Moving on

Time to Leave Takshashila

It almost seems silly to write this post as I am a lapsed blogger—only occasionally can I subdue my laziness enough to write—but it is perhaps a wise decision to leave an official note. I have been involved with the Indian National interest project for nearly a decade and while my role in Takshashila has always been peripheral, it has been a joy to see it evolve to its current form. However, all good things in life eventually come to an end. And I have decided to move on from INI and Takshashila. The reason is simply this: I mainly write about politics and it is hard to avoid the impression that my views don’t reflect the opinion of Takshashila. Operating my own platform allows me to write more candidly about topics and the issues I care about including politics. And as Takshashila is much more focused on policy issues, it is able to retain its core competency without getting caught in needless partisan sniping.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my association with Takshahila and I remain its well-wisher! Thanks to Nitin for this wonderful platform and best wishes for the future!

Thank you all who read this blog; I will be moving to a new platform soon.

Wait for the announcement!

Modi the Moderate

Yes and No

Writing in the Indian Express, Ashutosh Varshney opines,

Has Modi undergone an ideological transformation from his 2002 days? We don’t have enough evidence to make that claim yet. The choice of Varanasi as a seat continues to throw hints of Hindu nationalism. But such symbolism has not been central to the campaign. We have a clearly recognisable strategic pattern emerging right from the fateful Reuters interview in July 2013, a pattern only briefly interrupted by Muzaffarnagar, whose association with Modi simply cannot be established. Modi appears to have concluded that ideological purity cannot bring him to power. Vajpayee-like ideological moderation and political pragmatism are necessary, at least for now. [link]

The critical question Professor Varshney  raises is this: Has Modi undergone an ‘ideological transformation’ or  is this merely a tactical manoeuvre as he seeks to navigate the treacherous waters of Indian politics. Three points.

First, it is myopic to view Modi’s journey only from the prism of his prime ministerial ambitions. Modi has relentlessly pursued the halo of a development oriented leader right from aftermath of the Gujarat riots of 2002. He has been clear in his mind that only this metamorphosis could help him escape the ignominy of 2002. Yes, there has been the usual segues in the ‘Miyan Musharraf’ kind of rhetoric but it has never been the major plank of  Modi’s electoral pitch. Never to shy away from a fight, Modi has responded to the jab of his ‘secular’ opponents, but his overt political argument has always been a mixture of development with an appeal to Gujarati regional pride. The critics may dismiss this as the magic of public relations or attribute it to solely to the devilish APCO but a politician can hardly be blamed for embellishing his own role in his state’s march towards prosperity. In that sense, Modi’s campaign has been a continuation of his Gujarat politics over the last two election cycles: The primary appeal has been development backed by personal braggadocio. Those who expected his campaign to focus solely on Ayodhya or the usual Hindutva arguments severely underestimate the craftiness and intelligence of Modi the politician. His arguments may not be couched in the flowery  language which pleases the permanent inhabitants of the Indian International Center but Modi is clearly one of the most talented politicians of his generation.

Second, Modi enjoys one tremendous advantage over the likes of Advani or his other rivals within the BJP.   Among his core supporters, there are no apprehensions about his true ideological beliefs. Modi has little to gain from employing overtly divisive rhetoric because those who would vote for him because he is perceived as the Hindutva icon are already firmly in his camp. And yet, he has been careful not to cross the red lines which may signify a tectonic ideological shift—for instance, he has expressly refused to apologize for the Gujarat riots or admitted the slightest sense of guilt. It is a careful balancing act but the rest test awaits Prime Minister Modi: Managing his more fervid supporters would perhaps be his greatest challenge.

Third, India has changed dramatically since the heydays of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The issue of Ram Temple may animate BJP’s core voter but has little appeal for the larger audience. It is hardly surprising that Modi has almost completely ignored this issue. This is not to suggest that the old fault lines of religion have disappeared or have no longer any electoral salience but they have acquired a new connotation. The ‘secular’ politics of the last decade–specifically in the Hindi heartland—with its relentlessness pursuit of the Muslim vote and its vapid symbolism has made Modi’s task much simpler. It may be hard for liberal purists to understand this but the average Hindu in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar feels cornered and implicitly believes that his interests are being ignored by pro-Muslim governments. This is not the natural audience of the Hindutva movement and Modi’s pitch to them reflects that: That he will restore the balance in governance by practicing true secularism. Each citizen would be treated the same—what could be wrong with that argument? The appeal of this pitch in a state run by Akhilesh Yadav should not be underestimated.

And it is here the rubber hits the road: What about Modi and Muslims? Because that is the true test of Modi’s moderation—at least by conventional political logic.  If some of his liberal opponents are to be believed, Third Reich is on the anvil with constant invocation of Hitler imagery. It may be too outlandish to suggest that Modi may actively gas Muslims but little else is left to the imagination. In essence, a relentless series of riots in which Muslims would be massacred by a Hitler-like Modi.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the last thing Modi would want under his watch is a massive Hindu-Muslim riot. As the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy—and as someone who carries the baggage of 2002–the eyes of the world would be on him and it would be utterly suicidal on his part to tolerate a major religious conflagration. Modi is too smart a politician to not understand its larger geo-strategic implications.

The argument is far more subtle. The core Modi supporters believe that Muslims are a pampered lot who run amok in the name of secularism and disproportionately influence the political discourse to the detriment of the more numerical but hopelessly divided Hindus.  The principal idea here is to make the Muslims realize their place in the society. And once they are cognizant of their diminished influence, there would neither be any need for violence or any display of overt religiosity. In other words: the silence of the graveyard.

Modi would perhaps be the first Prime Minister elected in the express and rabid opposition of Muslims. They are likely to greet his rise with sullen indifference further accentuating the religious cleavages in the Indian society. The sense of being let down by the mainstream ‘secular’ parties would only encourage the rise of Muslim fundamentalism leading to their further isolation from the mainstream of the Indian society. It has dangerous portends for India’s long-term stability but perhaps is an inevitable course correction to the excesses of her ‘secularism.’

It is the greatest indictment of Indian secularism that it has always rested on the bedrock of Hindu caste divisions. Modi with his outreach to hitherto ignored groups within the larger Hindutva project is challenging that. Muslims have thrived politically only because the Hindus have preferred caste divisions to religious appeals except in the most exceptional circumstances. It remains to be seen whether Modi can permanently bridge the caste divisions within the Hindu society but even if he is partially successful, he would fundamentally rewrite the rules of Indian politics. Viewed in that perspective, Modi’s appeal to Ezhavas in Kerala may not have any immediate political traction but has a much more significant meaning. With due respect to Professor Varshney, he fundamentally misdiagnoses the import of his appeal.

So have the exigencies of Indian politics moderated Modi: Yes and no. Viewed superficially, Modi has certainly toned down his rhetoric somewhat as he understands the need to appeal to a larger audience. However, in the broader perspective, Modi has displayed a remarkable consistency of both ideology and political rhetoric and therein lies perhaps the secret of the support he attracts.

It needs to be reiterated: Modi is winning on his terms and conditions. And that is the bottom line.

 

 

 

Reinventing Journalism

It is not partisanship which has killed journalism but the internet

Writing on the nature of partisanship and journalism, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues,

Such partisanship can, like political partisanship, be greatly motivating and productive. But it can also be corrosive. For one thing, it is coming in a context where the media as an institution has a serious credibility crisis. But more importantly, it tends to collapse the intellectual and the political. It is the essence of partisanship, particularly one centred on the conviction of virtue, to assume that virtue cannot be divided across parties. It has become anathema to suppose that even though we may be convinced about who is best for India, virtue and vice may not come in such neat packages.

The traditional idea of journalism rested on a great ‘lie’: It argued that journalists could be truly non-partisan arbiters of truth. The argument was not that journalists did not harbor political beliefs or had no preferable electoral outcomes. Rather, it argued that journalists—because of their training, temperament, and the editorial process—could arrive at the right conclusions even in instances where it clashed with their political beliefs. Their allegiance was to truth and truth alone and neutrality was the highest virtue.

The critics, who emerged mainly but not exclusively from the Right, disagreed violently with the traditional notions of journalism. They asked, persuasively in some instances, that how is it possible that despite these allegedly vigorous interrogations of facts, journalists almost inevitably reached conclusions which seem to advance their political beliefs? In their opinion, ‘neutrality’ was a trope invented by liberal journalists so they could arrive at their preferred conclusions without the charges of partisan-ship being hurled at them. It elevated them to a more advantageous station and it is hardly surprising that the strongest criticism in the Right is reserved for those who claim ‘neutrality.’ Everyone has biases, the argument goes, and you should reveal yours. And then it will be all fair and square. Now, one may dismiss these critics as conspiracy minded or argue that truth indeed has a liberal bias but the idea of biased journalism is simply an article of faith among the Right.

It is important to underline that this is not necessarily a new phenomenon which has only emerged in the last few years. Imagine the fate of a person who disagreed with an opinion column published in The Hindu twenty years back. First, he would have to grapple with the fact that perhaps he was the only one so offended. And even if he was agitated enough to ignore those moments of self-doubt, the most he could do was to pen a letter to the editor and march to the post-office. And then wait. The editor could simply ignore the communication or in a display of liberal piety, which would no doubt be noticed in a subsequent column, publish a truncated version. That’s it. The letter-writer would have no means of ascertaining whether his missive was even read by the general public. Or how many of them agreed with his criticism?

The internet has shattered these barriers. In the era of the blogs, the entry barriers were substantially lowered but not completely eliminated. It could take years to build an audience and it still required an ability to cogently argue your case in a somewhat persuasive manner. And if you were offended by a particular journalist, there was no guarantee that she would even read your criticism let alone react to it.

Twitter asks for even less. All that is required is a tweet in 140 characters and ensure that it is marked to the right people. Voila! Even if the only response is to be added to the ‘blocked’ list, you can at least be satisfied that your criticism was received. Perhaps, even more importantly, one no longer has to harbor the doubt that one’s opinion may be considered so extreme that self-censorship is a preferred option. Social media provides an almost seamless ability to connect with like-minded people—however outlandish your beliefs may be. Indeed, social media in that sense presents a paradox. The almost infinite ability to connect with virtually anyone in the world also means that your exposure to contrarian thoughts may be severely limited because you can always rely on an audience of the like-minded. Indeed, it takes extra effort and an ability to ignore often vicious criticism to engage with people who may not share your world view.

It is easy to think that the discourse itself has become more partisan in the last few years. However, here is an alternative hypothesis. The rise of the internet and the social media has not as much as polarized opinion but offered an arena for the display of sharp cleavages which have existed in the Indian society. Differences which were once papered over in the age of the monolithic media which curated opinion and expressed an approved version are now in full display. There are no appeals to authority in this arena; no pointing to privileged CVs. The social media is the grandest display of what Kurosawa has so brilliantly captured in Rashomon: That truth exists in multiple hues.

Of course, this is not a full explanation. The angularities have certainly increased in the last few years with the rise of Narendra Modi who is either viewed with absolute moral abhorrence or is an object of all-encompassing deference. The tendency of some journalists to behave as players and not just observers has also exacerbated the lack of trust. Nevertheless, this shift in how journalism is perceived was inevitable even without the rise of Modi or open display of political affectations.  It may have taken a few more years but the democratizing influence of internet would have inevitably revolted and ensured that the old model of journalism was no longer viable. In summary, it is not partisanship which is killing traditional journalism but the rise of the internet which has facilitated its free and fullest expression. We may not be more divided; it is just easier to tell how really divided we are.

Now, where does mainstream journalism go from here. Three possible paths. First, it retains substantial advantages when it comes to news-reporting which does require resources as some degree of training and expertise. However, even in this area, journalism is being challenged by the internet. For instance, the expansively named Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which is basically a one man operation has emerged as the most credible source on the ongoing conflict in Syria. Second, some media houses may invest in more niche journalism with long-form stories—The Caravan magazine is a good example. However, their audiences are likely to be limited and their influence on the political or social debate may be restricted to a certain elite. Third, and this is the most likely in the case of TV media, it may simply become a replica of twitter with opinion and vapid talk-shows replacing hard news. The rise of Arnab Goswami who has successfully maneuvered to establish himself as the voice of the angry India starkly illustrates this trend. This is all too common in US where a traditional channels like CNN have been left far behind by the partisan warriors of the MSNBC and Fox news.

In any case, the old idea of journalism as the interpreter of facts has ended for all practical purposes. Even columnists who wear their political beliefs on their sleeves and are therefore immune from the charges of ‘neutrality’ are read not for their ability to distill complex arguments into something more easily understandable but simply because they buttress pre-existing beliefs in a more eloquent manner.

Indubitably, this sharp shift may offend traditional public intellectuals like Dr. Mehta who are clearly wary of being boxed into neat ideological cleavages. However, in this age of partisan non-partisanship, they are clearly an endangered species. One can only hope that they don’t entirely disappear because the loss of a sagacious voice like Dr. Mehta would be a substantial loss indeed.

Modi Rise

Modi’s triumph lays bare the electoral irrelevancy of his liberal opponents

Purely as a dispassionate observer of politics, it is amusing to watch the liberal implosion in Indian politics. Initially, the liberal hopes rested in L. K Advani. Yes, the same Advani who spawned a thousand riots with his leadership of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and can genuinely claim credit for making ‘Hindutva’ a mainstream political doctrine. If BJP is considered one pole of India’s polity—the credit must go to Advani who challenged and in manifest ways defeated the prevailing wisdom of Indian politics. Well, that didn’t really work out as Modi brushed aside Advani’s feeble challenge and has established himself not only as BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate but as the predominant and unchallenged leader of his party. Then the hopes were vested in Arvind Kejriwal who has mounted a quixotic bid to defeat the electoral logic by sheer showmanship and magnetic energy. However, politics is a brutal sport: Despite  Kejriwal’s best efforts, he is unlikely to provide much of a challenge to  Modi and is destined to amount to little more than a footnote in the 2014 elections. Now, the desperation is to the extent where even someone like Murli Manohar Joshi—the man who attempted with some success to ruin higher education in India—is seen as a sympathetic figure merely because it offers an opportunity to slight Modi. This desperate clutching at the straws is an indirect acknowledgment that all that stands between Modi and the Delhi throne is BJP’s internal politics.

Amusing as this sport is, it is deeply worrying to those who genuinely believe that Modi’s rise represents a threat to India’s pluralistic traditions. Well, that is not exactly true. The Sikhs are happily in Modi’s camp and the Christians are too few to matter electorally and in some instances have made their peace with BJP. So what it really amounts to saying is that Modi is deeply antagonistic towards India’s Muslims—a vast majority of whom are utterly fearful of a Modifi-ed polity. Indeed, it would be fair to say that more than Modi, they are scared of his merry band of followers who often appear to harbor deeply held prejudices against India’s largest minority. Some of this stems from the memories of the Gujarat riots and perhaps even more importantly, Modi’s singular failure to acknowledge the enormity of 2002.

Well, here’s the hard truth: 2002 is passé and much to the annoyance of Modi opponents, it appears to have no significant impact on the electoral landscape. The Indian voter—with the exception of her Muslims—has moved on and is no longer interested in re-litigating the Gujarat riots. If Modi is at all defeated in 2014, it would be due to the cold logic of politics—-caste coalitions; unsavory alliances, and BJP’s geographical limitations—-and not because of a vote against Modi’s stewardship during the Gujarat riots. In summary, Modi has destroyed the liberal argument and if he triumphs, it would represent a victory enacted on his terms and conditions. Plain and simple.

So where does that leave the liberal argument? Two points.

First, Modi has disarmed his liberal critics because he has refused to fight on their terms. As Ashutosh Varshney has argued, the Modi campaign has been remarkably free of anti-Muslim rhetoric and has instead emphasized the core issues of governance and development. And even in instances where Modi has stumbled—the puppy remarks for instance—he has been wise not repeat the same mistakes. At this point, we are faced with a remarkable reversal of roles.

Many of his flummoxed liberal opponents would rather prefer that Modi who openly spews anti-Muslim rhetoric. They would rather juxtapose their political arguments against the Modi who cynically exploits alleged Jihadi terrorists to position himself as the defender of Hindu faith. Faced with his latest iteration—-the one who refuses to play the game according to their terms—his critics are faced with a peculiar choice. Do they acknowledge that they have triumphed by forcing Modi to moderate his views or they finely parse his speeches to find the arguments they had hoped to hear? Much of the liberal confusion can be explained right here.

Second, Advani’s singular contribution to the lexicon of Indian politics was ‘pseudo-secularism’. Shorn of verbose, it basically argued this: Secularism thrived in India not because of its innate virtues but because it cynically exploited Muslim fears to advance the liberal argument. Strangely enough, Modi’s triumph represents the actualization of Advani’s argument. What is this liberal argument where parties are communal as long as they remain aligned with BJP but with a magisterial switch of a button are suddenly transformed into secular formations as soon as they leave the NDA? How can someone like Nitish Kumar who happily winked at Gujarat riots be suddenly labeled secular merely because he belatedly discovers the vices of aligning with Modi’s BJP? Why are supposedly liberal parties reluctant to take up secular projects like the Uniform Civil Code because they would rather be in the good books of Muslim fundamentalists?

The liberal project has faltered because it has never convincingly made the case for liberalism. The one which argues in favor of science against superstition. The one which places liberal values at a higher pedestal than ephemeral electoral triumphs. The one which opposes Muslim fundamentalism as much it rages against the likes of RSS and associated groups. The one whose electoral triumphs reflect the virtues of its beliefs and not merely the fear of the opposition.

Indeed, the liberal project in India has almost made no attempts at electoral solvency and has become a hostage to its political godfathers. It is completely reliant on the appeal of certain political parties who often confuse liberalism with short-term religious  appeasement. Or confuse pluralism with secularism. Or the desire to accommodate religious demands with the ability to navigate the complex minefields of India’s multiple identities. It had a good run so far disproportionate to its political influence but Modi is likely to be its nemesis.

However, it also represents an opportunity to re-evaluate  the goals and the future of Indian liberal project.

Narendra Modi is likely to be the next leader of India. This is by no means guaranteed—the Indian voter can often prove the most sophisticated analyst wrong. Nevertheless, it must lead to deep introspection among India’s liberals. A good starting point would be an acknowledgment of their minuscule electoral influence and the causes therein. A deep introspection is in order here and perhaps it can only arise from the ruins of utter and shattering  defeat.

Why Kejriwal should succeed (and why he will not)

The skepticism against Arvind Kejriwal is warranted. But can he prove everyone wrong?

In 2009, Barack Obama became the president of the United States. It was a momentous occasion. ‘Racial barriers fall as the nation elects its first African-American President’ was the elated  New York Times headline. Others pointed out that a little known senator from Illinois had beaten the giant Clinton machinery—McCain was pretty much a toast from the beginning—and had rode to power leveraging the strengths of the internet and the activist base of the Democratic Party. This was different as encapsulated in Obama’s simple yet highly effective slogan: Change we can believe in. The promise of a post-partisan Washington D.C.; the vision of a post-racial America. And the rapturous crowds which greeted Obama’s inauguration clearly believed in the man and his promise. Their sheer energy and faith in Barack Obama was unbelievable.

Five years later as Obama surveys a presidency which is rapidly going downhill, the world presents a very different picture. Washington D.C. remains as grid-locked up as ever with Republicans acting as a determined opposition. Race remains a major factor in American politics and despite a comprehensive victory in the 2012 presidential election, Obama’s second term agenda is practically dead. And perhaps in the unkindest cut, President Obama’s job approval ratings are fast approaching that of George W. Bush.

This is not to argue that Obama presidency has been a disaster. Far from it. Despite its disastrous roll out, the Affordable Care Act remains the law of the land and fulfills a long-standing liberal goal: (near) universal healthcare. Other Democratic Party priorities have been realized including Dodd-Frank and the roll back of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama, however, didn’t promise mere policy victory but real change. He didn’t just campaign in poetry but promised to govern in it as well. A new America. A different America. In that he has failed.

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Arvind Kejriwal is all set to take over as the chief minister of Delhi. In all respects, it is a magnificent political achievement.  In India’s stultified politics where outsiders are simply not welcome, Kejriwal has arrived as a disruptive force successfully transforming his anti-corruption movement into a potent political force. He has captured the imagination of the Delhi voters and his own demolition of Sheila Dikshit from one of India’s most elite constituency speaks of his remarkable ability to bridge voters from different classes/castes to construct a rainbow coalition. He has proved all his critics wrong—mea culpa—and provided a template for a different kind of politics in India.So where does Mr. Kejriwal go from here now that he is the executive leader of India’s capital? There are two ways to look at it. First, when it comes to policy issues, Kejriwal has clearly adopted a populist model with promises of decrease in electricity charges and free water. Here, the exigencies of governance are going to catch up with him. He may discover that promises of cheap power are incompatible with 24/7 delivery and some compromise is inevitable here. Or will Mr. Kejriwal go out on a limb and roll back the power reforms in Delhi? Only time will tell but if the recent events are any indication, Mr. Kejriwal is quite capable of compromise. In short: win some, lose some. Or how governments in a competitive democracy routinely operate.

But Mr. Kejriwal has not merely promised some freebies which are now the standard trope in Indian elections but a fundamental shift in how politics in conducted. For instance, his SMS poll on whether AAP should form the government in Delhi—though highly dubious in its scientific merit—is the new model of participatory democracy, as Professor Yogendra Yadav puts it. But how does participatory democracy work in a city-state with a population of nearly 16 million let alone in a country of 1.2 billion? Should every issue be decided directly by the voters? And if it is not a practical mechanism to decide on governance issues, how will Mr. Kejriwal answer the charge that he is just another politician—and the inevitable anger and disillusionment in its wake? Or what happens when corruption doesn’t magically disappear even after the Jan Lokpal Bill is enacted because it is linked to structural economic issues and rent seeking?

Just like Obama voters believed that America was being retransformed, the activist base of AAP clearly believes in its model. But change in a democracy is hard. And that is not a bug but a feature. The real strength of a functional democracy is that it does not let the pendulum swing too wildly to either side and restores a certain sense of balance. However, that means transformational leaders who promise a fundamental reordering of the society are inevitably doomed to fail. And unlike the average cynical voter who fully expects the politician to default on most of his promises, supporters of political revolutions are true believers: their faith in their model is absolute and unwavering and when the leader fails to deliver, the disillusionment is as quick and absolute.

So here’s Mr. Kejriwal’s real challenge:  Tempering the expectations of his passionate supporters while simultaneously retaining their idealism and the sense of purpose which propelled a rank outsider to power in the first place. In other words, judged by his own promises, Mr. Kejriwal is certain to fail but if he can inject a sense of realism in his political rhetoric, the revolution may yet be saved! However, that is an exceedingly hard challenge and if history is any guide, leaders far greater than Mr. Kejriwal have failed that test.

V.P. Singh’s spectacular implosion robbed an entire generation of Indian of their idealism and made them  extremely wary of the political process. Mr. Kejriwal is to be congratulated on his ability to connect a new generation of Indians to politics. In that respect, his responsibility is a huge one: Please don’t turn a new generation of voters into cynics as well.

Why Chandrababu Naidu is a prize catch for Modi’s BJP

Chandrababu Naidu’s support for NDA may suggest a significant realignment of Indian polity.

If recent media reports are to be believed, former Andhra Pradesh (AP) Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu may return to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).  Launching a scathing attack on the Congress party, Naidu recently met BJP president Rajnath Singh. That Naidu has not explicitly ruled out an alliance with the BJP itself is good news for the party considering  its pariah status.  While Chandrababu Naidu’s popularity in AP is a matter of conjecture—especially with the division of the state and the rise of Jaganmohan Reddy— it may indicate a significant realignment of the political forces. For three reasons.

First, it may be hard to believe but only two decades back, the Left and the BJP had constructed a grand alliance under the leadership of V P Singh against the Rajiv Gandhi government. There was little ideological affinity between the two parties; they were motivated by only one factor: anti-Congressism. As the Congress was a colossus on the national stage, the opposition had little alternative but to come together despite its own ideological differences and disparate policies.  The only concern was throwing out the Congress government—the rest was a matter of detail.

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Is Indian Politics Populist

Populism in the Indian context

Writing in the Indian Express, Tariq Thachil argues,

In the writings of corporate analysts, populism is most often defined in terms of a preference for redistribution over growth (setting aside the contentious claim that there is a necessary trade-off between these objectives). It is in this spirit that the UPA has been accused of being “more populist than [the late Venezuelan president] Hugo Chavez”. For other observers, populism is used to indicate any policy driven by narrow political calculations rather than the broader wellbeing of the nation. Here it is the timing of the food security bill, during an election year, that makes it a “populist” move by the UPA government. For some analyses written from this perspective, even non-economic election-year agendas, such as the BJP’s revival of Ayodhya, qualify as populist.

Professor Thachil further points out that properly understood, populism is marked by three characteristics: mobilization by a political outsider, attacking the existing establishment for ignoring the ordinary citizens, and development of a personality cult privileging a direct connection to voters. By these standards, Indian politics is hardly populist. In fact it is highly elitist in nature where family connections are the predominant currency of political advancement and where few leaders have managed to independently craft a strong political appeal. Indeed, besides Mayawati, Arvind Kejriwal is perhaps the only significant populist leader. However, their appeal remains limited to certain geographical areas and they are in no position yet to challenge the so-called national parties.

That leaves an interesting question: Why hasn’t Indian politics seen a Hugo Chavez? A genuinely populist bomb thrower who threatens to upend the political system and replace it with a personality-driven polity of the dispossessed?

There can be multiple reasons for it. India is a vast and a highly diverse country which is divided on multiple lines besides class. It is virtually impossible to craft a new political coalition which can bridge these multiple divides and appeal to the voter in both UP and Tamil Nadu. The failure of the Communist movement with its obsession with class divisions is perhaps reflective of the same. Or perhaps the Indian people are naturally suspicious of sudden change; the likes of Arvind Kejriwal may appeal to them momentarily but ultimately the natural equilibrium is restored. Or perhaps the advantages enjoyed by the traditional parties–particularly the Congress—are so vast that it is virtually impossible to supplant them. Or perhaps the majority of Indian voters are deeply feudal in nature and the privileges of dynastic connections which may offend citizens elsewhere have a high degree of acceptability in a still largely fatalistic society.

Or consider this: Despite all the charges leveled against the indian political system—cronyism, corruption, and utter dysfunction–it is remarkably adept at self-preservation. Unlike the plutocratic regimes in Latin America,  at some level it is responsive to the larger demands of the Indian people. Take the fight over land acquisition for instance. Sparked off by the battle in Singur, it had become a highly contested and charged argument with genuine fears among the poor that the government was usurping their land for the privileged corporates. The Land Acquisition Bill is certainly a deeply flawed response to that popular sentiment–but it is a response nevertheless. By assuring the poor they the political system had heard their voice, it may help assuage popular sentiments though its effect on India’s growth is likely to be highly negative.

In that sense, the Indian version of populism is a cushion to protect the entrenched political power. It functions like a safety valve allowing some anger to dissipate while cleverly preserving the larger political system and the interests it protects. Obviously, it is disappointing to those who argue in favor of a more open and competitive Indian polity and not the same endless churning of Gandhis, Badals, and Karunanidhis. (Is it why political dynasties are so successful in India?) Nevertheless, its utility in ensuring the continued salience of Indian democracy should not be underestimated. 

And if it prevents the rise of a rabble-rouser like Hugo Chavez–always a possibility in a country as poor as India–’populism’ is perhaps a necessary trade-off.

 

Vox Populi

Why the BJP didn’t oppose the food security bill. 

The Affordable care Act (ACA) or ‘Obamacare’ was signed into law in 2010 by President Barack Obama in the face of almost universal Republican opposition. The Republican Party argued that ACA was ‘socialized Medicine’ and was an entitlement the US simply couldn’t afford in an era of depressed economy and curtailed budgets. The Democrats, on the other hand, argued that ACA was a rightful step towards universal healthcare—a long-standing policy goal for the Left.

So far so good. The positions of both parties reflected their cherished goals. The Democrats believe in an activist government to correct what they perceive as the inequities of the market system. The Republicans are a party of small government and therefore were naturally opposed to a new entitlement.

But then a curious argument followed. The Republicans asserted that ACA was funded by money ‘stolen’ from the Medicare trust fund to the tune of $700 billion dollars. In fact, Mitt Romney specifically promised that in case he was elected president, he would ensure that the said money was ‘returned’ to Medicare.

Without getting into needless technical details, the Republican accusation was silly. But it was also surprising. After all, Medicare—a universal entitlement for Americans aged 65 and above—is socialized healthcare. It is an entitlement scheme and many prominent Republicans have argued that it would soon bankrupt America. So what’s going on here?

ACA is primarily designed to benefit the poor and the minorities who disproportionately vote for Democrats. On the other hand, Medicare by design is an entitlement scheme for elderly Americans who overwhelmingly vote Republican. Though couched in ideological terms, the battle over ACA was as much a political argument where both parties were trying to protect and reward their constituents. The argument is not that there are no genuine ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats. There certainly are. But these arguments are often a veneer for naked political battles where both parties attempt to protect their vote banks. The fact that both parties have distinct constituencies is what lends their ideological argument a political edge. If the Democrats didn’t believe that ACA would yield substantial political benefits, President Obama was unlikely to risk his political capital. For instance, climate change—an issue which agitates the ‘professional Left’—has been largely ignored by  the leaders of the Democratic party including President Obama.

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The Lok Sabha recently passed the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s flagship Food Security Bill (FSB). Despite concerns raised by many parties, the bill was passed unanimously with virtually no opposition and even a formal division of votes was not required.  The amendments moved by BJP  and other opposition parties were designed to further strengthen the proposed law. Indeed, BJP leader Sushma Swaraj specifically promised that when her party comes back to power, it would further strengthen the FSB.

BJP’s capitulation in the parliament has caused great consternation among its supporters particularly on social media who believe that the party has let down its allegedly Right-of-Center economic agenda. Other commentators have pointed out that despite its claims of supporting economic reforms, the BJP was actually pushing the FSB further towards the Left. But did it  make any sense for the BJP to oppose the FSB?

Unlike in the USA, the political constituency in India is not differentiated on economic policy.  Except for the Muslim vote, the BJP and the Congress are appealing to essentially the samel class of voters.  The BJP is a strong political player in some of the poorest states in India where it would have no electoral traction without the votes of the poor—the alleged beneficiaries of FSB. Take Chhattisgarh for instance. The Raman Singh government has won two elections primarily based on his reputation as ‘chawal waale baba.’

What about the middle class, you may ask? Two points.  The middle class remains an untested entity as far as electoral politics is concerned. There is little doubt that it is a stronger political force compared to the India of 2004 but there is limited evidence that it can swing electoral fortunes in a national election. Second, except for sections active on the social media, the middle class remains as much enamored with government handouts as the poor. Its priorities may be different—cheap petrol instead of food security—but it is not fundamentally in disagreement with redistribution as long as it is its primary beneficiary.

So here’s the hard truth: Despite the noise it creates on twitter and on op-ed columns, the economic right-of-center voter in India is electorally irrelevant. In other words, the number of voters who would actually shift their voting patterns because they disagree with economic populism are a minuscule minority unlikely to influence elections except in a few urban cosmopolitan seats. For the BJP or any other party to sacrifice its electoral interests at the altar of such an insignificant minority would be committing political suicide. Sadly for the vocal BJP supporters, the Congress holds all the cards in the battle for populism and the party has little option but to minimize its losses.

Even the policy elite in India who often laments the lack of a true Right-of-Center alternative are largely social liberals. They may use BJP’s economic populism as a stick to beat the party with but  when the  push comes to the shove, they would still support the Congress party because of their fundamental disagreement with BJP’s Hindutva politics.  Harsh as it may sound, the BJP is only wise to ignore their contrived protests.

For any party to discard the politics of populism would require a strong political constituency which would vote specifically on that ground. And why would it do that?  Because those policies  hurt its interests. Where is that class of voters in India?  Unless there is strong middle constituency which votes against ‘pro-poor’ policies, this state of affair is unlikely to change.

In a democracy, ultimately every party which aspires for power is dictated by the harsh reality of electoral logic. In India, this points to a populist polity where redistribution would be the primary goal of the government with reforms or growth a secondary concern. This may change as India becomes a middle income country and the aspirational class becomes the dominant player. However, that is a long-term process to be measured in decades and has little immediate political salience.

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In their recent book, The Dictator’s Handbook, De Mesquita and Smith argue,

While most of us think of a state’s bankruptcy as a financial crisis, looking through the prism of political survival makes evident that it really amounts to a political crisis. When debt exceeds the ability to pay, the problem o leader is not so much that good public works must be cut back, but rather than incumbent doesn’t have the resources necessary to purchase political loyalty from key backers. 

Viewed in that light, it is easy to understand why the UPA government has set aside economic concerns in ensuring the passage of the food security bill. India is a certainly in the midst of an economic crisis but it still has the wherewithal to pay for expansive welfare programs. In any case, elections are six months away and it is the next government which would have to grapple with the implications of UPA’s fiscal profligacy. And because ‘self-interested calculations and actions of rulers are the driving force for all politics—the need for self-preservation—it makes immense sense for the Congress party to pursue welfare politics rather than worry about the economic crisis.

In conclusion: Populism is inevitable in a democracy and in a poor country like India, it will  remain the dominant political tool in the foreseeable future. And that would remain true irrespective of whether the opposition chooses to commit political suicide at the altar of fiscal rectitude while the Congress laughs all the way to power.

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