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Mob Violence and Psychology

Mob Violence and Psychology

 

 

Mob violence remains a monthly occurrence in modern India; it gives the lie to our claims of political maturity and democratic development.

 

 

By SUBROTO ROY

 

 

First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article December 10 2006

 

 

Mob violence certainly signals collapse of the Rule of Law and absence of normal political conversation and decision-making. Mob violence in modern India remains a monthly occurrence: a child is killed by a speeding bus, the driver if he is caught is thrashed to death by a mob of onlookers and the bus burnt down; a factory closes and workers go on a rampage; a statue or political personality or religious figure is perceived to have been insulted or desecrated, and crowds take to the streets to burn vehicles and cause mayhem; a procession is said to be insulted, and rival mobs go to battle with one another. (In fact, elected legislators in Parliament and State Assemblies frequently conflate mob behaviour like slogan-shouting with political conversation itself, carrying into the House the political methods they have learned to employ outside it. And contrary to what our legislators may suppose, they do need to be constantly lectured to by the general citizenry whose paid servants they are supposed to be).

 

 

Such may be relatively simple cases to describe or diagnose. More complex cases include the deliberate burning alive of Graham Staines and his two young sons by a mob in 1999 as they slept in their vehicle in rural Orissa, or countless deeds of similar savagery during Partition and the innumerable other riots we have seen in the history of our supposedly tolerant and non-violent culture.

 

 

We are not unique in our propensity for evil. French women knitted and gossiped watching the guillotine do its bloody work during the Jacobin terror. Long before them, as the Catholic scholar Eamon Duffy reports in Faith of our fathers, Pope Gregory IX in 1233 had initiated the “Inquisition”: two anonymous witnesses could cause any person to be arrested as a heretic, tortured and then burnt alive. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII endorsed “witches” to be burnt, causing “deaths of countless thousands of harmless or eccentric women over the next 300 years. In all, as many as 25,000 people, most of them women may have been burnt as witches in Germany” alone. American history has seen countless cases of mob violence, from witch-burnings and other religious violence to cold-blooded lynching on trees of individual black men by white mobs, black mobs looting inner cities, street clashes between political groups etc. Soviet Russia and Maoist China saw systematic ideologically driven violence by Party cadres and “Red Guards” against countless individuals ~ forced to confess to imaginary misdeeds, then assaulted or shot. Nazi Germany, Czarist Russia and many other countries saw mobs attacking, dispossessing or killing individual Jews and innumerable others, again in systematic ideologically motivated pogroms. Indeed as Hannah Arendt and others have noted, the similarities between totalitarian regimes as outwardly different as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia or Communist China included the ideologically driven targeting of identifiable small minorities for systematic violence by majorities in power. Even Tony Blair’s supposedly Cool Britannia today, besides having the most notorious soccer hooligans in the world, is also a place where no individual, non-white or white, will pass a drunken mob of adolescent school-children on the streets on a Friday night without trepidation.

 

 

Every case of mob violence is different; yet what could be common is a temporary, if deliberate, suspension of the normal human sense of responsibility on part of a mob’s individual members. Reason and responsibility return if at all only after the evil has been accomplished ~ whether it is killing or assaulting someone or destroying something ~ and it can be accompanied by a sense of remorse and regret. Even where mob tyranny has been systematic, long-term, ideologically-driven and state-sponsored, as with the Inquisition or French Revolution or Nazi, Soviet or Chinese terrors, future generations look back at the past misdeeds of their ancestors and say: “That was wrong, very wrong, it should never have happened”. Moral learning does take place at some time or other, even if it is long after the evil has occurred. It is as if, when sobriety and rationality return, an individual participant in a mob realises and recognises himself/herself to have revealed a baser ignoble side which is shameful.

 

 

“Sometimes a society acts as if all power lay in the hands of the most babyish and animal members, and sometimes as if all power lay in the hands of strict old men, and sometimes it acts more as a whole ~ mostly when there’s a war on. Sometimes a man is not himself and acts as if a babyish or cunning animal had gained control ~ that’s the id ~ sometimes as if an exacting parent, a sarcastic schoolmaster, or an implacable deity possessed him ~ that’s the super-ego. Sometimes a man is more himself and acts more as a whole, a new whole which is not a combination but a synthesis of the id and the super-ego. Some are constantly at the mercy of the id, some are slaves to the super- ego, and in some first one and then the other gains an unhappy victory in a continual struggle, and in some conflict and control have vanished into cooperation…” Such was the description the Cambridge philosopher John Wisdom gave in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis in the 1940s and 1950s, when he translated into normal idiomatic language some of the difficult technical findings and theories of the mind propounded by Sigmund Freud in the previous half-century.

 

 

When the mob forms itself, its members individually choose to suppress their normal rational personalities and sense of adult responsibility, and permit instead their cunning animal or babyish instincts to take over and reign supreme within themselves. It must be a collective decision even if silently taken: for one person to behave in such a manner would look identifiably stupid and criminal but for him/her to do so in a group where everyone has simultaneously decided to abandon reason (whether spontaneously or shouting slogans together) allows the loss of individual responsibility to become hidden in the mass, and the collective to take on features of a hydra-headed monster, capable of the vilest deeds without the slightest self-doubt. The victim of their violence or abuse will often be an individual who stands out in some way ~ perhaps by natural or social attributes or even by heroic deeds: indeed Freud suggested that primitive tribes sometimes engaged in parricide and regicide, cannibalising their individual heroes in the belief that by consuming something of the hero’s remains those attributes might magically reappear in themselves.

 

 

In modern India, the presence of mob violence on a monthly basis somewhere or other in the country gives the lie to our claims of maturity of our political and democratic development. Those posing as our political leaders may make as many foreign trips and wooden prepared speeches on TV as they wish to, but their actual cowardice is manifest in having failed to address the real disjunction that exists in this country between political interests and political preferences at the grassroots on the one hand, and the lack of serious parliamentary conversation addressing these within our representative institutions on the other. The reliance by the Executive on often brutal police or paramilitary forces reflects failure of the Legislative and Judicial branches of our Government, as well as a lack of balance between them arising from our political and constitutional immaturity.

Communists and Constitutions

COMMUNISTS & CONSTITUTIONS

By SUBROTO ROY
first published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page, Special Article,

January 22 2006 www.thestatesman.net

Constitutions and communists do not go together. The most glaring example comes from Russia — the Motherland not only of modern communism but also of great brave individual souls like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, and the many other men and women who struggled to defeat communism there over seven decades. Before Russia managed to liberate herself from communism — i.e. before the Communist Party of the Soviet Union began under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to liberate itself from itself in the late 1980s — the only genuine elections that ever occurred in the country were to the Constituent Assembly of November 1917.

That Constituent Assembly was a multiparty legislative body and it happened to have a large anti-Bolshevik majority. It met only once in January 1918 and was destroyed under Lenin immediately because it quite naturally refused to adopt Bolshevik proposals. Under the Czar, the “Constitutional Democratic Party” (the “Cadets”), formed in 1905, “constituted the most dangerous ranks of revolution”. Under the government of the proletariat, the very same Cadet Party represented “the most dangerous ranks of reaction” (Solzhenitsyn). Constitutionalists inevitably end up battling both the Fascists of the Right and the Communists of the Left. As Hannah Arendt made clear, the organisation of totalitarian governments whether of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s USSR or Mao’s China were remarkably similar in nature. Upon seizing power in November 1917, Russia’s Bolsheviks attacked the constitutionalists first, outlawing the Cadet Party and arresting its members, and doing the same to students, workers and soldiers associated with the “Alliance for the Constituent Assembly”.

This is not a coincidence. Communists and fascists are powered by instincts of grabbing State political power for themselves any which way they can, in order to impose by brute force on everyone else the rather shoddy obsolete ideologies they subscribe to themselves. Karl Marx himself most famously said the words “I am not a Marxist”. Communists and fascists cannot stand the idea of the anonymous individual citizen standing up on his or her own; their instinct is one which cannot attribute credit to the individual person for any good that may be done, instead purloining it into a fake “collective” effort. Similarly, errors cannot be simply acknowledged, and instead responsibility is diffused all around until nobody remembers who said or did what or when, and all history becomes a jumble.

Every great scientific and artistic achievement has been an expression of individual genius, often against the reactionary collective will. And constitutions from Magna Carta onwards have been built on the idea of protecting the anonymous, powerless individual citizen against the violent arbitrary power of the established State and its comprador organisations. Britain and America may have contributed their share of evil to world history but they have made up for at least some of it by pioneering Anglo-Saxon constitutional jurisprudence. It may be no coincidence Britain and America have been home to the greatest outpourings of human creativity and invention in modern times, from the steam engine to the Internet.

In fact it has been a singularly American contribution to pioneer the very idea that parliamentary majorities themselves need to be restrained from their own baser proclivities. In 1767, before America had herself become free from British rule, the British Parliament once issued a declaration that a parliamentary majority could pass any law it saw fit. It was greeted with an outcry of horror in Britain’s American colonies. Patrick Henry of Virginia — later famous for his cry “Give me Liberty or give me Death” — led the battle for the anonymous free individual citizen against the arbitrary power that comes to be represented by the herd or mob instincts even of elected parliamentary majorities. Constitutions are written to protect parliaments and peoples from themselves.

The philosopher John Wisdom, who translated the subtle work of Wittgenstein and Freud into normal idioms, once said: “Sometimes a society acts as if all power lay in the hands of the most babyish and animal members, and sometimes as if all power lay in the hands of strict old men, and sometimes it acts more as a whole — mostly when there’s a war on. Sometimes a man is not himself and acts as if a babyish or cunning animal had gained control — that’s the id — sometimes as if an exacting parent, a sarcastic schoolmaster, or an implacable deity possessed him — that’s the super-ego. Sometimes a man is more himself and acts more as a whole, a new whole which is not a combination but a synthesis of the id and the super-ego. Some are constantly at the mercy of the id, some are slaves to the super-ego, and in some first one and then the other gains an unhappy victory in a continual struggle, and in some conflict and control have vanished into cooperation…”

Similarly, we may say that political processes in any country appear to often give play to the most “babyish” and “cunning animal” instincts of the society, while at other times the “strict old men” or “exacting parent” take over. The constant struggle of political reasonableness is to find the rational, normal national self that rests in between.

India at present has been set upon an unproductive and pointless course of inevitable Constitutional collision between Parliament and the Supreme Court. That course has been singly set by the present Speaker even though every attempt is being made now to diffuse his responsibility for the situation that has arisen, so that soon nobody will be able to remember exactly what happened or why. The incumbent Speaker, instead of being wholly self-effacing as called for by the job-requirements of the high and grave office he holds, has remained too much of a normal parliamentary advocate. Before grave irreparable damage comes to be done to India’s Parliamentary and Constitutional traditions, he needs to return at once to the Front Benches of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as a distinguished senior Member of the House, and from there make whatever arguments he wishes about Parliament’s rights under the Constitution. The high self-effacing office of the Speaker is not from where such arguments as he has been making should be made — unless India’s Parliament and Constitution are soon to be thrown into the dustbin for ever (as has similarly happened for half a century across the border with our Pakistani cousins).

The incumbent Speaker is right that the Supreme Court does not oversee Parliament. The Supreme Court oversees something greater than Parliament, namely, India’s Constitution. Parliament, its Speaker, its Prime Minister, the President of India, and the Supreme Court itself are all creatures of the Constitution. However, the Constitution of India that was adopted on 26 January 1950 is not sui generis a creature of itself. It is the outcome of a clear and well-known constitutional history which has among its modern milestones the Government of India Act of 1935, and thence all the ancient milestones of Anglo-American constitutional jurisprudence going back to Magna Carta. And India’s Supreme Court — sitting not in any of its normal division benches but as a Constitutional Bench — does indeed have jurisdiction, indeed it has sole jurisdiction, over whether India’s Constitution is being made to suffer crimes or misdemeanours at the hands of India’s Government or Parliament of the day. For the Speaker to decline to receive a notice from the High Court is an irrelevancy; many people who are served notices ignore them; it does not reduce jurisdiction by an iota. An “All-Party” meeting of MPs can rail all it wants against the Supreme Court — even the whole of the present Parliament can pass as many unanimous resolutions as they want against the Supreme Court. They will only make themselves look silly and petulant in the eyes of history. As for the BJP Opposition in particular, the present situation may make it perfectly clear that there is not among them a single, principled, liberal constitutionalist hidden in their proto-fascistic ranks.

Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”: Contemporary Relevance

Subroto Roy hears Mr Blair’s testimony to the Iraq War Inquiry and recalls Hannah Arendt’s profound distinction in “Truth and Politics” between the mere liar and the fully self-deceived — the liar tells the lie but at least knows the truth himself; the self-deceived tells the lie to himself as much as to others and believes it too and so the truth is hopelessly lost to him.

Transparency and Economic Policy-Making

Transparency and Economic Policy-Making

An address by Professor Subroto Roy to the Asia-Pacific Public Relations Conference, (panel on Transparency chaired by C. R. Irani) January 30 1998.

This talk is dedicated to the memory of my sister Suchandra Bhattacharjee (14.02.1943-10.01.1998).
1. I would like to talk about transparency and economic policy-making in our country. For something to be transparent is, in plain language, for it to be able to be openly seen through, for it to not to be opaque, obscure or muddy, for it to be clear to the naked eye or to the reasonable mind. A clear glass of water is a transparent glass of water. Similarly, an open and easily comprehensible set of economic policies is a transparent set of economic policies.

The philosopher Karl Popper wrote a famous book after the Second World War titled The Open Society and its Enemies. It contained a passionate defence of liberal institutions and democratic freedoms and a bitter attack on totalitarian doctrines of all kinds. It generated a lot of controversy, especially over its likely misreading of the best known work of political philosophy since the 4th Century BC, namely, Plato’s Republic .[1] I shall borrow Popper’s terms ‘open society’ and ‘closed society’ and will first try to make this a useful distinction for modern times, and then apply it to the process of economic policy-making in India today.

2. An open society is one in which the ordinary citizen has reasonably easy access to any and all information relating to the public or social interest — whether the information is directly available to the citizen himself or herself, or is indirectly available to his or her elected representatives like MP’s and MLA’s. Different citizens will respond to the same factual information in different ways, and conflict and debate about the common good will result. But that would be part of the democratic process.

The assessment that any public makes about the government of the day depends on both good and bad news about the fate of the country at any given time. In an open society, both good news and bad news is out there in the pubic domain — open to be assessed, debated, rejoiced over, or wept about. If we win a cricket match or send a woman into space we rejoice. If we lose a child in a manhole or a busload of children in a river, we weep. If some tremendous fraud on the public exchequer comes to be exposed, we are appalled. And so on.

It is the hallmark of an open society that its citizens are mature enough to cope with both the good and the bad news about their country that comes to be daily placed before them. Or, perhaps more accurately, the experience of having to handle both good and bad news daily about their world causes the citizens in an open society to undergo a process of social maturation in formulating their understanding of the common good as well as their responses to problems or crises that the community may come to face. They might be thereby thought of as improving their civic capacities, as becoming better-informed and more discerning voters and decision-makers, and so becoming better citizens of the country in which they live.

The opposite of an open society is a closed society — one in which a ruling political party or a self-styled elite or nomenclatura keep publicly important information to themselves, and do not allow the ordinary citizen easy or reasonably free access to it. The reason may be merely that they are intent on accumulating assets for themselves as quickly as they can while in office, or that they are afraid of public anger and want to save their own skins from demands for accountability. Or it may be that they have the impression that the public is better off kept in the dark — that only the elite nomenclatura is in position to use the information to serve the national interest.

In a closed society it is inevitable that bad news comes to be censored or suppressed by the nomenclatura, and so the good news gets exaggerated in significance. News of economic disasters, military defeats or domestic uprisings gets suppressed. News of victories or achievements or heroics gets exaggerated. If there are no real victories, achievements or heroics, fake ones have to be invented by government hacks — although the suppressed bad news tends to silently whisper all the way through the public consciousness in any case.

Such is the way of government propaganda in almost every country, even those that pride themselves on being free and democratic societies. Dostoevsky’s cardinal advice in Brothers Karamasov was: “Above all, never lie to yourself”. Yet people in power tend to become so adept at propaganda that they start to deceive themselves and forget what is true and what is false, or worse still, cannot remember how to distinguish between true and false in the first place. In an essay thirty years ago titled Truth and Politics, the American scholar Hannah Arendt put it like this:

“Insofar as man carries within himself a partner from whom he can never win release, he will be better off not to live with a murderer or a liar; or: since thought is the silent dialogue carried out between me and myself, I must be careful to keep the integrity of this partner intact, for otherwise I shall surely lose the capacity for thought altogether.”[2]

3. Closed societies may have been the rule and open societies the exception for most of human history. The good news at the end of the 20th Century is surely that since November 7 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, the closed society has officially ceased to be a respectable form of human social organization. The age of mass access to television and telecommunications at the end of the 20th Century may be spelling the permanent end of totalitarianism and closed societies in general. The Berlin Wall was perhaps doomed to fall the first day East Germans were able to watch West German television programs.

Other than our large and powerful neighbour China, plus perhaps North Korea, Myanmar, and some Islamic countries, declared closed societies are becoming hard to find, and China remains in two minds whether to be open or closed. No longer is Russia or Romania or Albania or South Africa closed in the way each once was for many years. There may be all sorts of problems and confusions in these countries but they are or trying to become open societies.

Under the glare of TV cameras in the 21st Century, horrors like the Holocaust or the Gulag or even an atrocity like Jalianwalla Bag or the Mai Lai massacre will simply not be able to take place anywhere in the world. Such things are not going to happen, or if they do happen, it will be random terrorism and not systematic, large scale genocide of the sort the 20th Century has experienced. The good news is that somehow, through the growth of human ingenuity that we call technical progress, we may have made some moral progress as a species as well.

4. My hypothesis, then, is that while every country finds its place on a spectrum of openness and closedness with respect to its political institutions and availability of information, a broad and permanent drift has been taking place as the 20th Century comes to an end in the direction of openness.

With this greater openness we should expect bad news not to come to be suppressed or good news not to come to be exaggerated in the old ways of propaganda. Instead we should expect more objectively accurate information to come about in the public domain — i.e., better quality and more reliable information, in other words, more truthful information. This in turn commensurately requires more candour and maturity on the part of citizens in discussions about the national or social interest. Closed society totalitarianism permitted the general masses to remain docile and unthinking while the nomenclatura make the decisions. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor said that is all that can be expected of the masses. Open society transparency and democracy defines the concept of an ordinary citizen and requires from that citizen individual rationality and individual responsibility. It is the requirement Pericles made of the Athenians:

“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 interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”[3]

5. All this being said, I am at last in a position to turn to economic policy in India today. I am sorry to have been so long-winded and pedantic but now I can state my main substantive point bluntly: in India today, there is almost zero transparency in the information needed for effective macroeconomic policy-making whether at the Union or State levels. To illustrate by some examples.

(A) Macroeconomic policy-making in any large country requires the presence of half a dozen or a dozen well-defined competing models produced by the government and private agencies, specifying plausible causal links between major economic variables, and made testable against time-series data of reasonably long duration. In India we seem to have almost none. The University Economics Departments are all owned by some government or other and can hardly speak out with any academic freedom. When the Ministry of Finance or RBI or Planning Commission, or the India teams of the World Bank or IMF, make their periodic statements they do not appear to be based on any such models or any such data-base. If any such models exist, these need to be published and placed in the public domain for thorough discussion as to their specification and their data. Otherwise, whatever is being predicted cannot be assessed as being very much more reliable than the predictions obtained from the Finance Minister’s astrologer or palmist. (NB: Horse-Manure is a polite word used in the American South for what elsewhere goes by the initials of B. S.). Furthermore, there is no follow-up or critical review to see whether what the Government said was going to happen a year ago has in fact happened, and if not, why not.

(B) The Constitution of India defines many States yet no one seems to be quite certain how many States really constitute the Union of India at any given time. We began with a dozen. Some 565 petty monarchs were successfully integrated into a unitary Republic of India, and for some years we had sixteen States. But today, do we really have 26 States? Is Delhi a State? UP with 150 million people would be the fifth or sixth largest country in the world on its own; is it really merely one State of India? Are 11 Small States de facto Union Territories in view of their heavy dependence on the Union? Suppose we agreed there are fifteen Major States of India based on sheer population size: namely, Andhra, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, MP, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, UP and West Bengal. These States account for 93% of the population of India. The average population of these 15 Major States is 58 million people each. That is the size of a major country like France or Britain. In other words, the 870 million people in India’s Major States are numerically 15 Frances or 15 Britains put together.

Yet no reliable, uniformly collected GDP figures exist for these 15 States. The RBI has the best data, and these are at least two years old, and the RBI will tell you without further explanation that the data across States are not comparable. If that is the case at State-level, I do not see how the national-level Gross Domestic Product can possibly be estimated with any meaningfulness at all.

(C) Then we hear about the Government Budget deficit as a percentage of GDP. Now any national government is able to pay for its activities only by taxation or borrowing or by using its monopoly over the domestic medium of exchange to print new money. In India today, universal money-illusion seems to prevail. It would not be widely recognised by citizens, journalists or policy-makers that, say, 100,000 Rupees nominally taxed at 10% under 20% inflation leaves less real disposable income than the same taxed at 20% with 5% inflation. This is in part because inflation figures are unknown or suspect. There is no reliable all-India or State-level consumer price index. The wholesale price index on the basis of which the Government of India makes its inflation statements, may not accurately reflect the actual decline in the purchasing power of money, as measured, say, by rises in prices of alternative stores of value like land. The index includes artificially low administered or subsidized prices for petroleum, cereals, and electricity. To the extent these prices may be expected to move towards international equilibrium prices, the index contains a strong element of deferred inflation. One urgent task for all macroeconomic research in India is construction of reliable price-data indices at both Union and State levels, or at a minimum, the testing for reliability by international standards of series currently produced by Government agencies.

Without reliable macroeconomic information being spread widely through a reasonably well-informed electorate, the Government of India has been able to wash away fiscal budget constraints by monetization and inflation without significant response from voters. The routine method of meeting deficits has become “the use of the printing press to manufacture legal tender paper money”, either directly by paying Government creditors “with new paper money specially printed for the purpose” or indirectly by paying creditors “out of loans to itself from the Central Bank”, issuing paper money to that amount. Every Budget of the Government of India, including the most recent ones of 1996 and 1997, comes to be attended by detailed Press discussion with regard to the minutae of changes in tax rates or tax-collection — yet the enormous phenomena of the automatic monetization of the Government’s deficit is ill-understood and effectively ignored. Historically, a policy of monetization started with the British Government in India during the Second World War, with a more than five-fold increase in money supply occurring between 1939 and 1945. Inflation rates never seen in India before or since were the result (Charts 0000), attended by the Great Famine of 1942/43. Though these were brought down after succession of C. D. Deshmukh as Governor of the Reserve Bank, the policy of automatic monetization did not cease and continues until the present day. Inflation “sooner or later destroys the confidence, not only of businessmen, but of the whole community, in the future value of the currency. Then comes the stage known as “the flight from the currency.” Had the Rupee been convertible during the Bretton Woods period, depreciation would have signalled and helped to adjust for disequilibrium. But exchange-controls imposed during the War were enlarged by the new Governments of India and Pakistan after the British departure to exclude convertible Sterling Area currencies as well. With the Rupee no longer convertible, internal monetization of deficits could continue without commensurate exchange-rate depreciation.

The Reserve Bank was originally supposed to be a monetary authority independent of the Government’s fiscal compulsions. It has been prevented from developing into anything more than a department of the Ministry of Finance, and as such, has become the captive creditor of the Government. The RBI in turn has utilized its supervisory role over banking to hold captive creditors, especially nationalized banks whose liabilities account for 90% of commercial bank deposits in the country. Also captive are nationalized insurance companies and pension funds. Government debt instruments show on the asset side of these balance-sheets. To the extent these may not have been held had banks been allowed to act in the interests of proper management of depositors’ liabilities and share-capital according to normal principles, these are pseudo-assets worth small fractions of their nominal values. Chart 0000 shows that in the last five years the average term structure of Government debt has been shortening rapidly, suggesting the Government is finding it increasingly difficult to find creditors, and portending higher interest rates.

General recognition of these business facts, as may be expected to come about with increasing transparency, would be a recipe for a crisis of confidence in the banking and financial system if appropriate policies were not in place beforehand.

(D) As two last examples, I offer two charts. The first shows the domestic interest burden of the Government of India growing at an alarming rate, even after it has been deflated to real terms. The second tries to show India’s foreign assets and liabilities together – we always come to know what is happening to the RBI’s reserve levels, what is less known or less understood is the structure of foreign liabilities being accumulated by the country. Very roughly speaking, in terms that everyone can understand, every man, woman and child in India today owes something like 100 US dollars to the outside world. The Ministry of Finance will tell you that this is not to be worried about because it is long-term debt and not short-term debt. Even if we take them at their word, interest payments still have to be paid on long-term debt, say at 3% per annum. That means for the stock of debt merely to be financed, every man, woman and child in India must be earning $3 every year in foreign exchange via the sale of real goods and services abroad. I.e., something like $3 billion must be newly earned every year in foreign exchange merely to finance the existing stock of debt. Quite clearly, that is not happening and it would stretch the imagination to see how it can be made to happen.

In sum, then, India, blessed with democratic political traditions which we had to take from the British against their will — remember Tilak, “Freedom is my birthright, and I shall have it” — may still be stuck with a closed society mentality when it comes to the all-important issue of economic policy. There is simply an absence in Indian public discourse of vigourous discussion of economic models and facts, whether at Union or State levels. A friendly foreign ambassador pointedly observed an absence in India of political philosophy. It may be more accurate to say that without adequate experience of a normal agenda of government being seen to be practised, widespread ignorance regarding fiscal and monetary causalities and inexperience of the technology of governance remains in the Indian electorate, as well as among public decision-makers at all levels. Our politicians seem to spend an inordinate amount of their time either garlanding one another with flowers or garlanding statues and photographs of the glorious dead. It is high time they stopped to think about the living and the future.

[1] Renford Bambrough (ed.) Plato, Popper and Politics: Some Contributions to a Modern Controversy, 1967.

[2] Philosophy, Politics and Society, 2nd Series, Peter Laslett & W. G. Runciman (eds.), 1967.

[3] Thucydides, History of the Pelopennesian War, II.40.