June 11, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
When will normal political philosophy replace personality cults?
by Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, June 11 2007,
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.
October 22, 2006 — drsubrotoroy
By SUBROTO ROY
First published in The Sunday Statesman October 22 2006, Editorial Page Special Article
Communists, socialists and fascists exist in the Left, Congress and BJP-RSS ~ but there is a conservative/”classical liberal” party missing in Indian democracy today
We in India have sorely needed for many years a serious “classical liberal” or “conservative” political party. Major democratic countries used to have such parties which paid lip-service at least to “classical liberal” principles. But the 2003 attack on Iraq caused Bush/McCain-Republicans to merge with Hilary-Democrats, and Blair-Labour with Tory neocons, all united in a cause of collective mendacity, self-delusion and jingoism over the so-called “war on terror”. The “classical liberal” or “libertarian” elements among the Republicans and Tories find themselves isolated today, just as do pacifist communitarian elements among the Democrats and Labour. There are no obvious international models that a new Indian Liberal Party could look at ~ any models that exist would be very hard to find, perhaps in New Zealand or somewhere in Canada or North Eastern Europe like Estonia. There have been notable individual Indian Liberals though whom it may be still possible to look to for some insight: Gokhale, Sapru, Rajagopalachari and Masani among politicians, Shenoy among economists, as well as many jurists in years and decades gone by.
What domestic political principles would a “classical liberal” or conservative party believe in and want to implement in India today? First of all, the “Rule of Law” and an “Efficient Judiciary”. Secondly, “Family Values” and “Freedom of Religious Belief”. Thirdly, “Limited Government” and a “Responsible Citizenry”. Fourthly, “Sound Money” and “Free Competitive Markets”. Fifthly, “Compassion” and a “Safety Net”. Sixthly, “Education and Health for All”. Seventhly, “Science, not Superstition”. There may be many more items but this in itself would be quite a full agenda for a new Liberal Party to define for India’s electorate of more than a half billion voters, and then win enough of a Parliamentary majority to govern with at the Union-level, besides our more than two dozen States.
The practical policies entailed by these sorts of political slogans would involve first and foremost cleaning up the budgets and accounts of every single governmental entity in the country, namely, the Union, every State, every district and municipality, every publicly funded entity or organisation. Secondly, improving public decision-making capacity so that once budgets and accounts recover from having been gravely sick for decades, there are functioning institutions for their proper future management. Thirdly, resolving J&K in the most lawful and just manner as well as military problems with Pakistan in as practical and efficacious a way as possible today. This is necessary if military budgets are ever going to be drawn down to peacetime levels from levels they have been at ever since the Second World War. How to resolve J&K justly and lawfully has been described in these pages before (The Statesman, “Solving Kashmir” 1-3 December 2005, “Law, Justice and J&K”, 2-3 July 2006).
Cleaning up public budgets and accounts would pari passu stop corruption in its tracks, as well as release resources for valuable public goods and services. A beginning may be made by, for example, tripling the resources every year for three years that are allocated to the Judiciary, School Education and Basic Health, subject to tight systems of performance-audit. Institutions for improved political and administrative decision-making are necessary throughout the country if public preferences with respect to raising and allocating common resources are to be elicited and then translated into actual delivery of public goods and services.
This means inter alia that our often dysfunctional Parliament and State Legislatures have to be inspired by political statesmen (if any such may be found to be encouraged or engendered) to do at least a little of what they have been supposed to be doing. If the Legislative Branch and the Executive it elects are to lead this country, performance-audit will have to begin with them.
The result of healthy public budgets and accounts, and an economy with functioning public goods and services, would be a macroeconomic condition for the paper-rupee to once more become a money that is as good as gold, namely, a convertible world currency again after having suffered sixty years of abuse via endless deficit finance at the hands of first the British and then numerous Governments of free India that have followed.
It may be noticed the domestic aspects of such an agenda oppose almost everything the present Sonia-Manmohan Congress and Jyoti Basu “Left” stand for — whose “politically correct” thoughts and deeds have ruined India’s money and public budgets, bloated India’s Government especially the bureaucracy and the military, starved the Judiciary and damaged the Rule of Law, and gone about overturning Family Values. While there has been endless talk from them about being “pro-poor”, the actual results of their politicization of India’s economy are available to be seen with the naked eye everywhere.
One hundred years from now if our souls returned to visit the areas known today as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc, we may well find 500+ million inhabitants still below the same poverty-line despite all the gaseous prime ministerial or governmental rhetoric today and projections about alleged growth-rates.
If the Congress and “Left” must oppose any real “classical liberal” or conservative agenda, we may ask if the BJP-RSS could be conceivably for it. The answer is clearly not. The BJP-RSS may pontificate much about being patriotic to the motherland and about past real or imagined glories of Indian culture and religion, but that hardly ever has translated concretely into anything besides anti-Muslim or anti-Christian rhetoric, or breeding superstitions like astrology even at supposedly top technological institutes in the country. (Why all astrology is humbug, and a pre-Copernican Western import at that, is because all horoscopes assume the Sun rotates around the Earth in a geocentric solar system; the modern West’s scientific outlook arose only after astrology had declined there thanks to Copernicus and Galileo establishing the solar system as heliocentric.)
As for a “classical liberal” economic agenda, the BJP in Government transpired to be as bad if not worse than their adversaries in fiscal and monetary profligacy, except they flattered and were flattered by the organised capital of the big business lobbies whereas their adversaries flatter and are flattered by the organised power of the big labour unions (covering a tiny privileged class among India’s massive workforce). Neither has had the slightest interest in the anonymous powerless individual Indian citizen or household. The BJP in Opposition, instead of seeking to train and educate a new modern principled conservative leadership, appear to wish to regress even further back towards their very own brand of coarse fascism. “Family Values” are why Indian school-children have become the envy of the world in their keen discipline and anxiety to learn – yet even there the BJP had nothing to say on Sonia Gandhi’s pet bill on women’s property rights, whose inevitable result will be further conflict between daughters and daughters-in-law of normal Indian families.
At the root of the malaise of our political parties may be the fact we have never had any kind of grassroots “orange” revolution. There has been also an underlying national anxiety of disintegration and disorder from which the idea of a “strong Centre” follows, which has effectively meant a Delhi bloated with power and swimming in self-delusion. The BJP and Left are prisoners of their geriatric leaderships and rather unpleasant ideologies and interest-groups, while the Congress has failed to invent or adopt any ideology besides sycophancy. Let it be remembered Sonia Gandhi had been genuinely disdainful of the idea of leading that party at Rajiv’s death; today she has allowed herself to become its necessary glue. The most salubrious thing she could do for the party (and hence for India) is to do a Michael Howard: namely, preside over a genuine leadership contest between a half-dozen ambitious people, and then withdraw with her family permanently from India’s politics, focusing instead on the legacy of her late husband. Without that happening, the Congress cannot be made a healthy political entity, and hence the other parties have no role-model to imitate. Meanwhile, a liberal political party, which necessarily would be non-geriatric and non-sycophantic, is still missing in India.