Political Paralysis

POLITICAL PARALYSIS

India has yet to develop normal conservative, liberal and socialist parties. The Nice-Housing-Effect and a little game-theory may explain the current stagnation

By SUBROTO ROY

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, June 24 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net

THE theatrics surrounding the choice of presidential candidates refer to the highest and most dignified office of the land. Otherwise, India’s public would have been justified to think we were watching an absurd farce. Even so, lessons may be learnt about the nature of our polity, especially our purported Government and its purported Opposition.

Consider first how the name of the Congress’s candidate apparently arose. “Why don’t you think of Pratibha Patil?” was the rhetorical suggestion apparently made by Manmohan Singh to Sonia Gandhi at a joint meeting of the UPA and Left where no other person could be agreed upon. What could have been the emotional state of the Prime Minister of India in addressing such a question to its specific addressee? It had to be the same unconscious perplexity and mental contradiction he has experienced throughout the UPA Government, saying to himself: “I am the Prime Minister but I am not the Prime Minister, I am the Head of India’s Government but I am not the Head of India’s Government”.

Instead of leading the country as he was chosen to do in the belief he possessed some superior wisdom and capability for the job, Dr Singh has constantly deferred to and followed the person who chose him to lead. The Head of Government in our system recommends an appropriate Head of State. If Dr Singh truly felt himself India’s leader, not merely someone permitted for some time to enjoy the office and perquisites of India’s Prime Minister and being nominally referred to as such, he could have said: “I think we should consider Pratibha Patil, what say all of you?”

Such words would have displayed too much assertiveness in the presence of Sonia Gandhi, too much leadership from someone flatteringly described as mild and gentle but unflatteringly described as obsequious in the face of power. It is the same excess of deference displayed when he allows himself to be bullied or insulted by the DMK or receive the open contempt of his own Cabinet ministers. Dr Singh has just returned from the so-called “G-8 summit” where he was an invitee. In a group photo standing above and behind the American President, Dr Singh was seen gently touching George Bush on the shoulder as if Bush was a rich younger brother who needed a lift in spirits. Afterwards Dr Singh reportedly said the summit was useless ~ from his long bureaucratic experience he should have known that long beforehand, and declined to waste India’s time there. But then Europe is nice this time of year when Delhi is so hot. China is next on his itinerary, and he will surely not want to miss the Great Wall despite China’s continuing insults.

What the Pratibha episode reveals about Sonia Gandhi is her continuing bewilderment and confusion about the parameters of her life since her husband’s assassination sixteen years ago. There is a very simple candid explanation why, after her years in mourning, she entered politics following the Sitaram Kesri period: she and her children could not financially sustain a lifestyle to which they had become accustomed at 10 Janpath except as part of India’s politics via the Congress Party. Running the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation was not enough, and Rahul Gandhi’s income in a normal private sector career would have been unexceptional. Hence the lure of power has remained strong and cannot be walked away from even if walking away would be the right thing to do for sake of the political health of the Congress Party ~ which would finally have to grow up, find some political principles, and develop some normal processes of internal competition.

When Pratibha Patil’s name was mentioned for the first time in this manner, the rational course of action for the UPA Chair would have been to say, wait, if we are now thinking about a woman definitely, may we please have two or three such names to consider for a few days? But it was Dr Singh mentioning the name, and his supposed wisdom is what Sonia Gandhi believes, in her bewilderment, she should defer to, so she agreed at once in a parallel state of mental confusion as his: “I am India’s Leader but I am not India’s Leader”. Hence Pratibha Patil becomes the nominee. A little “game-theory” may help to explain the outcome (see table).

The paralysis and/or sclerosis of the Congress’s thinking processes is matched by the BJP and Communists. If Sonia Gandhi could bring herself to walk away from Indian politics, a genuine leadership contest in the Congress would have to occur for the first time in decades. Similarly, if Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani could bring themselves to honestly walk away from BJP politics, there would have to be a genuine leadership contest and some new principles emerging in their party. There is an excellent and very simple political reason for Vajpayee and Advani to go, which is not that they are too old (which they are) but that they led their party to electoral defeat. Had they walked away in May 2004, there might have been by now some viable conservative political philosophy in India and some recognisable new alternative leadership for 2009. Instead there is none and the BJP has not only failed very badly at being a responsible Opposition, it will go into the 2009 General Election looking exceptionally decrepit and incompetent.

Indeed, Vajpayee and Advani may not have walked away for the same reason as Sonia Gandhi, namely, the “10 Janpath Effect” or what may be generalised to the “Nice-New Delhi-Government-Housing-Effect”. Besides, like our ageing cricketers, cinema stars, playback singers and tons of ageing bureaucrats and corporate executives, where would they go, what would they do, how would they live, what do they know how to do if they were not doing what they have been doing for so long? Golf and grandchildren is the usual American formula.

In case of the Communists, it is not electoral but ideological defeat, indeed ideological annihilation, that their leaders have led them into. When was the last time we heard our Communist leaders extolling Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Zhou or even Fidel Castro? Not for a long time. The bankruptcy of official communism is obvious even to them, at least in their candid moments in front of the mirror every morning. Even for the CPI and CPI(M) to merge into a genuine modern socialist party is too creative and productive an outcome to be handled since top and middle management retrenchments would be inevitable. Also, the Cannot-Leave-Nice-Housing-Effect applies here too, and so the most we find by way of communist transformation is a perverse alliance with organised big business in trying to cheat very poor and unorganised peasants of their land in an economy where runaway paper money printing threatens a hyperinflation.

Nobody in power wants to address the rotten state of our public finances, since all of them have contributed to causing the stench. Our Finance Minister finds time to attend posh parties and publish books while presiding over an RBI-supported capital flight of India’s super-rich: “ultrahigh networth individuals are looking forward to buy overseas equities and real estate” Business Standard (25 April 2007) blithely said. The Finance Minister should have been instead burning the midnight candle getting public budgets and government accounting cleaned and healthy nationwide.

We in India have had more than enough time and democratic experience to have developed by now a set of normal conservative, liberal democrat, social democrat and socialist parties. That we have nothing of the kind speaks to the rot in the political culture we are witnessing in our capital and other major cities. Politically, we may be in for an especially ugly, unpleasant and incoherent few years starting with the presidential election currently underway.

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