Thoughts on Indian Governance

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy believes the great optimism about the Indian Republic that he had felt as a 7-year old boy upon meeting Jawaharlal Nehru at Colombo Airport on Oct 13 1962 (the first days of the surprise Communist Chinese attack on India), has now dissipated, and apart from Nehru’s immediate successor (Lal Bahadur Shastri) all Indian Prime Ministers since then have been gravely, perhaps catastrophically, disappointing.

Subroto Roy thinks President Obama’s informed lawyerly academic approach to the Afghanistan decision, whether or not it has its intended good consequences, has a positive demonstration effect for other capital cities, e.g. New Delhi, where public policy decisions are too often made to appease special interest groups inside a cloud of meaningless rhetoric.

Subroto Roy says of India and China in summary discussion at Edward Hugh’s Wall: “Well, both have massive and energetic populations, each with relatively little capital per head; raising the capital per head with new production and exchange processes leads to growth. (But the nominal economies are weak, public finances are absymal and paper money is out of control.)”

Subroto Roy recalls again Pericles of Athens: “Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well; even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics- this is a peculiarity of ours:we do not say that a man who takes no inter…est in politics is a man who minds his own business;we say that he has no business here at all.”

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Why did Manmohan Singh and LK Advani apologise to one another? Is Indian politics essentially collusive, not competitive, aiming only to preserve and promote the post-1947 Dilli Raj at the expense of the whole of India? We seem to have no Churchillian repartee (except perhaps from Bihar occasionally)

Yesterday the PM is reported to have been asked by someone travelling on his aeroplane from Moscow “whether he had forgiven Advani for calling him a ‘weak Prime Minister’”.

The question was absurd, almost ridiculous, typical of our docile ingratiating rather juvenile English-language press and media, as if any issue of forgiveness arises at all about what one politician says during an election campaign about another politician’s performance in office.

Dr Manmohan Singh’s answer was surprising too: “I was compelled to reply to what Advani said…On May 16 when (Advani) telephoned me, he told me that he was hurt by some of my statements. He said he was hurt and regretted his statements… I apologised to him if I have hurt him. I am looking forward to a close relationship with the Leader of the Opposition.”

So LK Advani appears to have apologised to Manmohan Singh and Manmohan Singh to LK Advani for what they said about each other during the recent general election campaign! What is going on? Were they schoolboys exchanging fisticuffs in a school playground or elderly men battling over power and policy in modern Indian politics?

What would we have done if there was a Churchill in Indian politics today – hurling sarcastic insults at domestic opponents and foreign leaders while guiding a nation on its right course during turbulent times?

Churchill once famously said his parents had not shown him “The Boneless Wonder” in PT Barnum’s circus because it was too horrible a sight but now he had finally seen such a “Boneless Wonder” in his opponent on the Treasury Benches, namely, Ramsay MacDonald. Of the same opponent he said later “He has the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought”.

When accused of being drunk by a woman MP he replied “And you are very ugly, but tomorrow I’ll be sober”. Today’s politically correct world would scream at far less. Field Marshall Montgomery told Churchill, “I neither drink nor smoke and am 100% fit,” to which Churchill replied, “I drink and smoke and I am 200% fit”. That too would be politically incorrect today.

Churchill described Prime Minister Clement Attlee as “a modest man with much to be modest about”; also about Attlee: “If any grub is fed on Royal Jelly it turns into a Queen Bee”. Yet Attlee had enough dignity and self-knowledge and self-confidence to brush it all off and instead respect and praise him. In the 1954 volume Winston Spencer Churchill Servant of Crown and Commonwealth Attlee added his own tribute to his great opponent: “I recall…the period when he was at odds with his own party and took a seat on the Bench below the Gangway on the Government side. Here he was well placed to fire on both parties. I remember describing him as a heavily armed tank cruising in No Man’s Land. Very impressive were the speeches he delivered as the international horizon grew darker. He became very unpopular with the predominant group in his own party, but he never minded fighting a lone battle.”

Stanley Baldwin, who as PM first appointed Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer, once said “There comes Winston with his hundred horsepower mind”. Yet Churchill was to later say harshly “I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better had he never lived.”

Of Lenin, Churchill said, he was “transported in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia”. Of Molotov: “I have never seen a human being who more perfectly represented the modern concept of a robot.” Of Hitler, “If [he] invaded hell I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons”. Of De Gaulle, “He was a man without a country yet he acted as if he was head of state”.” Of John Foster Dulles, “[He] is the only bull who carries his china shop with him”. Of Stafford Cripps, British Ambassador to the USSR, “…a lunatic in a country of lunatics”; and also “There but for the Grace of God, goes God”.

Decades later, that great neo-Churchillian Margaret Thatcher was on the receiving end of a vast amount of sarcasm. “President Mitterrand once famously remarked that Thatcher had ‘the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe’. Rather less flatteringly, Dennis Healey described her as Attila the Hen. She probably took both descriptions as compliments.” (Malcolm Rifkind in Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant edited by Subroto Roy and John Clarke, 2005).

Politics is, and should be, grown up stuff because it deals with human lives and national destinies, and really, if you can’t take the heat please do not enter the kitchen. The slight Churchillian sarcasm that does arise within modern Indian politics comes very occasionally from Bihar but nowhere else, e.g. about the inevitability of aloo in samosas and of bhaloos in the jungle but no longer of Laloo being in the seat of power. In general, everyone seems frightfully sombre and self-important though may be in fact short of self-knowledge and hence self-confidence.

What had Manmohan Singh said about LK Advani that he felt he had to apologise for? That Advani had no substantial political achievement to his credit and did not deserve to be India’s PM. Manmohan was not alone in making the charge – Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and numerous other spokesmen and representatives of their party said the same. Has Manmohan’s apology to Advani been one on behalf of the whole Congress Party itself?

Was Advani’s apology to Manmohan one on behalf of the whole BJP too?

What had the BJP charged Manmohan with that Advani felt he had to apologise for?  Being a “weak PM”.

Hmmm. Frankly, thinking about it, it is hard to count who has not been weak as a PM in India’s modern history.

Certainly Vallabhai Patel as a kind of co-PM was decisive and far from weak back in 1947-48.

Lal Bahadur Shastri was not weak when he told Pakistan that a Pakistani attack on Kashmir would result in an Indian attack on Pakistan.

Indira Gandhi was not weak when she resisted the Yahya Khan-Tikka Khan tyranny against Bangladesh.

Had he not been assassinated, Rajiv Gandhi in a second term would have been decisive and not weak in facing up to and tackling the powerful lobbies and special interest groups that have crippled our domestic economic policy for decades.

But the number of such examples may be counted by hand.  Perhaps VP Singh might count, riding in an open jeep to Amritsar, as might AB Vajpayee’s Pokhran II and travelling on a bus to Lahore. In general, the BJP’s charge that Manmohan was “weak” may have constructively led to serious discussion in the country about the whole nature of the Prime Ministership in modern India, which means raising a whole gamut of issues about Indian governance – about India being the softest of “soft states”, with the softest of “soft government budget constraints” (i.e., endless deficit finance and paper money creation) etc.

Instead, what we have had thus far is apologies being exchanged for no real political reason between the leaderships of the Government and the Opposition. If two or three sellers come to implicitly carve up a market between themselves they are said by economic theory to be colluding rather than being in competition. Indian politics may be revealing such implicit collusive behaviour. The goal of this political oligopoly would seem to be to preserve and promote the status quo of the post-1947 Dilli Raj with its special hereditary nomenclatura, at the expense of anonymous diffused teeming India.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Postscript July 15 2009: Churchill’s mature opinion of Baldwin was one of the fullest praise at the 20 May 1950 unveiling of a memorial to him.  See his In the Balance, edited by Randolph S Churchill, 1951, p. 281

Will someone please teach the BJP’s gerontocracy some Economics 101 on an emergency basis?

Two years ago, I said in “Political Paralysis”,

“[I]f 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.”

Lest anyone think this was a tirade against the BJP, most of the article was actually a criticism of the Congress and the Communists!

Mr LK Advani’s claim that Indian resources have been illegally shipped overseas is hardly new or interesting — what is truly grotesque is the sheer irresponsibility of his claim that if somehow this could be reversed, it would suffice to

” Relieve the debts of all farmers and landless • Build world-class roads all over the country – from national and state highways to district and rural roads; • Completely eliminate the acute power shortage in the country and also to bring electricity to every unlit rural home; • Provide safe and adequate drinking water in all villages and towns in India • Construct good-quality houses, each worth Rs. 2.5 lakh, for 10 crore families; • Provide Rs. 4 crore to each of the nearly 6 lakh villages; the money can be used to build, in every single village, a school with internet-enabled education, a primary health centre with telemedicine facility, a veterinary clinic, a playground with gymnasium, and much more. “

This is simply appalling in its sheer mendacity. The BJP is going to give an amnesty to all those with such money and then confiscate it or requisition it or forcibly borrow it to make these resources equivalent to tax-revenues for the purposes of Indian public finance? What can one say beyond this being grotesque in its incomprehension of both facts and economic principles? Could someone who supports the BJP please teach them some Econ 101 asap?

As I have said elsewhere, only quackery, fallacious finance and multitudinous intellectual fraud seem destined to emerge from New Delhi’s governing class of all political parties and their media and businessman friends. “Government finance requires scientific honesty, especially by way of clear rigorous accounting and audit of uses and origins of public resources. That scientific honesty is what we have not had at Union or State level for more than half a century.”

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

My (armchair) experience of the 1999 Kargil war (Or, “Actionable Intelligence” in the Internet age: How the Kargil effort got a little help from a desktop)

My (armchair) experience of the 1999 Kargil war
(Or, “Actionable Intelligence” in the Internet age: How the Kargil effort got a little help from a desktop)

by Subroto Roy
First drafted July 20 1999,
revised and published January 5 2009

“The pilots who launched the strike and recce missions have caught the public eye but the backroom boys worked equally hard. Even in IAF stations far away from the action, the officers held brain-storming sessions and sent in their suggestions.” — Air Chief Marshall AY Tipnis, Indian Air Force press conference July 15 1999.

On the night of June 1/2 1999, I had been looking on the Internet for a good map of Jammu & Kashmir for use in a research paper.  I was in my office as a “full professor” at an “Institution of National Importance”.  A year earlier, on June  23 1998, I had been in the United States and given a talk at Washington DC’s Heritage Foundation titled “Towards an Economic Solution for Kashmir” based on my research originating in the late 1980s with the academic volume that WE James and I created, Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s.  Now again there was a plan to talk and I needed a proper map.  We had lost two fighter aircraft and a helicopter in the Kargil fighting, and the Indian Army seemed to be facing reverses.  The country seemed despondent and tense yet in a trance too over the ongoing cricket World Cup.  Neither the Army nor the IAF seemed to quite know where the enemy had entrenched himself or in what strength. Television and newspapers were showing crude schoolboy sketches of the battlefield.  Could the Internet be of help in finding a better map, I asked myself?  I had been an early enthusiast of Google since its launch some months earlier and the Internet was still a wild and untutored place.

Imagine my surprise when before my eyes that night came to be unveiled the American CIA’s own detailed declassified contour maps, or “Tactical Pilotage Charts”, of  Kargil, Drass, Srinagar and the Line of Control; then to the west Muzaffarabad, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Kahuta etc., and to the east, Ladakh, Aksai Chin and the Line of Actual Control with the Chinese.   Produced by the US Government’s Defense Intelligence Agency for the CIA, there they were now available to me at my desk thanks to the Internet!   The Pakistan map stated in bold letters that all aircraft planning to enter Pak airspace must request permission with at least 15 minutes notice.

Did our folks have these maps, was my first thought. Perhaps we didn’t, we had been caught unawares after all by the Pakistani attack, even if we had the maps somewhere perhaps they were unavailable right now, we had just lost aircraft and Squadron Leader Ahuja had been killed, our artillery fire at the time somehow seemed not as accurate as theirs; after years of close military collaboration with the West, Pakistan surely had all these maps in the original while we did not  —  that was an advantage that needed to be neutralized.   Such were the thoughts that rushed through as the maps downloaded slowly (very slowly, excruciatingly slowly) before me that night.

Yet here I was in my distant office just before midnight; how could these maps reach those they ought to reach?  I had not even a direct phone line outside campus or a phone directory.  Thinking aloud, I woke up the campus security chief who was a friend and a retired soldier; could he please phone the commander of a nearby IAF station, a Group Captain, and ask him to call me on campus straightaway because I had just downloaded American “Tactical Pilotage Charts” of Kargil and Drass onto my desktop computer?

The Group Captain knew me because he happened to be a distant cousin; he not only called back but responded to my plea to drive over at once to take a look at the maps.  He was a fighter pilot by training and I thought he, if anyone, would be able to assess their usefulness.  I did not wish to know from him if he thought we had them or did not but I was happy to give them to him anyway.  He taciturnly said these might be useful, so we printed out all the maps right then at 2 am, which he would send on first thing in the morning.

Campus bureaucrats later objected to Air Force officers having visited my office in the middle of the night and used computer-equipment (to print the maps) without higher bureaucratic authorization; I was told faculty-members ought not to meddle in such matters unless and until a formal inter-Ministry request had been received and approved.  This seemed to me bizarre if not absurd in the circumstances.  I replied that I was acting as a citizen and a professor in an area of my published research, and besides our government academic institution was supposedly “dedicated” to the national interest and, excuse me, but there just happened to be a war going on up north in Kargil right then!

Over the next several days, the Internet began to freely reveal all sorts of things which in years gone by would surely have been top secret – pure James Bond stuff.  Here from the Federation of American Scientists, maps included, were nuclear and missile facilities:  Chagai, Chashma, Dera Ghazi, Dera Nawab, Fateh Jung, Golra, Gujranwala, Isa, Islamabad, Jhang, Kahuta, Karachi, Kundian, Lahore, Lakki, Malute, Multan, Okara, Quetta, Rawalpindi, Sargodha, Sinhala, Wah.  Here was the Southern California supplier saying that Pakistan had gone about buying and manufacturing under license more than sixteen hundred armoured personnel carriers; why would you buy so many APCs?  Because you wanted a very large strike force in an attack on India.   Here were details of the latest submarine they had bought from France – a highly lethal machine that could play havoc.  Here too was information that their naval officers had been jailed for accepting bribes in the deal, on which the French Embassy in Islamabad had no comment to make.  Here was the yet-to-be-produced Chinese FC-1 fighter-bomber – which was going to be sold to Pakistan but whose production was stalled by apparent lack of funds.   Here were Pakistan’s own military providing news and propaganda — from whose mixed pronouncements it became clear Squadron Leader Ahuja had been captured alive by Pakistani border guards and then shot dead in cold blood as a surrendered POW.

Air HQ responded quickly enough, and on the evening of June 10th, with four young officers in my office, I sent on all this publicly available material by email.   In the meantime, on June 6, I released the contour map of Kargil to all faculty-members with a request to try to send it up to in any way they might know how to.  I figured that our adversary already had the map in the original, so it would only be to the good if every jawan and airman on our side did too. I also went to see a well-known computer science specialist on campus.  Connections had been established with the Air Force, I told him; now how do we get it to the Army?  He grasped the problem quickly and established a firm connection with an officer in the appropriate location who once had been a student of his.   On June 11, that officer wrote to me:

Dear Sir,
It is very heartening to note the kind of interest that you and Prof C are generating. I have done full justice to the info that you have sent me by sending them to the people to whom they matter. We really do appreciate your efforts in this regard. I am sure as a true patriot of our country, you will continue your valuable efforts and keep us posted… …(we) may lack a proper ‘actionable intelligence’ in terrains like Kargil and Dras simply because of the nature of the terrain and the inhospitable climatic conditions that prevail at such heights. And our countrymen are braving all these and fighting tooth and nail to give back a suitable reply to the infiltrators. What peps us is the solid backing that is given by the citizens of our country who come out in all forms to help assist us in overcoming such a crisis, such as your invaluable contribution. …. the quality of the maps that I had forwarded greatly help in interpreting things more clearly….

I wrote back on June 12:

Dear G,
.… We are very happy to know they are proving useful… It is all in the public domain…There is nothing clandestine about it. ……. there is definite if circumstantial evidence on the basis of Pakistani admissions that Squadron Leader Ahuja was captured alive by the Pakistan Army and then shot dead by them. This evidence consists of Pakistan admitting in the initial moments that they did not know his name but believed it to be UHJA of 6 Squadron out of Srinigar. Ask yourself, how did they make that mistake instead of AHUJA? They could not have made the mistake if they had read the name AHUJA from his flying suit after he had crashed dead, as they claim. The only way they can make that mistake is if they asked him personally what his name and squadron was; he told them, then they shot him. It is an international war crime which our government should take up immediately with the International War Crimes Tribunal. With regards

In creating the Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy book in the 1980s and 1990s while in America, I had been a most sympathetic student of Pakistan. Writing in Hawaii in 1989-1990, I had said in the Introduction to the book that “the arms race and elite rivalry has greatly impoverished the general budgets of both Pakistan and India. If it has benefited important sections of the political and military elites of both countries, it has done so only at the expense of the general welfare of the masses. So long as the arms-race continues, the economies of both countries are likely to remain severely distorted…” Some of this appeared too in my work for Rajiv Gandhi, as published in July 31-August 2 1991 of The Statesman‘s editorial pages. A few years later in 1993 in Washington DC, I articulated “An Economic Solution to Kashmir”.  About 1997 or 1998, the then-Pakistani envoy to India at a luncheon in Calcutta where I was not present, received a copy of the book gifted by me through a colleague who had been at the lunch. The book had been published in Karachi and Delhi in 1992-93, and had been quite intensely reviewed both in Pakistan and in India at the time.  But all my optimism about a peace process with Pakistan vanished during their Kargil aggression in the summer of 1999, and I was totally appalled and horrified by their sadistic torture and murder of Lt. Saurabh Kalia and his platoon, and their cold-blooded murder of Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja while POWs.

In the July 1999 Kargil issue of New Delhi’s  Security and Political Risk Analysis Bulletin, I published an article titled “Was a Pakistani Grand Strategy Discerned in time by India?”.  A longer analysis and prescription dated June 11 1999 had been sent by me to the Vajpayee Government.  I began my analysis with the sentence: “When Pakistani military and political men make statements as they have done recently like (a)they can win a war against India (Pak COAS),(b)    they can hit any target in India and inflict unacceptable losses on us  (Pak nuclear and missile chief), (c) they are prepared to use any weapon (Pak foreign secretary), (d) a fourth war with India is imminent (“Prime Minister” POK),(e) Pakistan will be a responsible nuclear weapons’ country (Pak information minister), these should be taken seriously….” I ended my analysis with the sentence: “If the Pakistani military insists on plunging the entire subcontinent into an abyss of destruction and chaos for generations, then so be it.   There will be no Indian defeat in either Delhi or Kashmir because it will have been preceded by the end of Pakistan’s physical existence…. We must wake up immediately and go to battle-stations at once.  There is no time to lose.”

Now in 2009, as war clouds still linger after the Mumbai massacres, I am reminded of all this experience ten years ago.  If my proposal gets followed of a trial of the terrorist masterminds for piracy, murder and conspiracy, held by the Pakistan and Indian Navies jointly in international waters under maritime law, my hopes for civil government in Pakistan and peaceful cooperative relations may become restored.

Kolkata, January 2009

Assessing Manmohan: The Doctor of Deficit Finance should realise the currency is at stake

Assessing Manmohan:

The Doctor of Deficit Finance should realise the currency is at stake

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, April 25 2008,

The best thing that may be said of the Manmohan Singh premiership is that when it began in May 2004, it seemed, for a short while, refreshing in comparison to the dysfunctional arrogance and brutality displayed by its predecessor. By the last months of the Vajpayee-Advani Government, there were party appointees who had ended all pretence of purportedly Hindu values and were raking it in shamelessly. The Golden Rule of Democracy is “Throw the rascals out”, which is what Indian democracy upheld as it has done time and again. By 2009, India’s electorate will have the chance to decide whether the incumbent government deserves the same fate.

Lok Sabha

Manmohan Singh was seriously discussed as the Congress’s putative nominee for PM as early as 2001. The idea brewing at the time with the party’s next generation of wannabe leaders (in their 50s and 60s, where Manmohan was near 70) was that they needed to maintain good relations with the Great White Queen and wait out one term of an inevitable Singh premiership before having a shot at the top job themselves.

What is surprising is Dr Singh appeared never to feel it necessary to educate himself privately on how to retool himself for the necessary transformation from being the archetypal bureaucrat he had been in his working career to becoming the national statesman he wished to be after retirement. It is doubtful, for example, if he ever stood in front of a mirror and practised an extempore political speech in Hindi in preparation for the highest executive post in the country, let aside writing a clear-headed, original vision or mission statement of substance as to where he wished to lead it. As Narasimha Rao’s Finance Minister, he could meekly take orders from his PM; it seemed he wished to continue in the same mode even when PM himself.

Jawaharlal Nehru is supposed to have been a hero of Dr Singh’s ~ but Nehru was a thorough parliamentarian, among the finest anywhere, and someone who always respected the Lok Sabha immensely. Dr Singh, after he lost to VK Malhotra for the South Delhi seat in 1999, made not the slightest effort to enter the Lok Sabha again, even when the Akalis indicated they might not oppose him in a Punjab contest. When asked specifically at a large press conference about not entering the Lok Sabha, Dr Singh murmured words to the effect he had better uses of his time ~ a display, if anything, of the misplaced arrogance of many New Delhi academics and intellectuals. Dr Singh may be the first PM in any parliamentary democracy never to have won a seat in the lower house nor felt a need to do so.

Dr Singh’s bureaucratic expertise assisted him well in the first national crisis that came his way, which was the Tsunami of 26 December 2004. There appeared to be an air of efficiency about the Government’s response and he seemed in his element as commander of bureaucratic forces while working with Pranab Mukherjee in enlisting the military. George W. Bush (not a great geographer or historian) was apparently impressed to see on a map that India had naval forces deployed as far as the Andamans.

By 2005 though, Dr Singh’s bureaucratic mindset had its negative impact. Montek Ahluwalia had been his Finance Secretary when he was Finance Minister. Mr Ahluwalia’s spouse had been a main supporter of Dr Singh’s unsuccessful Lok Sabha attempt. During the Vajpayee Government, Mr Ahluwalia remained a Planning Commission Member for several years before moving to Washington. With Dr Singh as PM, Mr Ahluwalia returned from the USA in mid 2004 to become Deputy Chair at the Planning Commission. Simultaneously with his return, the idea that the American nuclear industry would like to sell “six to eight lightwater reactors” to India arose.

That is as much as is presently known in public. Dr Singh and Mr Ahluwalia may in the national interest want to frankly and precisely explain to the Indian people the full story of the sudden origins of this idea. Certainly, none of the lessons of the Dabhol fiasco a decade earlier seemed to have been learnt, and the Maharasthtra Government (and hence the Government of India) ended up paying some $300 million to General Electric and Bechtel Corporation for Dabhol before any nuclear talks with the USA could begin. Nor had any serious cost-benefit analysis been done or discussion taken place comparing nuclear energy with coal, hydro and other sources in the Indian case.

Indian foreign policy became frozen in its focus on nuclear negotiations with the USA, swirling around Dr Singh’s fife-and-drum welcome at the White House and President Bush’s return visit to India. At the same time arose the issue of Paul Volcker’s UN committee mentioning the name of India’s foreign minister. As The Statesman put it, regardless of the latter’s involvement, “the damage to India’s diplomatic reputation in the world” was done and it was inevitable a new foreign minister would be necessary. After dilly-dallying and much 10 Janpath to-and-fro, Dr Singh followed Nehru’s mistake of becoming his own foreign minister. The idea was that this would be temporary but it became almost a year.

Instead of transforming himself towards Indian political statesmanship, Dr Singh advanced other retired bureaucrats’ ambitions on similar career-paths. Foreign policy went out of the MEA’s control and seemingly into the control of the new “National Security Adviser”. Dr Singh, sometimes with MK Narayanan beside him, travelled a large number of countries from Brazil to Finland and Uzbekistan to South Africa and Japan. Dr Singh also found time and willingness to accept honorary degrees from British and Russian universities during these short months.

While Dr Singh seemed thus preoccupied, two of India’s main neighbours underwent massive democratic revolutions (leave aside magnificent Bhutan). Nepal’s people practically stormed their Bastille while Dr Singh and Mr Narayanan visited Germany to discuss BMWs. Pakistan’s democratic forces could hardly believe the cold indifference shown to them by a New Delhi merely following Bush’s support for Pervez Musharraf. While Pakistan and Nepal, and to lesser extent Bangladesh, saw movements towards better governance, Sri Lanka descended towards civil war ~ India’s PM remained obsessed with the magic wand that the nuclear deal was supposed to be.

Inflation

Then suddenly the magic vanished ~ Dr Singh seemed to finally come to a silent private recognition that the economics of the nuclear deal simply did not add up if it meant India importing “six to eight lightwater reactors” on a turnkey basis from the USA or anywhere else. Dr Singh seemed to come out of his self-imposed trance and return a little better to reality. By the time he visited China, although he was as deferential to Hu Jintao in his body language as he had been to Bush and Musharraf and even accepted an indoor guard of honour, he also seemed willing to stand up for India. The Arunachal visit was a reality-check.

Now there is inflation ~ and one year left in the UPA’s term. What the country needs is tough sensible macroeconomics and clean public finance. A pandering profligate budget in February was not a healthy sign. Instructing Mr Ahluwalia to close down the Planning Commission and make it a minor R&D wing of the Finance Ministry would be instead a good step. Instructing the RBI to clean up its bureaucratic wastefulness and prepare itself for institutional independence from the Finance Ministry would be even better. Getting proper financial control over every Union and State government entity spending public money and resources would be most important of all. Such major institutional changes in the policy-making process are what an economist might expect of an economist prime minister who wishes to lead India in the 21st Century. India’s currency is at stake.

(See also:  “The Politics of Dr Singh”, May 2006; “Mistaken Macroeconomics”, June 2009, etc.)

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.

Unhealthy Delhi

Unhealthy Delhi

When will normal political philosophy replace personality cults?

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, June 11 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net


A decade after Solzhenitsyn’s classic 1962 memoir One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch, an ambitious young Delhi photographer published a hagiography called A life in the day of Indira Gandhi. Indira was shown gambolling with her little grandchildren, guiding her dutiful daughter-in-law, weeping for her father, greeting her loyal subjects from around India, reprimanding her ingratiating sycophants, imperiously silent during political meetings, smiling and scolding alternately at press conferences, and of course standing in victory at Shimla beside the defeated Bhutto. “Indira is India” the sycophantic slogan went, and the cult of her personality was one of showing her as omniscient and omnipotent in all earthly matters of Indian politics.

She had indeed fought that rarest of things in international law: the just war. Supported by the world’s strongest military, an evil enemy had made victims of his own people. Indira tried patiently on the international stage to avert war, but also chose her military generals well and took their professional judgement seriously as to when to fight if it was inevitable and how to win. Finally she was magnanimous (to a fault) towards the enemy ~ who was not some stranger to us but our own estranged brother and cousin.

It seemed to be her and independent India’s finest hour. A fevered nation was thus ready to forgive and forget her catastrophic misdeeds until that time, like bank-nationalization and the start of endless deficit-finance and unlimited money-printing, a possible cause of monetary collapse today four decades later under Manmohan Singh whose career as an economic bureaucrat began at that time.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao

Modern personality cults usually have had some basis in national heroism. In Indira’s case it was the 1971 war. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were seen or portrayed as war heroes too. Because there has been leadership in time of war or national crisis, nervous anxious masses extend their hopes and delusions to believe such a leader has answers to everything. The propaganda machinery available as part of modern state apparatus then takes over, and when it is met on behalf of the citizenry with no more than a compliant docile ingratiating mass media, the public image comes to be formed of a parental god-like figure who will protect and guide the community to its destiny.

Beneath this public image, the cunning play of self-interest by anonymous underlings in the allocation of public resources continues unabated, and so it is possible some truth attaches to the idea that an individual leader is not as responsible for evil misdeeds or depredations done by “the party” in his/her name.

In the Indian case, hero-worship and ancestor-worship are part of the culture of all our major religions. Hence we have parades of parliamentarians garlanding or throwing flowers and paying obeisance at this or that statue or oil-painting or photograph regularly ~ though as a people we have yet to produce rigorous intellectual biographies of any major figures of our own modern history, comparable to, say, Judith Brown’s work on Gandhi or Ayesha Jalal’s on Jinnah.

Indira continued to dominate our political culture until her assassination more than a decade later, but there was hardly a shred of political or economic good in what she left the country. Her elder son (leaving aside his blunders in Sri Lanka, J&K etc.) did have the sense to initiate fundamental change in his party’s economic thinking when he found a chance to do so in the months before his own assassination.

Rajiv was the son of Feroze Gandhi too and a happy family man; he seemed not to have psychological need for as much of the kind of personality cult his mother clearly loved to indulge in. It is not clear if his widow is today trying to follow his example or his mother’s ~ certainly, the party that goes by the name of Indian National Congress would like to relive for a second time the worst of the Indira personality cult around Sonia Gandhi. And Rahul Gandhi, instead of seeking to develop or display any talent as befits a young man, has shown disconcerting signs of longing for the days of his grandmother’s personality cult to return. He may have been more effective pursuing a normal career in the private sector.

The Congress’s perpetual tendency towards personality cults has extended by imitation to other political parties in New Delhi and the States. Atal Behari Vajpayee at his peak as PM did not find it at all uncomfortable to be portrayed by his sycophants as a wise, heroic and loving father-figure of the nation ~ an image shattered when, immediately after perfunctorily commiserating the Godhra and post-Godhra horrors, he was pictured fashionably on a Singapore golf-cart sporting designer sunglasses.

India’s organised communists make a great show of collective decision-making since they most intimately followed the details of Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult. It has not stopped them routinely genuflecting to China’s communists. There also has been a communist tendency to deny individual merit and creativity at junior levels and instead appropriate all good things for the party bosses. New brilliant faces will never arise in the Left and we may be condemned to see the usual characters in perpetuity. If personality cults around Jyoti Basu or Buddhadeb Bhattacharya have failed to thrive it has not been through lack of trying on part of the publicly paid communist intelligentsia and their docile artists, but rather because of resistance from Bengal’s newspapers and a few clear-headed journalists and well known opposition politicians.

Tamil Nadu has seen grotesque rivalry between Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha as to whose personality cult can alternately outdo the other, supplanting all normal political economy or attempts at discovery of the public interest. In Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, J&K, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (but not Gujarat or Rajasthan lately), two-party democratic politics has succeeded in limiting tendencies for personality cults to develop. The North Eastern States have had inadequate coverage by modern media, which, fortuitously, along with tribal traditions, may have restrained personality cults from developing.

Facts explode cults

Facts are the most reliable means by which to explode personality cults. It is not a coincidence that facts are also the source by which to develop modern political philosophies, whether conservative, classical liberal/ libertarian, or socialist. Facts have to be discovered, ferreted out, analysed, studied and reflected upon by those civil institutions that are supposed to be doing so, namely university social science, economics and related departments, as well as responsible newspapers, radio and other mass media. Julian Benda once titled a book The Treason of the Intellectuals. India will begin to have a normal political philosophy when the treason of its modern intellectual classes begins to be corrected.

It is not a treason in which the state has been betrayed to an enemy. Rather it is one in which the very purposes of public conversation, such as the discovery of the public interest, have been betrayed in the interests of immediate private gain. This may help to explain why there is so little coherent public discussion in India today, and certainly almost nothing on television, or in the business papers or what passes for academia.