Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hope floats

Rural and new urban voters will ultimately save India from the venal governing class, avers Gautam Sen.

Structural and sociological factors are major reasons for the far-reaching socio-economic debacle India has ended within its sixty-fifth year of independence. I have argued earlier that the adoption of a parliamentary system of government was a huge error of judgement. A more insulated, presidential form, would have allowed balancing of diverse sectarian demands under the overarching umbrella of a national vote, constraining accentuation of deeply-rooted faultlines in Indian society. The parliamentary system has given full play to every socio-political division and real or imagined grievance instead of allowing them to be addressed with a combination of measured policy assuagement by rulers and accommodation by the ruled.

The attempt to resolve every perceived injustice completely, which must inevitably eventually result in endless bloodshed, is in grave danger of being achieved in India. Its long-suffering, meek people have now developed a taste for wilful truculence and its self-seeking educated has filed for moral and intellectual bankruptcy, forgetting self-restraint and sacrifices are imperative for nationhood. India's ruling national elites themselves are well on the way to abandoning all pretence of governing their fissiparous country and are engaged in shameless personal enrichment. In this hapless melee a deeper dynamic is nevertheless in play and understanding it might provide a better grasp of the likely fate of India.

The political elites of India, including its vast bureaucracy, have become somewhat detached from purposive governance that seeks to achieve national societal goals essentially on their intrinsic merits. Huge spending targets are not evidence of goal-oriented purpose when they are unable to connect effectively with implementation. They indicate a certain inertia and imprisonment by past choices that listlessly and powerfully propel movement without real direction. A clue to this reality is provided by the disjuncture between a Planning Commission, unable to provide direction, and reckless foreign spending by its most senior official. He might have paused to reflect on the dire poverty of most of its citizens, whose interests are supposedly the organization's raison d'etre, since his political bosses constantly resort to Mahatma Gandhi's pious injunctions on self-restraint.

India's governing classes may be grimly rational in behaving with egregiously self-serving abandon, stealing and lying. Offered an uncertain future as rulers, though highly privileged and rewarded, and unable to truly impact on policy outcomes, this was always a likely scenario. Indeed, idealism is driven out quickly and any misguided souls entertaining aspirations to assist the nation advance are likely to fall by the wayside. In time, opportunists and crooks have come to dominate Indian political life and plunder the country, as the shocking statistics on the criminal backgrounds of legislators underline. In the final stages of decay, few upright politicians remain to curb the damage that relentless looting and dishonesty precipitates. And that seems to be the stage India has reached under UPA 2, ironically led by a man initially celebrated for his shining rectitude. The exaggerated analysis above is necessary to illustrate the inference that India has acquired pronounced symptoms of having become, in essence, a predatory state. Such a predilection is usually a matter of degree and the Indian polity has slid dramatically towards the end of the spectrum characterised by predation of late.

The second dimension relates to economic entrepreneurs large and small having two contrasting types of relationships with India's governing elites, on a spectrum that ranges from collusion in joint plunder to obligations to bribe in order to operate as economic agents. Although both relationships can prevail concurrently, the consistent position on the spectrum is likely to depend on size, with the larger conspiring conjointly for mutual gain. Smaller players are consigned to the end that mostly necessitates bribing the governing classes, directly and indirectly (money bribes and excessive charges for services like transportation and energy, etc.), to operate.

Some formally constituted private economic enterprises are in fact owned, indirectly at arms length, by members of the governing class themselves. These profiteer massively by obtaining lucrative government contracts and siphoning off major nationally-owned resources like land and mines. Other essentially private economic operators benefit from similar larceny, but many also position themselves strategically in the marketplace through licensing and other privileges granted by political benefactors. It enables them to extract vast revenues from consumers through entrepreneurial activities, which they share with the governing class. The extent of economic growth is a spin-off from this operational reality and the critical cross-over point that determines its rate is the forbearance of the governing class in plunder because excesses lower the growth rate.

The third dimension of India's political interstices is occupied by external protagonists. They pursue their short and long-term goals with greater freedom as the Indian state atrophies and the governing class is preoccupied with individual political survival and personal enrichment. The external agents within India include a vast number of social NGOs and economic entities. The former are often anything but innocuous charities seeking to relieve poverty and promote empowerment, as they purport. In fact, many engage in cajoling and bribing politicians and the government in order to operate freely and achieve sinister objectives. Their activities range from longer-term goals like religious conversion to create extra-territorial loyalties, of which the Koondankulum episode is one poignant example, to suborning governments to win contracts and influence policy decisions. Manipulating economic policy decisions creates highly profitable opportunities entailing lucrative contracts awarded by state enterprises and policies that allow dubious investment vehicles like Participatory Notes.

More worryingly, in recent years, important national policy perspectives seem inexplicably poised to discard long-held certainties, without adducing compelling arguments for them. There are grounds for suspicion that such puzzling behaviour is a product of the susceptibility of the ruling elite, many of whom harbour criminal backgrounds, to blackmail by well-informed external players and their dedicated Indian associates. Blackmail has become a hugely significant problem in the Indian polity, endangering its very survival.

The hapless majority of India comprises the fourth dimension of its polity, facing awesome impending outcomes of which they are perhaps only vaguely aware. There is nothing to be said of a largely purchased Indian media which foxtrots to the tune of assorted venal paymasters while avowing improbable high purpose and concern for the ordinary citizens of India.

Unfortunately, the vast anonymous masses are vulnerable to mobilization by prize rascals who have developed pushing the right buttons of instinctive prejudice and resentment into an art form. Yet, there are gratifying signs that they do not unfailingly deliver the desired goods. A majority of the criminals who had put themselves forward at the recent Uttar Pradesh assembly elections were rejected and the crass hate-mongering earlier of Nitish Kumar's opponents in Bihar also suffered ignominious setback. Perhaps the dire necessity of daily survival eventually sanitizes the mind, even if false promises initially confound judgement.

It may also be anticipated that the ordinary voter across the length and breadth of India, struggling to find their daily roti or rice, will deliver a resounding verdict on the serial revelations of incredible corruption that ultimately rob them of the basics of survival. Middle class India itself doesn't yet count, partly because many don't vote though they seem to have a pretty shrewd idea of what is happening to their country. Their numbers are growing rapidly, with India's urban population predicted to exceed 600 million by 2030. The diverse constituents of urban India share an understanding that reasonable governance is essential for tolerable living, as Gujarat's voters have repeatedly reaffirmed by voting for Narendra Modi. They and rural voters, with whom the majority of these recent migrants to urban India have much in common, may be the saving of India. Together, they will be in a position to choose a government they deserve and its genuine nationalist credentials will surely be a pregnant issue.

Dr Gautam Sen taught Political Economy at the London School of Economics and Politics.

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