A Note on the Indian Policy Process
During the University of Hawaii perestroika-for-India project two decades ago, I had wished to attract Sukhamoy Chakravarty from Delhi. He very kindly met me on July 14 1987 and presented me his last personal signed copy of the famous RBI report his committee had chaired. He said he could not come to Hawaii because of ill health but he strongly recommended I take C. Rangarajan instead because, he said, Dr Rangarajan was the main author of the report. I met Dr Rangarajan in Kolkata at Jadavpur University where he was giving a speech in his role as President of the Indian Economic Society that year. Later in correspondence, he wrote to say he was over-committed but that if I took Amaresh Bagchi instead, he would help co-author Bagchi’s contribution to our project. So I commissioned Amaresh Bagchi, then Director of New Delhi’s National Institute of Public Finance and Policy.
In my next project-related visit to Delhi in December 1988, I met Amaresh Bagchi personally for the first time; he was about to retire or had already done so. He told me he knew my name from the fact the High Commission of India in London had sent the Finance Ministry in Delhi the May 29 1984 lead editorial of The Times of London on my work which had been very critical of Indian economic policy; Bagchi had been at the time in the Finance Ministry, and, as an old sarkari statist, had naturally taken exception to what I had said by way of liberal criticism. He wished to co-write his contribution for our Hawaii project with a young colleague of his; I declined permission for him to do that and told him our understanding was that Dr Rangarajan would be writing with him.
In any case, in May 1989, Amaresh was the first person to reach Honolulu in the team we had put together for the project, arriving early by several days. He was all alone and seemed miserable, so I took him to the supermarket and later invited him to dine with my small family at our home at Punahou Towers, 1621 Dole Street. It pleased him to eat some home-cooked Indian food, and he warmed slightly. He told me he had joined the Government as a bureaucrat in the income tax department and later acquired a doctoral degree in economics, though I did not get a sense that he was familiar with traditional public finance of the sort in Richard Musgrave’s classic textbook. I gifted him a copy of James Buchanan’s lectures that I had put together when Professor Buchanan had visited the University of Hawaii at my invitation in 1988 and which the University had then published with a preface by myself. He remarked he found it terrible that American supermarkets had all this canned pet food when the world was so hungry. Later I invited him to a larger dinner party again at my home before the conference began.
At the conference itself, I placed him next to Milton Friedman, which some said was a master-stroke. There was a long and somewhat heated interchange between him and TN Srinivasan, though not with Milton, as Milton was, as always, invariably polite, patient and clear-headed in argument for the two days that he stayed.
The chapter Amaresh Bagchi wrote for us in the book Foundations of India’s Political Economy, edited by myself and WE James, was useful as practically the only statement until that time on the fiscal-induced monetary weakness of India (that still continues today, indeed may have gotten worse since). It contributed to placing him in the policy-limelight in his post-retirement years. Dr Rangarajan was not a co-author after all but apparently contributed the most important paragraphs on the subject. (We have been trying for almost a year now to get the University of Hawaii to allow free republication of the book on the Internet; the original publisher, now dead, reneged on a promise to produce a paperback edition after there was leftist academic pressure on him in Delhi.)
I gave a copy of our book to Manmohan Singh when I met him and his senior aides in September 1993 in Washington at the Indian Ambassador’s Residence; I was introduced to Dr Singh by the then Ambassador of India SS Ray as the person on whose laptop computer the 1991 economic reform had been designed for Rajiv Gandhi during Rajiv’s last months, a statement accurate enough as has been told elsewhere. (Dr Singh had 20 years earlier kindly visited our then-home in Paris at 14 Rue Eugene Manuel at the invitation of my father who knew him, to advise me about economics just before I headed to the London School of Economics as an 18 year old freshman; but in 1993 both he and I had forgotten that earlier 1973 meeting.)
Today’s newspapers report Amaresh Bagchi’s passing and say that “When (Manmohan) Singh was finance minister in the early 1990s, Bagchi was one of his key advisers on fiscal policy”. Dr Singh has described Bagchi as “one of our most distinguished fiscal policy experts” and said “It is no exaggeration to state that Amaresh has been associated with almost every major fiscal policy reform in the past 30 years”.
I am afraid I disagree with the Prime Minister of India in that I do not see any “major fiscal policy reform” having taken place at all in India, just a lot of unsystematic tinkering here and there. The root cause has been the failure to face or want to comprehend the extremely dismal state of government and public sector accounts throughout the country. Without proper government accounting, there can be neither accountability nor any serious fiscal policy, and hence no serious monetary or macroeconomic policy either.
This map accompanied my article Lessons from the 1962 War published in The Sunday Statesman of January 13 2008:
Anarchy in Bengal
Intra-Left bandh marks the final unravelling of “Brand Buddha”
First published in The Sunday Statesman, 10 February 2008, Editorial Page Special Article http://www.thestatesman.net
Once upon a time, not very long ago, there was something called “Brand Buddha”. The basic idea was that the CPI-M had quietly reformed itself, passing the baton from old unreconstructed communists like Jyoti Basu and Harkishan Surjeet to a new generation of pragmatists and modernists represented by Prakash Karat’s JNU coterie at the national level and the smartly dressed bhadralok persona of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in Kolkata itself.
Big businessmen and their foreign collaborators were no longer the “comprador bourgeoisie” but rather were allies to whom government subsidies and concessions, especially land, would be and should be granted. The “investment climate” and “work culture” under a CPI-M government would be among the best in India. High employment levels would be the hoped-for result, especially employment for those associated positively with the CPI-M and its friends. The usual set of academics, journalists, film and TV actors, dancers, sportsmen, singers, NRIs etc who were directly or indirectly recipients of the largesse of the West Bengal Government helped to contribute to the idea that a viable political brand had been identified and it represented the unique way forward for the State. “You are either with us or against us” has always been the brief philosophy of communist and fascist parties around the world ~ joining up with Brand Buddha meant you were part of the bandwagon of progress, if you did not join up you would be left behind. (No one thought Brand Buddha could be or would come to be actively opposed.)
At the national level, the old Indira Gandhi-Communist alliance was restored by way of a new one led by Sonia Gandhi. Jyoti Basu had frankly described Sonia as “a housewife” but now that the housewife was running the country and needed the Communists’ help in doing so, the opportunity was not to be missed to extract whatever price was possible. The main broker between 10 Janpath and West Bengal’s Communists was Pranab Mukherjee who was most familiar with the old Indira-style of opportunistic Indian politics, and who was given the mandate of appeasing the Communists with whatever they needed while also being the pointman to make a phone call to his friend Buddhadeb to see to it, e.g., that the CPI-M like everyone else enjoyed the American and Indian air force show at Kalaikunda.
The “enemy” (for, after all, every unholy alliance must have an identifiable enemy) was the wicked old BJP. Everyone from Sonia Gandhi via Pranab Mukherjee to Jyoti Basu would voice the fear that if they did not join hands in socialist secularist unity, the BJP Boogeyman was destined to return to power. And of course the BJP did nothing and had little positive in its record to dissipate those fears. It was indeed filled with old men and it had indeed behaved wickedly while in power. From negligence in the Graham Staines murder in Orissa to the pogrom in Gujarat, there was little to suggest the BJP’s leadership had any clear ideas or principles about right and wrong governance. In office from 1998-2004, its macroeconomic record was woeful, mainly because it knew no better than maintain the same economic bureaucrats as its predecessors, and allow its finance and other economic ministers to be wholly manipulated by big business lobbies. Now when those bureaucrats and big business lobbies created, endorsed and marketed Brand Buddha itself, the BJP found it had been successfully finessed and could hardly speak a word in opposition. If the BJP thinks it can win in 2009 by its discredited leaders merely recycling anti-Muslim or anti-Christian formulae as before, it may be in for a surprise and a disappointment.
Brand Buddha reached its pinnacle when Sonia Gandhi’s Prime Minister endorsed it personally at a big business meeting in Kolkata on 12 January 2005. But the contradiction involved in Sonia Gandhi then giving merely a perfunctory speech on behalf of the West Bengal Congress in the 2006 election campaign could not be covered up and did not escape the notice of her local partymen.
Brand Buddha started to unravel when Mamata Banerjee realized that all the CPI-M really had was a brand being marketed, not something based on any new and fresh political and economic reality. Mamata has never accepted Sonia’s right to lead the Congress which is what had led to the Trinamul breaking away ~ at the same time, even when she was allied to the BJP, no one could accuse her of being anti-Muslim or anything but secular in her political identity. Her three-week long fast over Singur blocked Metro Channel and riveted the country’s political attention while TV broadcasts of the police-behaviour at Singur acted as a signal to the people of Nandigram to prepare for the same or worse.
The fact the Nandigram peasants who feared losing their land were mostly Muslim caused the central Sonia-Pranab-Buddhadeb myth to explode that only they stood to protect Muslims from the BJP. Once that myth had exploded, the fact the emperor was naked came to be seen by all. There never had been a viable political or economic product behind the brand that was being so heavily advertised and endorsed. If Buddhadeb and his party had been genuinely confident of possessing a constructive new economic policy for West Bengal, they should have transparently and honestly discussed it in detail and gone to the people to ask for a mandate on it before the 2006 elections.
Or when the issue boiled over and Mamata went on her fast at the end of 2006, Buddhadeb could have dissolved the Assembly and gone for fresh elections asking for a specific mandate from Bengal’s voters. Instead, the Chief Minister or his senior ministers not once found the need or courage to address all of West Bengal’s people on television even though the State came to be rocked by violence, mayhem and tragedy – hardly a climate for investment and new employment.
2007 saw the CPI-M and its New Delhi Congress friends being revealed to be bunglers, who could not cope with things as small as Rizwanur’s love-marriage or Taslima’s writings except with heavy-handed repression. The CPI-M’s own unions had crippled their own Government and the State before with bandhs, but not until the Cooch Behar firings has the anarchy become complete. The Forward Bloc protesters were, after all, merely asking for implementation of Sonia Gandhi’s favourite scheme of rural employment guarantees! Anarchy is the absence of government and when a government is so divided that its members cannot decide if they are the government or the opposition, it has to be said there is an absence of government.
Recovery requires candour which in turn requires honesty and introspection, all of which may be qualities too difficult to find. What Brand Buddha could have and should have been about is this: the CPI-M cutting waste, fraud and abuse of publicly owned resources from all the organs, departments and projects of the West Bengal Government that they have controlled for decades, and drastically improving the productivity of all those receiving State government wages or contracts. Real governance does not require any phony advertising because success advertises itself.