used the power of granting research visas to regulate research. Our visa regime for scholars is a shame for a liberal democracy. So great is our paranoia that in the small print of even PIO cards, you will see a prohibition on doing research. Like the Chinese, films showing India’s human rights record in an unflattering light are hard to release. Censorship, through formal and informal pressures, is legion. To be sure, politicians are often easy and unfair targets in Indian political discourse. But this surface politician-bashing disguises how hard it is to seriously interrogate the power structure in India.

Like the Chinese, we construct civil society as a special site of threats. What is appalling in this singling out of people who do research, or of NGOs, is this: private corporations are allowed to move money practically as they please, they can even advertise or lobby in ways beneficial to them, but NGOs have to be watched and blamed for obstructing the country’s progress. To be sure, NGOs are being given an increasing place in a range of service-delivery activities. This is more to compensate for state failure in those areas. But NGOs as sources of dissent are still suspect. Corporate activities and capital are constructed as a privileged site. The space of ideas and protest is represented as presumptively subversive, and anti-national. This is deeply revealing of what we think of dissent.

The hallmark of technocracy is that it cannot countenance the possibility of radical disagreement. Since there is a technically right answer, disagreement can only be explained by attributing motives. But while the mindset is technical, the capacity for political negotiation has also diminished.

The simple fact is that, for whatever reason, the government has not been able to bring Jayalalithaa on board on the nuclear plant issue. If it did, its capacity to negotiate with dissenting groups would be different. But this is a political failure, pure and simple. There is a systematic reason why the government’s arguments often lack credibility even among open-minded people. How do you trust a government’s claims on dams, when it keeps data on water flows a secret and publishing such data a crime? How do you trust a government on environmental assessment when there is general consensus that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are so flimsy? How do you trust claims on radiation and chemical poisoning when there is no reliable data on incidence of cancer? The problem is not foreign funding. The problem is that government’s secrecy, lack of engagement, has diminished its capacity to produce authoritative and trustworthy knowledge. This is the breach which opens up the need for different sites of knowledge production. This is a governance failure. But instead of attending to a political or governance failure, the technocratic mind will go for impugning dissent.

Jairam Ramesh did the right thing. He did something rare in this government: he owned up to his decision and his responsibility plain and simple. But the prime minister unwittingly showed what a banana republic India can be. If a few crores here and there, given to NGOs which have no instruments of power other than their ability to mobilise, can bring this country to a standstill, then we are indeed in deep trouble. Banana republics are more paranoid about dissent than self-confident democracies.


The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi


29 Feb 2012, Indian Express

Mandate for a dream

In Corruption, Dalits, Politics, Poverty Eradication on March 9, 2012 at 6:10 am


India is stirring in ways that confound political analysis. Uttar Pradesh was, by all measures, a remarkable election: intense, youthful but at the same time peaceful, civil and substantive. To the superficial eye, these elections seem like old wine in new bottles: intense local bargaining, equations of caste and community, candidates tinged with corruption or criminality. However, underneath, there is almost a social revolution in the making. Voters are showing a remarkable capacity for making fine distinctions. The strategy is, first and foremost, to search for the party most likely to form a stable government. These elections confirm a growing trend that knee-jerk anti-incumbency is a thing of the past. Performance can be rewarded as much as punished.

In UP, voters were called on to make very sophisticated strategic judgements. But strip away the too-clever-by-half analysis. And they are choosing empowerment over patronage, the future over the past, performance over rhetoric, sincerity over cynicism, rootedness over disembodied charm, measured realism over flights of fantasy. They are carefully assessing alternatives through the prism of local circumstances. Identities still matter, but voters are no longer prisoners of those identities. Despite the occasional clumsiness of the Congress, the election in UP was without a trace of community polarisation: no one felt on the edge or under siege, all could exercise options without being unduly burdened by the past. In a democracy, where you are going should be more important than where you are coming from. These elections have redeemed that promise.

The UP election was a major test for Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. It could be argued that the UP electorate will vote differently in national and state elections. Even with this caveat, Rahul Gandhi should (and has admitted) responsibility for the lack of momentum in the Congress. The party’s four cardinal mistakes in this election were hubris, communalism, disingenuousness and whining. And national undercurrents do reverberate in local politics. There was a sentiment that voting for the Congress would only reward its presumptuousness and self-induced paralysis at the Centre. Despite the dissipation of the Anna Hazare movement, the odour of corruption dented the Congress’s general credibility. The party clumsily injected a 1970s-style communal discourse, displaying its own cynicism. Rahul Gandhi’s perpetual attempt to run as an outsider, as if the Congress is not responsible for the tales of woe he recounts, is patently disingenuous. Every single issue he took up, from Bhatta-Parsaul to Bundelkhand, had no follow-up.

There is little aspirational about the Congress politics: it is still tethered to a discourse of noblesse oblige that is out of touch with the dynamism of a society. And personal sincerity has done little to transform the party’s political structure. There are limits to leadership by avoidance. And there are limits to how much he can substitute for local candidates. Rahul, like Rajiv Gandhi, risks being done in by sycophants masquerading as strategists, communalists masquerading as minority protectors, and party officials who do not think that governance matters.

Punjab was supposed to be a crucible for the Youth Congress experiment, an enlisting of youth energy to transform the state politics. This was a state the Congress was not supposed to lose. The credibility of this as a political project is now certainly dented. How the party can turn this around is an open question. Rahul’s strategy was to shore up his own authority, and that of the government, on the wave of an electoral victory. But now this needs a rethink: the only way the party’s fortunes can be restored is by a veritable reinvention of his government.

It is hard not to feel a tinge of sadness. Mayawati had crafted an extraordinary social coalition. She will still remain a formidable political force, but she underestimated the degree to which even the very constituencies she had empowered were feeling the weight of bad governance. While she empowered some constituencies, the institutionalisation of low-level corruption was nothing short of oppressive. She forgot that social coalitions not wedded to intelligent governance will not last long. Perhaps a smart economist will decode the paradox of UP — that a 7 per cent growth rate was accompanied by a consumption growth rate of close to 1 per cent.

The Samajwadi Party was a beneficiary of anti-incumbency. But its campaign was sophisticated and well-judged. Akhilesh Yadav queered Rahul Gandhi’s pitch, by projecting a youthful modernist face, but with the added advantages of being seemingly rooted in local social circumstance. A cohort of younger voters did not have the visceral memories of the previous Mulayam Singh government. He talked the language of aspiration. And it is to his credit that while attacking the government, he promised a politics beyond recrimination. The SP tried to project that it could be more than a party of its core social base. The alignment of freshness, the capacity for synthesis, combined with Mulayam’s formidable political machine, proved to be an irresistible combination.

The implications of elections are not cast in stone; they depend on the lessons parties draw from them. But both national parties have to do a lot of rethink. It is often argued that national parties are giving way to regional agendas. The truth is the opposite. National parties are giving way because they don’t have a national agenda; it is the regional parties that have become the carriers of a future dream. Their organisational bases are fragile and their political imaginations ossified. The BJP had low expectations, but despite Goa and Uttarakhand it has reason to worry. It does face a structural problem: no next-generation leadership in UP that can project a future, and no national leadership that has the capacity to energise new voters. Vajpayee’s memory can get you only so far.

The implications for national politics are immense. Even if it is magnanimous, the incentive for the SP is to ensure that the Congress does not grow. Anti-Congressism also gets a new lease of life. The motive for every party is now to demonstrate that the Congress cannot govern. The Central government has been facing a crisis of authority. Its moral image has been battered; its capacity for negotiating with regional parties has been diminished. These results only exacerbate this crisis of authority. In the short run, expect a rocky political ride. It will take something drastic to reverse this erosion of authority.

Democracy will not bring angels to power. But its dignity is something deeper, and altogether more enchanting. It allows for the greatest freedom: the capacity for reinvention. Democracy will give even devils a second chance. In doing so, it tames them, rescues them from their own hubris.

7 Mar 2012, Indian Express

The Hour Of The Untamed Cosmopolitan

In Politics, Poverty Eradication, Quotas, Tribal Development on February 28, 2012 at 10:30 am

AFTER ALMOST two decades, in many ways, the election of 2009 was a normal election. No overriding consideration drove the voting across the country. Diverse configurations in diverse places determined the fate of different candidates and parties. Different regions had different logic even within a given state. Still, underlying the diversity there were some common themes.

First, I think people were looking for ways to lower the temperature of politics. High-pitched politics has reigned in our polity for nearly 15 years now. My suspicion is people were a bit tired of this. For example, the past two elections showed that in Uttar Pradesh, only one percent of the electorate was interested in Ram Janmabhoomi. The BJP probably played down the issue this year because their internal assessment showed the same thing. Except in West Bengal, nowhere did the election involve an emotional arousal of the kind we have come to routinely expect.

There are reasons for this. In our society, we live with radical diversities — diversity that is not based on tamed forms of difference. The US is a perfect example of tamed diversity. You get every kind of food and dress and cultural activity in America. You think you are very cosmopolitan if you can distinguish Huaiyang food from Schezwan food, or South Korean ballet from Beijing opera, or Ming dynasty china from Han dynasty china in a museum. This is diversity that is permissible, legitimate, tamed.

Radical diversity is when you tolerate and live with people who challenge some of the very basic axioms of your political life. Like most of South Asia, Indians have an old capacity to live with such diversity. A powerful example is Sajjad Lone contesting the election this year. Nobody objected that a secessionist wants to take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. Everyone spoke of it glowingly. I consider that a tolerance for radical diversity. In such a society, all excesses are ultimately checkmated.

In India, we live in a country where the gods are imperfect and the demons are never fully demonic. I call this an ‘epic culture’ because an epic is not complete without either the gods or the demons. They make the story together. This is a part of our consciousness, and ultimately, I think it influences our public life. People go up to a point with their grievance, then get tired of it. They realise that to go further is a dangerous thing because it destroys the basic algorithm of your life. They say, enough is enough, let us go back to a normal life. This election represents something of that consciousness. We probably need this kind of interregnum in politics. They have a soothing effect on our public life. This is what most Indians feel.

The second underlying theme is that people were searching for a sort of minimum decency. Negative campaigns, excessively personal attacks, hostile slogans — all of this seemed to upset the voter. When the BJP and the Left targeted Manmohan Singh, making him the butt of jokes and accusations, Singh became a hero for the very qualities people joked about. His weakness, his absence of a political base, his susceptibility to pressures of the Congress high command — instead of looking like liabilities, these things suddenly began to look like a marker of a genteel type of politics. I think that paid dividends. Contrasted with their shrill opponents, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s conduct too paid dividends.

(I asked a waiter at the India International Centre in Delhi what he felt about the election results. “It’s been very good,” he said. Was he a Congress supporter, I asked him. “It’s not that, sahib,” he replied. “That Sardarji is a good man. He is educated, he is not a thief, and he is a newcomer to politics. Still, they got after him, calling him weak and scared. Who can enjoy watching that? I am just happy that this election result has shown there is a god watching above.” I quote the waiter verbatim because I think the idea of “a god above” might have been a consideration with many other people as well.)

THE THIRD and interlinked theme this election was the voter’s desire to bring down the arrogant. The way Mayawati has lost, in what was once thought an inelastic support base, points to something very significant. Many people did not like the way she threw her weight around; her ostentation; the dozens of statues she is erecting in her likeness, her assumption that even if she did nothing to serve it further, history was waiting for her. Others did not like Narendra Modi. Yet others, Prakash Karat. Arrogance of style. Arrogance of ambition. The arrogance of neglecting the people. All of this was punished by the voter.

Narendra Modi has marginalised all possible opposition within the BJP, and sidelined the RSS, Bajrang Dal and VHP. They cannot really muddy things for him easily anymore. He is a man looking for power and he has used and discarded them. He has a solid support base in West Gujarat and among middle-class Gujaratis, so there is no question of him fading away, but this election doubts have been planted about his capacity to emerge as a pan-Indian leader. He was billed as a star campaigner for the BJP, but the Indian voter has sent back a strong message scaling him down.

Controversial leaders rarely make it to the top job in India. Modi is determined not to talk of communities, determined not to apologise or even make a gesture towards the Muslim community to atone for the sins of Gujarat 2002. His refrain is that he is the leader of five-and-a-halfcrore Gujaratis, implying he is also the leader of Muslims. But this election should teach him some lessons in humility and modesty. It should give him some access to the language of politics in India. He will learn his lesson. Indian politics has taught humility to lots of people from Indira Gandhi to Mayawati. It will teach humility to Narendra Modi also.

Unfortunately, there is a big similarity between Prakash Karat and Narendra Modi — however unpleasant that thought might be. They are both men who do not understand the wisdom of accommodation and cannot stomach the dilution of ideology.

Like Modi and Mayawati, this election has scaled down the arrogance of Prakash Karat, but the debacle of the Left Front points to a deeper malaise.

IN BENGAL, the party had been in power too long. In a society like ours, when any political party is on an ascendant, all gangs, thugs and extortionists gravitate towards that party. In UP, this mafia element was first attached to the Congress; then it moved to the BJP; then the SP; then the BSP, mirroring their rising political graphs. In Bengal, 32 years into power, all anti-social elements had become entrenched within the CPM. The party’s coercive might was enormous. In village after village, people from other parties were prevented from campaigning. That arrogance and control has not loosened very much, but it has started to crack. In the long run, I think Prakash Karat has done a lot of good to Bengal. These three decades of continuous rule had rotted the system to the core. If you miss power once in a while — however bad the Opposition may be — it keeps people and parties on their toes.

(For instance, I believe it is good the BJP got a shot at winning power at the Centre one time. Not only did it limber up the Congress, it also allowed the BJP to get a sense that it can come to power if it gets its formulas right. This is very important to keep the rabid fringe like VHP, Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena in check. When you have legitimate power, you don’t have to use street power. You rein them in because it’s counter-productive and you want respectability.)

But criminality and arrogance is not the only reason for the Left Front’s rout in Bengal and Kerala. The trouble is, their kind of Leninism has not survived anywhere in the world except in Cuba, Bengal and Kerala. Chandan Mitra would add tartly, “And the People’s Republic of Jawaharlal Nehru University.” This ideology has such an Edwardian ring to it, I am surprised it even captivated so many in India. The point is, this sense of a vanguard of the proletariat, this whole position is protected by middle-class activists. This is why despite 32 years in power, the truth is that the kind of revolutionary changes in social structures that have swept across India have not even touched West Bengal. Everything there is still controlled by the upper castes, and in some senses, it is the most casteist society in India. West Bengal is one state in India, for instance, where you cannot even dream of having a dalit chief minister. In contrast, in south India, the whole thing has opened up. So much new energy has been released. But has Bengal produced an AR Rahman? Or his guru, Illayaraja? Genius flowering from the bottom of society. Such release of energy from the non-brahminic castes has absolutely no parallel in Bengal.

There is little hope that the churn of this defeat will bring in any fresh thought into Marxism in Bengal. It cannot, because this is the last remnant of a colonial culture. That is why our Marxists are locked into their textbooks. That is why they haven’t picked up anything from Latin American Marxism or European Marxism, that is why there has been no new indigenous innovation.

In such an intellectual world, rethinking comes through only two things: death and retirement. Once people start retiring and dying, a new generation will come in. Then it will be easy. They will just not bother with what has gone before. Ideas like this die out of neglect and carelessness, not through dramatic confrontation.

The other important trend this election has thrown up, is the return of support to larger national level parties. One could read this as the start of a significant course correction. With the extreme proliferation of smaller parties and interest groups, perhaps the fragmentation of electoral power has stopped yielding dividends.

Voters have realised it is best to allow larger parties to come to power at the Centre.

The interesting thing is, though the pitch has been scaled down, one cannot read this election result as a post-Mandal era of politics. Many of the Congress’ traditional vote banks — the dalits and Muslims in UP, for instance — had moved away from the Congress to more ‘specialist parties’: the dalits moved to the BSP, the Muslims to Mulayam Singh. In Bihar, they moved towards Lalu. The attraction of these parties was that, being smaller, they were much more captive to the demands of their vote base. In a large, national party like the Congress, others’ demands checkmated your demands. Ironically, the movement back towards the Congress is a sign that the specialist parties like SP and BSP have become too big and bloated with ambition, and so less responsive to their vote banks. In effect, the Congress is now the new small party trying to build a new support base. People feel it might be more responsive to their needs.

There are other reasons why it would be premature to read this election as a post-Mandal era. In India, except in very small, modern, urban pockets, the unit of mobility is not the individual; the unit of mobility is caste. The lowest common denominator for any party decision on their choice of candidates is caste — all other considerations of aptitude and intention come after that. In fact, we cannot reach a post- Mandal era of politics yet because entering politics from the periphery is still a very crucial instrument in Indian politics.

Some of the parties lay less emphasis on it because their constituencies have arrived in the mainstream. The Marathas, Patels, Vokkaligas, Lingayats, Jats. Yadavs too talk less about it because they have just arrived. Perhaps, with Nitish Kumar, Kurmis too will feel more secure. But there are still hundreds of communities who are not well represented. Now that the big communities have organised themselves and reaped the benefits, the smaller ones want a slice of the pie. Just as the Kammas emerged in the 1970s and 1980s through NTR, the Kapus have emerged this election through Chiranjeevi. These are much smaller communities. Earlier, they would have voted under larger umbrellas. Now they think they can carve out a smaller, more targeted domain or space in the political arena.

Recently, the Gujjars began to lobby violently for Scheduled Tribe status — as if a mere Parliamentary decree can turn a group into a tribe. This sort of misuse, battles for quotas, unreasonable demands for affirmative action, and other forms of vote bank wheeling-dealing will continue to happen. But in the long run, all of this will be good for India.

As representations in the system give different communities larger space, everybody’s stake in the democratic system will increase. In the long run, there will be so many crosscutting configurations, the problem will take care of itself. There is a big difference between caste groups angling for 35 or 40 Lok Sabha seats like Mulayam or Lalu, and a caste group contesting for eight or ten. Chiranjeevi, for instance, just has four or five seats. The scale is going down because we have already accommodated a lot of people. The next generation will not face this. They will inherit a much more inclusive world.

FINALLY, a last word on arrogance. The Left parties may have been defeated this election, but the leftist impulse is intact in our society. In fact, it is an imperative. It would be a big mistake if the UPA saw this victory as a mandate for unbridled liberalisation. Some care for the bottom of the society, some belief that the poor should be a priority focus is vital for this society to survive and retain its idea of itself as a humane society. You cannot pay Rs 12,000 for a meal for two people in a five-star hotel and come out and throw Rs 10 to a boy competing with a dog for the garbage and think you have done your duty. Neither can you wait 200 years for the so-called trickle down effect that never comes.

It is no accident that the real factor that won the UPA this election is its NREGA scheme and loan waiver for farmers. Even if 90 percent of this money is pilfered, it permeates into the countryside. Not all of the corruption is in Delhi and Bhubaneswar. A lot of the siphoning happens lower down the chain. Even those who rob, must spend. This boosts the local economy. This pays electoral dividends. India’s poor always vote. That is India’s best checkmate for arrogance.


30 May 2009,  Tehelka


India Should Re-Wrap Economic Reforms

In Politics, Uncategorized on February 22, 2012 at 8:23 am

I do not minimise the difficulties that lie ahead on the long and arduous journey on which we have embarked. But as Victor Hugo once said, “no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”. I suggest to this august House that the emergence of India as a major economic power in the world happens to be one such idea. Let the whole world hear it loud and clear. India is now wide awake. We shall prevail. We shall overcome.

— Manmohan Singh, finance minister, Budget Speech, July 24, 1991

In the two decades since Manmohan Singh’s hat-tip to Victor Hugo, and open markets, per capita income in India has grown from $309 to $1,477 (in today’s dollars), outstripping that of 19th century US and 20th century Japan. Life expectancy at birth grew by seven years, infant mortality rate fell by 40 percent and wage inequality between scheduled caste and other workers declined during the same period. Caste-based differences in grooming, eating and occupation narrowed as more open markets allowed a greater number of people to access a wide range of consumables and services. Yet, despite these lofty successes of the 1991 reforms, pro-market policies are viewed with deep suspicion and antipathy in India.

The reason for that perhaps lies in the way reforms were thrust on the country. A 2008 paper by Peter Boettke, Christopher Coyne and Peter Leeson titled ‘Institutional Stickiness and the New Development Economics’ has an explanation that could fit India. The economists theorised that big institutional changes should be rooted in existing cultures, customs and belief systems of a nation to succeed. They called it métis.

Métis is a set of informal practices and expectations that allow ethnic groups to build successful trade networks. The diamond trade in New York City, for instance, is dominated by orthodox Jews who use a set of signals, cues, and bonding mechanisms evolved over centuries for trading. The trade would not function as smoothly if random traders were placed in the same setting. This difference can be ascribed to métis. Because it is based in the accepted, understood, and habituated mentalities and practices of indigenous peoples, the presence or absence of métis explains the stickiness of various types of institutions. In fact, métis can be imagined as the glue that gives institutions their stickiness.

A large portion of the Japanese métis, which was harmonious with large-scale organisations, trade and market exchange, remained intact in the post-war period, helping in its successful reconstruction. While the Japanese adopted a constitution affirming their commitment to Western democratic institutions, much of the language expressed pre-World War II traditional Japanese social and political values.

Why did India fail to do this? The reasons are embedded in what and who influenced post-Independence India’s politics and economic thinking. The foremost perhaps is the Nehru-Gandhi family’s socialist bent. Socialism took India from one of the first developing countries to manufacture automobiles in the 1930s to one whose primary export was communicable diseases by 1991. No member of the Congress party dares say Nehru or Indira Gandhi got it wrong because the Indian métis is incompatible with socialism, even when moving away from it. Manmohan Singh began his July 24, 1991, Budget speech by saying how he was “overpowered by a strange feeling of loneliness” because Rajiv Gandhi was no more. He went on to say, “thanks to the efforts of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, we have developed a well-diversified industrial structure.”

Forty years of socialism meant that India produced political parties which excelled in winning elections in a socialist economy! Winning elections meant selling ‘collectivist’ ideas that were alien in an India métis. Market reforms in India remain a set of ‘dry economic ideas’ because there are few with the experience of selling these as ‘political ideas’. The reformers were unable to convince even the intellectual elites in influential economic institutions and learning centres. That meant the premier institutions dedicated to studying economics and Indian society did not believe in reforms, at least initially.

It has had its natural consequences. Not only did economic reforms sell poorly, the new policies edged out—instead of integrating and modernising— traditional economic institutions and practices like badla (stock market lending mechanism), hawala (a much-maligned, but low-cost and efficient money transfer mechanism), and rural moneylenders.

It is time India expresses economic freedom through its own social values—not as a tool, but as a value in itself. Economic freedom ought to be seen as a pre-requisite to benefitting from a rich tradition of business and entrepreneurship inherent in India’s diversity. Various communities have showed sharp business acumen, innovation and entrepreneurial skills. Indian managers are prized assets even on Wall Street. The Sikhs, Jains, Marwaris and Parsis have demonstrated their skills in building world-class businesses.

The idea of economic freedom must also be explained through the thoughts of influential Indian intellectuals. It is no secret that B.R. Ambedkar’s economic beliefs tilted towards Adam Smith rather than Karl Marx. Freedom fighter and India’s second home minister C. Rajagopalachari went even further. “A free market…will result in expansion of industry and rise in employment,” he wrote in 1958. Rajaji, as he was widely known, believed that political freedom could not survive unless it was sustained by economic freedom.  The idea of economic freedom is not new to India. The challenge for reformists in India is to promote elements of the Indian métis that are in harmony with a free market economic outlook. In short, the way in which economic reforms are presented matters.

1 Feb 2012,  Forbes

Fund and Flag

In Civil Services Reforms, Foreign Aid, Politics, Poverty Eradication on February 22, 2012 at 6:08 am

Don’t throw away DFID and its good work in a fit of unthinking nationalism


It is tough being the Department for International Development (DFID), the UK aid agency, in India these days. While Indian politicians are all too happy to score points against the erstwhile colonial masters and Indian leader writers hold forth about blood money and colonialism by other means, newspapers back in the UK scream that aid money is not buying enough influence or allegiance.

The only real justification for foreign aid has to be that we care about desperately poor people, irrespective of who they are or where they live. It makes sense for the DFID to be in India, because after all the bluster and brave talk from Indian elites, it is still true that 30 per cent of the world’s poorest live in India. And this ought not to be a surprise. Despite a couple of decades of fast growth, despite the Bollywood billionaires and space programmes, India is still a very poor country, with per capita incomes around 10 per cent of those in the United Kingdom, after adjusting for differences in prices and such things. All the talk about India possibly becoming the second largest economy in the world in two decades, apart from perhaps being slightly over-optimistic (growth rates are slowing dramatically right now), obscures the fact that this is mainly because India will have 1.5 billion people by then, and something like half of them would have grown up half-fed and quarter-educated.

This does mean that there is a limit to how much the UK government can do to help out. Even if they wanted to, they simply don’t have the money. We in India will ultimately have to do most of the work of solving our own problems. But that does not mean that help right now is not needed. I have long been an advocate of taxing the rich more (wealth taxes, for example), but in the short run, given how footloose the smart money tends to be and all the other challenges of tax collection, it is hard to imagine India raising more than a few per cent of GDP by raising taxes. That is a lot of money, but there are lots of problems to solve — education is a mess and so is healthcare, not to speak of infrastructure. Or, take nutrition — 50 per cent of children in India show signs of serious malnutrition, that’s several hundred million children. And every little bit helps. What logic would justify walking away from them, because the pride of a few elite Indians is affronted by what they view as British charity?

Of course, the argument does not end here. Perhaps even with the best of intentions, aid is doomed to be ineffective because it is foreign, as a number of scholars (and many leader writers) have suggested. My sense is that the evidence on this, like the evidence of most propositions in economics at this level of generality, is too ambiguous to bear the weight that is given to it — many social programmes fail, even in the developed world — and I’m not sure that aid-funded social programmes fail more than the rest (though it is always easy to find instances of aid funded — and non-aid funded — disasters).

More importantly, the DFID, at least in India, has been very careful to avoid the standard pitfalls of donor-funded programmes. They have focused on specific problems — mainly nutrition, sanitation and child and maternal health — without offering a recipe for all of poverty. They have gone where the poor are — in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. And, perhaps most importantly, they have stayed away from offering readymade solutions. Their work has always emphasised that we do not know why these problems are the way they are and that research will have to play a central role in coming up with effective solutions.

This last point highlights what I see as the most important contribution foreign aid can make to India. The culture in most government departments in India is dominated by a combination of expediency and received wisdom (this, sadly, might be one of colonialism’s most lasting contributions). Departments are mostly run by non-specialists who expect to hold the job for a year or two and, therefore, don’t necessarily have the time, inclination or capacity to learn what is needed to really tackle hard problems. And even when they want to get it right, the nature of politics is such that those in government never want to emphasise the possibility of failure or the need to scale down ambitions. This is where donors have the potential, and where the UK aid agency has shown a particular commitment. Precisely because it is not the government, the DFID can focus on a single problem or two, take the long view, emphasise trial-and-error, get to know the subject area well and think carefully. Through all that, it can get us to solutions that the government system may not be able to get to and more generally, inspire, through acculturation and imitation, a model of governing that will enable India to ultimately solve its own problems. It is not the money that the UK government gives us that is its biggest gift but the ability of its aid agency to be patient, serious and open, and it would be a tragedy if we throw it away in a fit of unthinking nationalism.


21 Feb 2012, Indian Express

A solid sense of security

In Bizarre Laws, Bureaucratic Delays, Centre-State Relations, Politics on February 22, 2012 at 6:03 am


It’s not just the NCTC — we need to provide a statutory basis and oversight mechanisms for all our intelligence agencies

The protest by eight chief ministers, characterising the Union government’s decision to give powers of search and arrest to the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC ) under Section 43 (a) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967 as an assault on federalism, comes in the wake of a “sticky bomb” attack that injured an Israeli diplomat in the high-security Lutyens Delhi. The attack, perhaps, is a precursor to the export of a new wave of terror to India. In any other democracy, both the decision and the attack would have triggered a larger debate about the nature and functioning of our law enforcement and intelligence structures.

India’s counter-terrorism structures and operational capacities to pre-empt and prevent terror attacks suffer from both design flaws and capacity constraints. The complete absence of a consensus on national security issues turns debates into slanging matches, replete with political and communal overtones. It is not surprising, then, that the rhetoric of zero tolerance against terror has never turned into an operational reality.

In sharp contrast, a survey of global counter-terrorism efforts reveals that nothing has been allowed to stand in the way of crafting an effective pre-emptive response to terror. After the Munich Olympics outrage, counter-terrorism through the use of military, law enforcement, intelligence and other resources to identify, circumvent and neutralise terrorist groups has been among the principal security concerns of Germany. The counter-terrorism effort in Germany is directed by the federal coordinator for intelligence, who reports directly to the German chancellor.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a national counter-terrorism centre was created at the federal level by the US government, with the 2004 intelligence reform legislation, to serve as the primary organisation responsible for the war on terror. Its objective was straightforward — ensure that terrorists do not strike again. The rationale — focus all elements of national power in the fight against terror by clearly delineating national priorities, breaking down inter-agency barriers and overriding federal qua state jurisdictional issues.

Similarly, Spain in the wake of the Madrid train bombings in 2004, and Britain after the London bus bombings in 2005, have substantially beefed up their counter-terrorism structures. Britain has an organisation called National Counter Terrorism Security office, exclusively dedicated to this purpose. In Russia the National Counterterrorism Committee (NAK) is tasked with coordinating all federal-level anti-terrorism policies and operations with the powers to intervene at the federal, regional or even municipal level. Even Sweden has designated its security police as the lead agency in the fight against terrorism. Most of these countries, in addition to being democratic, have strong federalist impulses.

What was required was a national organisation exclusively tasked with confronting every part of the terrorists’ life cycle, from radicalisation to recruitment, financing to training for an attack. The decision, therefore, to establish the NCTC by drawing executive power from Article 72 of the Constitution and empowering it under the UAPA, needs to be understood and located in this security environment.

However, the decision to create such an institution through an executive order and locate it within the Intelligence Bureau (IB) does raise certain valid concerns, given the tenuous legal basis of our intelligence structures, the lack of an independent oversight mechanism and the atmosphere of permanent political distrust in a polarised polity.

In response to a Parliament question in July 2009 pertaining to the legislative act from which the Intelligence Bureau draws its right to function, the government came up with this: “The Intelligence Bureau figures in Schedule 7 of the Constitution under the Union list”. When pressed that this may not be an appropriate answer, the government emphatically reiterated: “The Intelligence Bureau finds mention at S.No.8 in the Union list under the 7th Schedule of the Constitution of India”.

Entry 8 in the Union list enunciated in the government’s response merely gives it the legislative power to enact a statute to bring a Central Bureau of Intelligence to be called by whatever name (IB or BI) into existence. A mere mention of a subject in the laundry list of legislative powers neither gives an organisation life nor legitimacy. Unfortunately, no such law has ever been enacted by successive governments since the commencement of the Constitution.

Similar is the case of India’s external intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). Responding to a Parliament question about the law/statute which enables the R&AW, the government admitted that there is no specific statute governing its functions or mandate. However, a formal charter listing the scope and mandate of the R&AW governs its functioning

Contrast this with the position in other countries. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was created by the National Security Act of 1947 and is empowered by the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949. MI5, the domestic intelligence service of the United Kingdom, draws its legal authority from the Security Services Act 1989, and its sister organisation MI6, or the SIS, from the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, thereby subjecting its activities to the scrutiny of the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. The Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia draws its legal basis from the Law on Foreign Intelligence Organs 1996. The German Federal Intelligence Service Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) draws its legal sustenance from the Federal Intelligence Service Law 1990. Its activities are supervised by the Parliamentary Control Commission (PKK) for intelligence services, which in turn is empowered by the law over the Parliamentary Control of Intelligence Activities 1978.

The current challenge should be turned into an opportunity, both by the government and by Parliament, to provide a statutory basis and an oversight mechanism for our intelligence agencies. A template in the form of a private member’s bill introduced by me in the Lok Sabha entitled “The Intelligence Services (Powers and Regulations) Bill 2011” already exists. The NCTC can be incorporated in omnibus treasury legislation with statutory safeguards that clearly delineate the role of state governments in this existential struggle. This should be in addition to the operational standing council NCTC order 2012 seeks to create. This would prevent the bogey of federalism from derailing the fight against terror.


21 Feb 2012, Indian Express



Our Scissorland

In Bizarre Laws, Politics on January 19, 2012 at 6:50 am

Indian democracy is constantly abridging liberties of its citizens. The number of cases where free speech is abridged may be small, but they are like a poison that vitiates the whole constitutional regime. Everyone utters the platitude that they respect freedom, but they then use the qualifier that no freedom is absolute in the most mendacious way.

What do you call a regime where all the following happens: judges openly fantasise about turning India into China on censorship, where the state sanctions needless prosecution of social media, and where politicians shamelessly rake up the Salman Rushdie issue, as a reminder of how insecure artists are?

The most common argument for censorship is the phrase “cultural sensitivity”. This is not so much an argument as a fig leaf. What is this thing called “cultural sensitivity?” Let us state this clearly. “Cultural sensitivity” is not a pre-given fact about Indian society. It is something manufactured through the exercise of power. It is the structure of the law that gives incentives for mobilisation. P. Ananda Charlu, as early as 1886, had prophesied how mischievous Section 153 of the IPC would prove to be. He described it as “a dangerous piece of legislation by necessitating the government to appear to side with one party against the other. In my humble judgment it will only accentuate the evil which it is meant to remove. Far from healing the differences which still linger, or which now and then come to the surface, it would widen the gap by encouraging insidious men to do mischief in stealth”. Groups mobilise because they know the law and state will cave in. If the law and state were different, the cultural sensitivity would be different.

In the case of new social media, none of the regulation ayatollahs has noticed an interesting dialectic at work. Let us admit that there is often very offensive stuff posted on Facebook or Twitter. But what we paid less attention to is this: in a country where people supposedly resort to violence at the drop of a hat (or an image or a word), there has been almost no violence associated with this content. In fact, the irony is that purveyors of hate speech have become supporters of a regime of toleration. They all want the protection of the law to express what they want to express. The content of what they say may be offensive, but precisely by letting them all loose do you make these distasteful people supporters of freedom. In fact, the claim made by politicians that this kind of content will lead to violence is insulting doubly over. First, it is just a plain lie to justify censorship. Second, what is offensive is that politicians continue to treat Indian citizens as if we were colonial subjects. They infantilise us. They say to us, “you are unable to control your passions, so we have to protect you by censoring”. The truth is the opposite: they want to construct our passions in such a way that they can use that as a pretext to censor.

Most communal violence involves state complicity through commission or omission. Most violence supposedly sparked off by speech has state complicity behind it. When politicians send a signal that those who attack artists will be justified on some grounds of cultural sensitivity, or when they blame the victim, they purposefully embolden those who will attack artists. Why can’t the Rajasthan Congress say: “We are proud of Jaipur as a cosmopolitan city. We may have our individual views on Rushdie’s work. But we will take pride in the fact that he can come without fear”? The so-called Indian sensitivity is constructed through operations of power. In the case of Rushdie, the self-appointed guardians of minority interests maintain their power by projecting a community as a victim of some impunity a free speech regime licenses. Last time, the Rushdie affair exacerbated a tragic cycle of communalism. We can only hope this time it will be limited to a farce.

This backdrop explains the fear over the government’s attempts to censor various new mediums like social networking sites. These mediums pose new challenges for the ethics of expression. Many states are trying to use these mediums as tools of discipline rather than platforms of expression. But remove the fig leaf of technicalities. Holding them pre-emptively responsible for offensive speech is like requiring a profit-making road operator liable for every crime committed on the road because they did not pre-screen every car and driver and let potential murderers drive. But the issue is not technology. Given the Indian state’s record, it is but natural that any whiff of regulatory control is seen as threatening. A measure of this is the fact that a platitude like “no freedom is absolute” sounds more like a threat when the state utters it.

All of us, who are Nehru’s great admirers, have to acknowledge that his stance on the First Amendment was scandalously callow. It set in motion the instrumentalities of state censorship. It also legitimised the insidious idea that it was not the state’s job to protect freedom, but to discipline that freedom in the name of some conception of propriety. It was the likes of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee who resisted Nehru on this score. It was K.M. Munshi who had proposed the deletion of sedition from the exceptions to the right to freedom of expression. This history is important. The defence of the spirit of the Constitution cannot be understood in simple ideological terms. The Congress has, for too long, used the ideological secularism card to justify its assaults on freedom, or justify its timidity in the face of small groups who want to hold freedom to ransom. All those who easily use the word “fascist” for the Sangh Parivar let the Congress go scot-free. The Congress’s brand of pluralism is homicidal for freedom and individuality.

There is also another historical amnesia. Justice Markandey Katju waxed about people who write for the media being ignorant of Paine and Voltaire. I doubt the judiciary has internalised their message. But more to the point, Enlightenment was not spread only by sober, non-offensive philosophers. It was created by the most scurrilous lampooning of religious authority, often debasing it. A liberal democratic society can allow us to do that peacefully. But what creates conflict is not offensive speech; it is those using it as a pretext to exercise power over others.


19 Jan 2o12, Indian Express

A costly morality

In Agriculture, Bureaucratic Delays, Corruption, NREGA, PDS, Politics on January 11, 2012 at 6:16 am

It is election time, perhaps even time for mid-term polls, after the assembly elections in February. Time, therefore, for a mid-term review of the UPA 2’s policies. Much has been written about the lack of leadership on the part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. So in interests of balance and “equal opportunity”, I would like to discuss the performance of the chairperson of the UPA, Sonia Gandhi. Actually, there is more than equality that dictates that her performance be judged — she has been, after all, the major leader of the Congress for almost 15 years.

It was March 31, 1997 when Sitaram Kesri was ousted from the Congress party leadership and Sonia Gandhi assumed leadership. Her political acumen was tested a year later in February 1998. In the general elections, Ms Gandhi was able to garner 141 seats — one more than those obtained in 1996. But this wasn’t really a test of her political leadership because she had only a year to gear up the moribund Congress, a party in steep decline because of the lack of a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm. A year and a half later, in September 1999, there was yet another general election, this one precipitated by Sonia Gandhi’s statement that she was ready to take over the government because she had 273 seats. In the 1999 Lok Sabha, the Congress hit a historical low of 114 seats.

But it wasn’t really a test of Sonia Gandhi’s leadership because in India, coalition politics really determines who wins. In the May 2004 elections, Gandhi chose well and was able to bring up the Congress tally back up to the 1996 and 1998 mark of 145 seats! So a decade after the decline of the Congress, and with seven years at the helm, she was not able to make any difference to the misfortunes of the Congress party. The political record got much better in the most recent May 2009 election, when the Congress-led UPA came back with the solid achievement of 206 seats. How much of this was due to her leadership, and how much due to the solid 8 per cent-plus GDP growth rate, and how much due to Manmohan Singh’s honesty, is a matter that historians will decide. What we do know is that the accelerated GDP growth rate had precious little to do with any policies that the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh government introduced between 2004-2009.

Indeed, the populist policies that were introduced by UPA 1 sowed the seeds of the economic disaster that India has witnessed since 2008. Our GDP growth rate has decelerated more than most other countries, and there has been more volatility in inflation, especially food inflation, in India than any other country in the world. This volatility has been induced and juiced up by the populist policies of UPA 1 and 2. It is an open question whether these economic policies were the doing of Mr Singh or of Ms Gandhi.

The PM can be blamed for many things, including the unnecessarily tight monetary policy, but it is incredible to think that a fiscal conservative like him approved of the Greece and Venezuela-like populism that has been engineered by Gandhi and her social and economic think (not)-camp called the National Advisory Council. Whether it is loan melas for farmers, destructively high procurement prices for foodgrain, employment programmes or the food subsidy bill, it is Gandhi and her NAC who should get the credit — or the blame.

Words come cheap, so let us look at some facts. Soon after Sonia Gandhi came to power, she introduced the national employment scheme, NREGA. True to expectations, the Congress introduced the employment guarantee scheme as its own invention, so it could ostensibly get political and “left intellectual” credit for caring so much about the poor. Proclaiming morality has always come easy to the hubris-filled chests of the Congress leaders. Never mind that the employment scheme was as old as 1973, when it was first introduced by the Mahrashtra government as a “food for work” programme for the poor. Since then, it had been introduced all over the country as an anti-poverty programme. With economic growth and economic development unknown only to the Congress party leadership, such programmes had declined in importance. Until in-your-face populism was introduced by Sonia Gandhi and the NAC, and expenditures on such programmes averaged Rs 40,000 crore over the last few years.

Today it is acknowledged that the NREGA scheme is rife with corruption. But Sonia Gandhi and the NAC want to introduce the food security bill. Again, much like the “invention” of employment programmes, the Congress believes it is introducing this morality into Indian policy making for the first time.

Morality does not come cheap and maybe accompanied with intolerable corruption. At present, the public distribution scheme (PDS) works as follows — the government procures the foodgrain from the farmer and ostensibly delivers the same to the poor at heavily subsidised prices. The table shows the performance of this scheme in 2004-05 and 2009-10, the two years for which NSS data are available, data that can cross check the government’s claims of expenditure. The first two rows show the discrepancy in terms of tonnes of food that disappear into thin air. In 2004-05, the government claimed to have delivered 41.5 million tonnes to the PDS shops for delivery to the people. Only 13.2 tonnes actually got delivered. The difference, 28 million tonnes, was not delivered to the poor or the rich by the PDS shops. This food went from the PDS shops to the market and the market sold it to the poor at, well, market prices.

We can all take heart from the fact that the situation improved in 2009-10 — now close to half of the food delivered to the PDS shops were bought from these shops. How much got lost? 24 million tonnes. The subsidy value of this taxpayers’ loss, and the gain for so-called middle men and women, was a healthy Rs 30,000 crore. This number closely matches the lower bound estimate of 2G corruption.

Scams like the 2G scam happen once in a decade. PDS corruption goes on every year. And the food security bill will only enhance and glorify this ongoing corruption. To be sure, the bill enhances the moral stature of the Congress, Sonia Gandhi and the NAC. But it enhances corruption even more. Anti-corruption stalwarts like Vinod Rai, or even Team Anna, where are you when we really need you?

7 Jan 2011, Indian Express