Friday, August 31, 2012

Close call?

The political class has let down India

By Gautam Sen

Is the future of the Indian Republic in doubt? Surveying published opinion and gauging political postures, one gets ambiguous answers. Many retired senior administrative, intelligence and defence officials write dispiritingly of India's immediate prospects, which should cause worry. It also points to their lack of confidence in the political masters they once served. The political masters can be divided into three categories and views that can be reasonably imputed to them judged accordingly. The first is the overwhelming swathe of political representatives who currently dominate political life in States and, increasingly, the Centre. The second are a smaller group of influential senior political leaders, chairing parliamentary committees, etc., and have an impact on party stances. The final and most significant are the politicians who are senior ministers, led by the prime minister, a coterie privy to state secrets and approving policies.

The first group of politicians are ingenious locals, possessing social clout, village cunning and, often, felonious instincts. These skills allow this growing breed of politician to win by twisting electoral outcomes and attain wealth and status. Although an essentially malevolent group, they are tolerated while they cast their votes as required, which is also the purpose of the occasional cine star nominated by political party leaderships. The second group of politicos are largely managers of the political apparatus inside Parliament and the assembly and retire into obscurity unless elevated to ministerial status, the aspiration that consigns them to faithful servitude. The prime minister and senior ministers, with final oversight, actually make decisions though that does not automatically guarantee action. Contemporary policy boasts, with eye-watering budgetary allocations, seem to frequently fail in implementation, but manage to enrich a variety of governmental insiders and their collaborators outside it.

The prime minister has always been the critical component in times of crises and when major policy decisions are on the radar. In the past, India's ultimate decision-makers, especially the prime minister, trusted ministerial colleagues and advisers, have been of rather variable quality. The quality of this leadership in India has only been effective twice, during Indira Gandhi's tenure and Atal Behari Vajpayee's brief period in office. Indira Gandhi may have had her faults, but it would be erroneous to overlook her uncompromising defence of India's national honour, personal courage and ability to identify good advisers and listen to them. Atal Behari Vajpayee steered government by force of personality, despite lacking the requisite numbers in Parliament and acquiescing in some wrongdoing by those close to him. However, he mostly managed to deter the kind of egregious malfeasance that has become routine following his departure. Since May 2004, the grievous disempowering of the prime minister's office has become the single most important reason for the virtual collapse of administrative decision-making and governance. It has become so serious that it now threatens the viability of the polity.

How very important is the quality of leadership at the pinnacle, especially for India, cannot be understated. A multitude of domestic divisions, dire poverty and grave international challenges combine to constantly probe the durability of the Indian polity. Excluding the hugely significant setback of Partition in 1947, India has survived and indeed advanced on many fronts, industrialising the economy, educating its people, feeding a vastly increased population, although not as adequately as it should, and empowering disadvantaged groups. These are respectable achievements that have occurred in the context of fractious democratic politics. At the same time, India's political leadership was rarely sagacious, but an essentially patient populace prevented recurrent setbacks from becoming insuperable crises. Jawaharlal Nehru's self-confident but shallow leadership at the outset was balanced by the astute and decisive Sardar Vallabhai Patel, as the record of the Kashmir and Tibetan imbroglios demonstrate. But Nehru persisted with his half-baked grasp of the wider world, on which he imagined himself to be an expert, inviting the calamity of the Himalayan blunder.

In the aftermath of Nehru and his redoubtable daughter, Indira Gandhi, a succession of mediocrities and amateurs, with the exception of P.V.Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee, has beset India. And they have been succeeded by a rank novice, with little understanding of India's vast complexity, and a powerless prime minister. The latter, shamefully, needed his finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, to call Cabinet meetings to order to begin them. Such weak leadership cannot either inspire talented advisers or embrace their advice. The fact that a periodically tottering India was not altogether prostrate earlier has been significantly due to some of its committed and outstanding public servants, the likes of V.P.Menon, L.K.Jha and some I have the privilege of knowing personally, among them, M.K.Rasgotra, Ronen Sen, Shyam Saran, Prabhat Shukla, Ajit Doval, Lieutenant- General JFR Jacob, and the late Ashok Saikia. But they cannot run India, however capable they might be, since policy legitimacy and its decisive implementation must derive from the political leadership.

Over many months now, India's highest decision-making apparatus has at best been going through the motions of operating pretty much stalled policies and their implementation indefinitely deferred. The shocking lapses of the UPA coalition must include the dismal circus at the 2009 Indo-Pak meeting in Sharm-el Sheikh, where a high-powered Indian delegation was shamefully wrong-footed by the Pakistanis, mendacious and crafty as ever. It has been followed by a government floundering over serial revelations of massive corruption and apparent befuddlement over the on-going communal crisis in Assam and its serious fallout across India. Government responses can only be deemed laughable unless they have been maliciously intended to aggravate the situation for unfathomable political purposes. And twenty more months remain before the general elections. Unfortunately, it can be almost safely predicted that more impasse and confusion are likely to ensue after it because the Indian Parliament is no longer fit for purpose. Opposition leaders are mainly preoccupied to jostle for future ministerial position and the Congress party paralysed by fear of losing power and the consequent fate of its ruling dynasty. And nefarious regional satraps harbour the utmost danger for the integrity of the Indian Union.

India's rulers seem somewhat unmindful of the urgent issue of collapsing economic performance, heightened communal tensions, which begin to look like a prelude to widespread armed conflict, and the possibility they could invite foreign assault. There is even a suspicion that the two major political parties are colluding to avoid political reform, since both are compromised on many counts, and choreographing displays of faux contention to confound a gullible electorate. The Indian media, with its reputation deeply tarnished by the Radia tapes for acting as creatures of politicians, industrial houses and its obsession with celebrity, is conspicuously self-serving and conceitedly amoral. It performs little constructive role in sustaining the health of Indian society by informing honestly and judging wisely.

The question that might be posed in these troubled times is how entrenched constituents of the Indian establishment respond when the national applecart is threatened with being comprehensively upset. Serious countries retain an embedded capacity, short of a military coup d'etat, to thwart the dismantling of the State, with all the incalculable consequences implied. On recent form, one may plausibly doubt if higher echelons of India's decision-makers are capable of providing the imperative breakwater today, although they may have proved invaluable for India's welfare and functioning in the past.

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

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