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

Corporate Governance & the Principal-Agent Problem (a brief lecture dated 31 May 2006)

Corporate Governance & the Principal-Agent Problem
by

Subroto Roy
for a conference on corporate governance, Kolkata,  31 May 2006

I am most grateful for this opportunity to speak at this distinguished gathering.  I have to say I have had just a day to collect my thoughts on the subject of our discussion, so I may be less precise than I would wish to be.  But I am delighted I  have  a mere 7 minutes to speak, and I will not plan to speak for a second more!

I would like to ask you to consider the following pairings:

PATIENT: DOCTOR
CLIENT: LAWYER
PUPIL: TEACHER
STUDENT: PROFESSOR
SHAREHOLDER: DIRECTORS & MANAGERS
CITIZEN: GOVERNMENT

You will recognize something in common to all of these pairings I am sure.  A patient goes to a doctor with a problem, like a swelling or a stomach ache or a fever, and expects the doctor to do his/her best to treat it successfully.  A client goes to a  lawyer with a problem, of a contract or a tort or a criminal charge, and expects the lawyer to represent him to the best of his ability.  A student attends a University or higher educational Institute, and expects the professors there to impart some necessary knowledge,  to explain some difficult or complex natural or social phenomena, to share some well-defined expertise, so the student too may aspire to becoming an expert.

In each case, there is a Principal – namely the patient, the client, the student, — and there is an Agent, namely, the doctor, the lawyer, the professor.  The Agent is not acting out of charity but is someone who receives payment from the Principal either directly through fees or indirectly through taxes.

The Agent is also someone who necessarily knows more than the Principal about the answer to the Principal’s problem.  I.e. there is an asymmetry in the information between the two sides.   The Agent has the relevant information or expertise —  the Principal needs this information or expertise and wishes to purchase it from him one way or another.

A company’s Board of Directors and the management that reports to it, may be similarly assumed to have far greater specific knowledge than the company’s shareholders (and other stakeholders) about the state of a company’s operations, its finances, its organisation, its position in various input and output markets, its potential for growth in the industry it is a part of, and so on.  Yet the shareholders are the Principal and the directors and managers are their Agents.

And indeed the Government of a country, i.e. its political leadership and the bureaucracy and military that are reporting to it, also have much more relevant decision-making information available to them than does the individual citizen as to the economic and political direction the country should be taking and why, and again the body of the ordinary citizenry of any country may have a reasonable expectation that politicians, bureaucrats and military generals are acting on their behalf.

In each of these cases, the Principal, having less information than the Agent, must necessarily trust that the Agent is going to be acting in good faith on the Principal’s behalf.  There is a corporate governance problem in each case simply because the Agent can abuse this derived power that he acquires over the Principal, and breach the contract he has entered into with the Principal.   Doctors or lawyers can practise improperly, professors can cheat their students of their money and teach them nothing or less than nothing, boards of directors and managers can cheat their shareholders and other “stakeholders” (including their workers who have expectations about the company) of value that should be rightfully theirs — and of course politicians, bureaucrats and military men are all too easily able to misuse the public purse in a way that the public will not even begin to know how to rectify.

In such situations, the only real checks against abuse can come from within the professions themselves.   It is only doctors who can control medical malpractice, and only a doctor can certify that another doctor has behaved badly.  It is only lawyers who can control legal malpractice, and testify that yes a client has been cheated of his money by some unscrupulous attorney.  It is only good professors and good teachers who can do what they can to stand out as contrasting examples against corrupt professors or incompetent teachers.

In case of managerial malpractice, it is only fellow-managers who may be able to comprehend the scam that a particular CEO has been part of, in stealing money from his shareholders.   And in case of political malpractice, similarly, it is only rival political parties and when even those fail, rival political institutions like the courts or the press and media, who can expose the shenanigans of a Government, and tell an electorate to throw the rascals out in the next election.

In other words, self-policing, and professional self-discipline are the only ultimate checks and balances that any society has.  The ancient Greeks asked the question “Who guards the guardians”,  and the answer has to be that the guardians themselves have to guard themselves.   We ultimately must police ourselves .  I think it was William Humboldt who said that a people get the government they deserve.

In India today, indeed in India in the last thirty or forty years, perhaps ever since 1966 after the passing away of Lal Bahadur Shastri, we may be facing a universal problem of the breach of good faith especially so perhaps in the Government and the organised corporate sector.   Such breaches occur in other countries too, but when an American court sends the top management of Enron to jail for many years or a Korean court sends the top management of Daewoo to jail for many years, we know that there are processes in these countries which are at least making a show of trying to rectify the breaches of good faith that may have occurred there.   That is regrettably not the situation in India.  And the main responsibility for that rests with our Government simply because our Government is by far the largest organised entity in the country and dwarfs everyone else.

As an economist, I have been personally intrigued to realise that Government corruption is closely caused by the complete absence of serious accounting and audit norms being followed in Government organisations and institutions.   Get control of as big a budget as you can, is the aim of every Government department, then spend as little of it as is absolutely necessary on the publicly declared social or national aim that the department is supposed to have, and instead spend as much as possible on the travel or personal lifestyles of those in charge, or better still transform as much as possible into the personal property of those in charge – for example, through kickbacks on equipment purchases or building contracts.  For example, it is not unknown for the head of some or other government institution to receive an apartment off-site from a builder who may have been chosen for a major construction project on site.  This kind of thing has unfortunately become the implicit goal of almost all departments of the Government of India as well as the Governments of our more than two dozen States.    I have no doubt it is a state of affairs ultimately being caused by the macroeconomic processes of continuous deficit-financing and unlimited printing of paper-money over decades.   For the first two decades or so after Independence, our institutions still had enough self-discipline, integrity, competence and optimism to correct for the natural human instincts of greed and domination.  The next four decades — roughly, as I have said, from the death of Shastriji — there has been increasing social and political rot.  I have to wonder if and when a monetary collapse will follow.

New Foreign Policy? (8-9 Oct 2006)

NEW FOREIGN POLICY? “Kiss Up, Kick Down”?

 

 

Seven phases of Indian foreign policy may be identifiable since Nehru; the current phase seems to involve subservience to the strong, jingoism otherwise

 

by Subroto Roy

 

 

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Oct 8 2006, The Statesman Oct 9 2006 Editorial Page Special Article

 

 

The outlines of a new tri-partisan Indian foreign policy may be becoming discernible. That it is “new” or that it commands near unanimity among the Congress, BJP and “Left” and their respective friends in the Indian media and political classes, does not make it sound or robust in any way. In fact, its basis in the history, geography and economics of India is wholly inadequate, and it is also entirely divorced from any clearly enunciated new Indian political ethics for the modern world.

 

 

The new policy, which may be fairly dubbed the Jaswant-Manmohan policy after the BJP and Congress politicians who have been its putative authors and leading practitioners, is as likely as not to lead to an India that is no longer a free decision-maker in any meaningful way in world affairs by 2047, one hundred years after Independence. Our great grandchildren may well be taught that for some decades in Indian history a sovereign unitary republic actually existed which then came to be effectively lost.

 

 

Indeed the new policy may amount to being less a coherent new doctrine of India’s role in international relations than a mere change in attitude on the part of politicians, bureaucrats and their intelligentsia friends: from seeming universally arrogant in the world to becoming pliant and subservient towards those world powers perceived (accurately or inaccurately) as strong, combined with a vainglorious jingoism towards all others. It is an application to international diplomacy and politics of the classic bureaucratic principle of “kiss up, kick down” in an organisation, and may reflect the fact the two main institutions the Mughals and British used to run their empires were the bureaucracy and military ~ both of which have grown and continued to run New Delhi (and Islamabad) afterwards, co-opting whatever domestic political development that has arisen. There is plenty of wishful waffling too about India becoming a “great power” or being a “swing state in the global balance of power”, and about how well the economy is supposedly doing ~ as if what Government spokesmen say about the economy is to be believed at face-value. Indian Leftists and their fellow-travellers ~ as great lovers themselves of bureaucracy, collectivist groupthink and propaganda on the USSR or PRC pattern, and fearful or envious of all individual criticism, creativity and achievement – have taken to the same principle like fish to water.

 

 

The first phase of Indian foreign policy was Nehruvian in that it began with Nehru’s Fabian misperception of Stalin’s USSR, and ended with the military debacle he led the country into at the hands of Zhou’s “human wave” armies in the mountains of Ladakh and NEFA.

 

 

A second phase was Kashmir-centric, overlapping with the first insofar as it may be traced to Karan Singh’s iniquitous dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah’s first Government, but really beginning after Nehru’s death with the Ayub-Abdullah summit, and being marked by Ayub’s 1965 attack in J&K ~ Shastri’s riposte reaching the Ichogil Canal signalled that no longer would war over J&K be confined to J&K.

 

 

A third phase was forced on India by the Pakistani civil war that led to Bangladesh’s creation, and was marked by the Indira/ Haksar alliance with Brezhnev’s USSR, as well as by Pokhran-I.

 

 

A fourth phase of Indian foreign policy may be identified in the late 1970s and 1980s, marked by rebellion of the fundamentalist Sikhs whom Indira and Sanjay Gandhi had provoked, which led in due course to her assassination. The turmoil that followed in Punjab and North India was financed by anti-Indian Sikhs from Vancouver,California and Britain, with gleeful help from the Pakistanis, and Indian diplomats had their hands full in trying to counter that phenomenon. It was during this phase of domestic Indian turmoil that New Delhi wholly missed the seismic changes occurring in the USSR, East Europe and international relations generally, and completely failed to predict its consequences for India.

 

 

The phase came to end when the Narasimha Rao Government (upon advice of a well-known communist cabal in the IFS and JNU) instantly showered praise on the anti-Yeltsin coup in August 1991. When Yeltsin returned to power, the new anti-communist Russians took their revenge on New Delhi, exacting hard dollars for the soft rouble-trade of friendlier times.

 

 

A fifth phase may be seen in retrospect as one of relative success.The main plank of Indian foreign policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s was to get Pakistan designated a “terrorist state” in American eyes, as well as to warn of the dangers of a Pakistani nuclear bomb. It had been prompted by the end of American involvement in the Afghan war, which caused the ISI to shift the jihadis to J&K, and the Indian policy was destined not to succeed. No matter how hard Kanwal Sibal tried in 1992-1993 as Minister-Political in the Washington Embassy to tell the Americans that their Pakistani friends were dangerous, he was destined to fail as the MEA had entirely failed to realise how far ahead the Pakistanis were in their lobbying power in Washington ~ the Pakistani super-elite has been entrenched among the K-Street lobbyists and in expensive real-estate along the Potomac River for more than two generations. Yet after the 9/11 attacks several years later, the Indians were able to look back at that fifth phase and say to the Americans, “We told you so”.

 

 

In the late 1990s came a short-lived sixth phase of Pokhran-II and the Lahore bus-trip, which may be credited as Vajpayee successes, and also contained the Kargil War and Kandahar hijacking, which were more dubious. This overlapped with the last and currently continuing seventh phase of Indian foreign policy with Jaswant Singh breaking the ice with the Americans when they had recovered from the fact the CIA’s failures included not foreseeing Pokhran-II; it coincided too with Osama bin Laden’s declarations of jihad against the USA. The Americans enlisting themselves on the side of the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban after 9/11 was beneficial from an Indian standpoint since Afghanistan had been effectively lost to secular Indian influence for two decades, and the Taliban had shown themselves no friends of India during the Kandahar hijacking.

 

 

But the BJP’s anti-Muslim thought processes quickly took over, as did its proximity to organised business lobbies. When Iraq was attacked and occupied in 2003, there was hardly a whimper from the BJP leadership, and instead their businessmen friends started to fly to Amman hopeful of “reconstruction” contracts. The Sonia/ Manmohan Congress/Leftist combine has effectively continued and expanded that trend, though now the business lobbies have been much more muted and subtle, especially in their backroom dealings and payoffs with respect to the nuclear deal. There is also an occasional burst of anti-Americanism from leftists though it is hard of course to beg for American foreign investment in Marxist-run areas while also being sincere in quaint street demos or agitprop.

 

 

Running through the new foreign policy is a fiction that it is driven by a new economic motivation to improve development and mass well-being in India. The bizarre idea of creating hundreds of so-called “Special Economic Zones” (reminiscent of 17th and 18th Century colonial fortifications) illustrates this. India’s ordinary anonymous masses ~ certainly the 850 million people entirely outside the organised sector ~ have little or nothing to do with any of this. Benefits will accrue only to the ten million Indian nomenclatura controlling or having access to the gaping exit holes to the outside world in the new semi-closed economy with its endless deficit finance paid for by unlimited printing of an inconvertible domestic currency.

 

 

It is as fallacious to think private investment from foreign or domestic businessmen will support public “infrastructure” creation as it is to think foreign exchange reserves are like tax revenues in being available for Government expenditure on “infrastructure”. Such fallacies are intellectual products of either those who know no economics at all or those who have forgotten whatever little they might have been once mistaught in their youth. What serious economics does say is that Government should generally have nothing to do with any kind of private business, and instead should focus on properly providing public goods and services, encourage competition in all avenues of economic activity and prevent or regulate monopoly, and see to it all firms pay taxes they are due to pay.

 

 

That is it. It is as bad for Government to be pampering organised foreign or domestic business or organised labour with innumerable subsidies, as has been happening in India for decades, as it is to make enterprise difficult with red tape and hurdles. Businessmen are grown ups and should be allowed to freely risk their capital and make their profits or their losses without public intervention.

 

 

An economics-based policy would have single-mindedly sought to improve the financial condition of every governmental entity in the country, with the aim of improving the provision of public goods and services to all 1,000 million Indians. If and when budgets of all governmental entities become sound, foreign creditors would automatically line up before them with loans to sell, and ambitious development goals can be accomplished. As long as public budgets (and public accounts) remain in an outrageous shambles, nothing can be in fact achieved and only propaganda, corruption and paper-money creation results instead. Whatever economic growth does occur is due to new enterprise and normal technological progress, and is mostly despite and not because of New Delhi’s bureaucrats (see “The Dream Team: A Critique”, The Statesman 6-8 January 2006).

 

 

The first aspect of the new Indian foreign policy has been for Government to become wholly ingratiating towards any and all “First World” members visiting India who may deign to consider any kind of collaboration whatsoever. The long line of foreign businessmen and heads of government having photo-ops with the Indian PM began with Vajpayee and has continued with Manmohan, especially when there is a large weapons’ or commercial aircraft or other purchase to be signed. The flip-side has been ministerial and especially Prime Ministerial trips abroad ~ from Vajpayee’s to a Singapore golf-cart immediately after commiserating Gujarat, to Manmohan receiving foreign honorary doctorates while still holding public office.

 

 

Subservience to foreign business interests in the name of economic policy extends very easily to Indian naval, military or diplomatic assets being used to provide policing or support services for the great powers as and when they may ask for it. Hence, Indian naval forces may be asked by the Americans to help fight pirates in the Indian Ocean, or escort this vessel or that, or India may be asked to provide refuelling or base facilities, or India may be requested to vote against Iran, Venezuela or whomever here or there. But there would be absolutely no question of India’s role in international politics being anything greater than that of a subaltern or comprador whose response must be an instant “Ji, Huzoor”. The official backing of the Tharoor candidacy was as futile and ridiculous as the quest for UN veto-power or the willingness to attend G-8 summits as an observer.

 

 

While subservience towards the First World’s business and military interests is the “kiss up” aspect of the new foreign policy, an aggressive jingoism towards others is the “kick down” aspect. One influential voice among the media friends of the new foreign policy states it as follows: “The search for `equity oil’ has been the single most important new element of Indian economic diplomacy in recent years… Equity oil raises India’s stakes in the stability of regimes or even individuals who preside over these resources… the big question is how far would India go in defence of `regime stability’ elsewhere? And if it’s assets fall into hostile hands, would India be prepared to consider promoting `regime change’?” Just as surely as a pacifist Fabian socialist Nehru misperceived Stalin’s USSR, New Delhi’s new capitalistic jingoists have misperceived the Cheney-Rumsfeld grab for “equity oil” and have even defined Bush-Blair adventurism as being “the side of the angels”. How they must love to want to project Indian military force ~ paratroopers in the Maldives perhaps, though they need to recall what happened with the LTTE too!

 

 

Multiple Jallianwalla Bagh massacres may have been occurring in front of us in Iraq, Afghanistan and Balochistan, and there may soon be an attack on Iran too. New Delhi’s new “kiss up, kick down” attitude has rendered India’s once-dignified and sober voice silent, our eyes closed or our face turned away.

 

 

The obvious alternative to bureaucratic “kiss up, kick down” would be “kick up, kiss down” loved by all individualists and anti-bureaucrats. In other words, it would be for India to take each case and circumstance in international politics on its merits; be seen to stand up seriously to the powerful in world politics wherever and whenever necessary; seek to protect those who may be vulnerable to international or other brutality in world affairs, while getting on properly with the mundane business of ordinary government and commerce at all other times. That mundane business may call for a gradual withdrawal of India from all or most of the fancy, corrupt international bureaucracies in New York, Washington, Geneva etc, focussing calmly but determinedly instead on improved administration and governance at home. Such was what Rajiv Gandhi was advised in January 1991 (see “Memos to Rajiv,” The Statesman 31 July-2 August 1991; Freedom First October 2001), when for one futile moment he even formed a peaceful bridge between the Americans and Saddam during the first Gulf War. The New Delhi establishment may be too intoxicated with power and insecure intellectually to be able to reflect on such sober alternatives.

Revisionist Flattery of Indira Gandhi

Inder Malhotra’s Indira Gandhi : A Review Article
by Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman May 7 2006, www.thestatesman.net

Indira Priyadarshini Nehru was fortunate to have been a handsome woman born to an eminent and indulgent father and grandfather. Despite her lack of higher education or significant worldly wisdom or experience, she acquired enough of an aura of being born to rule that she became Congress Party President in 1959 at age 41, and India’s most dramatic Prime Minister from 1966-1977 and again from 1980-1984 when she was assassinated. She was lucky too that the Zoroastrian man she married did not have one of the many long and colourful surnames Indian Zoroastrians can have, but coincidentally shared the same surname as modern India’s founder. Hence arose the iconic name and personage known as Indira Gandhi.

“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is often interred with their bones”, said Shakespeare. Indira Gandhi’s one and paramount good deed as India’s leader and indeed as a world leader of her time was to have fought a war that was so rare in international law for having been unambiguously just. And she fought it flawlessly. The cause had been thrust upon her by an evil enemy’s behaviour against his own people, an enemy supported by the world’s strongest military power with pretensions to global leadership. Victims of the enemy’s wickedness were scores of millions of utterly defenceless, penniless human beings. Indira Gandhi did everything right. She practised patient but firm diplomacy on the world’s stage to avert war if it was at all possible to do. She chose her military generals well and took their professional judgement seriously as to when to go to war and how to win it. Finally, in victory she was magnanimous to the enemy that had been defeated. Children’s history-books in India should remember her as the stateswoman who freed a fraternal nation from tyranny, at great expense to our own people. As a war-leader, Indira Gandhi displayed extraordinary bravery, courage and good sense.

Unfortunately, this was the only arena in which these virtues of hers came to be expressed. India’s serious history-books, beyond those written for or read by children, need to record that her sheer ignorance of the fundamentals of domestic statecraft as well as her caprice, arrogance and hubris caused permanent harm to India’s polity in innumerable dimensions from which we have yet long to recover. On advice first of her childhood acquaintance, the proto-communist P. N. Haksar, and later of her ruffian unprincipled younger son Sanjay, she single-handedly destroyed India’s nascent parliamentary traditions, federalism, the Rule of Law, and its most important political party; the integrity of the civil services, judiciary, police, intelligence services and other public institutions; as well as monetary and fiscal prudence Beside this, she and her younger son Sanjay contributed to destroying communal harmony and political stability in the Punjab, while she and later her older son Rajiv contributed to do the same in Kashmir. She exulted in the personality cult, courtier culture and durbar politics of her father and grandfather.

Many pertinent questions about the personal and political life of Indira Gandhi have remained to be answered by any serious modern biographer. Her relationships with her husband and his rival for her time and affections, her father, remain in darkness, as does, after their deaths, her relationship between 1967- 1974 with Haksar, her key adviser. Her capacity and her failures as a mother to two very different sons also remain unclear. Her own lack of education was transmitted to them and neither succeeded at what he studied to be, though at least Rajiv became a gentleman. Her father had been an indifferent husband to Kamala and she an indifferent wife to Feroze — the most important thing her sons may have done with their lives was to have married women she did not choose for them, and then to have become well-loved spouses themselves. As mother-in-law, her petulant bullying of the young Sikh widow of Sanjay, mother of an infant child at the time, remains to be contrasted with her apparent warmth and generosity towards her Italian-born elder daughter-in-law. All such questions would be ones of feminine gossip or TV-soap operas in case of any ordinary woman but assume political significance for Indians because of the inordinate impact she, her father, her sons and their widows have had on India’s modern history. Why all of India’s national-level politics have acquired a gossipy joint-family tone about them is because she projected onto them no high and universally known political principles whatsoever, but merely her own personal experiences and desire for popularity.

The book at hand provides almost no new fact or insight on any relevant extant personal or political question about Indira Gandhi at all. The one exception has to do with a brief discussion of her relationship with Lal Bahadur Shastri which reveals her naked ambition most clearly, though the author is too ingratiating to wish to draw such a conclusion himself. He meekly deflects blame for her faults onto exogenous random shocks like monsoon failures, the rise in petroleum prices or other uncontrollable international events, or the ill-will of others. The most fawning apologists and cultists are quoted with approval: Sanjay was merely “inept”, the Emergency was brought on by its victims and not such a bad thing really, the Shah Commission resembled “a Chinese people’s court”, Maneka was a “rebellious chit of a girl”, etc. Two decades later, we must expect the greatest detachment and calm objectivity in any serious treatment of this complex stateswoman’s life. What we have instead received — at a time when Rajiv’s widow is in power in Delhi and Haksar’s protégé is her PM, while The Mitrokhin Archives II are published — is a clear attempt at revisionist flattery, complete with Indira’s face smiling at us at the start of every chapter and old propaganda photos from the PIB. This is deeply unfortunate coming from the National Book Trust. Indeed, neither she nor her father deserve further inquiry and reflection today more than do their respective spouses, Feroze Gandhi and Kamala Nehru, both of whom died prematurely.