Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Present regime... as part of the problem"

Again I'm putting  up a posting inspired by a comment on  my previous one. This is my third article on corruption and I expect there will be more, since few issues are more fascinating or more relevant in India today.

The comment was from Cheeta, who wrote among other things:

"The entire system has been hijacked at the top by bandits, whose only morality is self-gain and whose only aim is to take more and yet more. We not only allowed these criminals to gain power but rewarded them with both high office and adulation. That's what really, really needs to be addressed: cleansing the system of these modern-day dakoos and recovering the loot. Alas, the present regime is not up to it. They're right there as part of the problem; not any portion of the solution."

Let's set this view off against my last two postings, wherein I argued that corruption is a participatory phenomenon on which all categories of the powerful conspire in various ways to preserve their power. In this connection I also pointed out that upper-middle-class views about corruption tend to sound distanced  and helpless while in reality we are well-connected and privileged and we benefit, as a class, from corruption.

Now what I see in the above comment is a distanced write-off of the UPA government in India, and possibly, by implication, any other government that might be made up of similar people (this would include, say, a BJP-led government) and  indeed the entire Indian political class. I would like to argue that such writing-off is not borne out by facts on the ground. Precisely in its "distancing" tone, such comments (which I hear on a daily basis) mistake the complex interplay of multiple forces carrying India into the future for a simple, linear narrative of greed and generic evil.

It would be hard to write a nuanced (and ultimately partial) defense of the present political class of India without taking a few hundred or a few thousand pages. So I'll try to  make my basic case in a few  relatively short points and leave the rest for further discussion.

1. Everyone agrees that development is what India needs. However the objective reality of India's vast size and diversity means that what constitutes development is itself open to enormous debate. Do we need large dams to irrigate farmland, or do we need to preserve the dwellings and livelihoods of people who --  after all -- are our own fellow citizens? Do we need rapid urbanisation or greater rural  infrastructure? Do we need governmental control or privatisation? Is primary education more important or higher education? Within higher education should one emphasise universities or vocational courses?

The simple answers to the questions above are, in each case, "all of the above". But these are also the simplistic answers. How do we prioritise? Is it possible for a single right-thinking citizen like myself (or Cheeta) to prescribe the correct choices? Or does it take a combination of expert inputs, as well as pressure from different groups with competing interests? I believe it's certainly the latter. The UPA government has done a fair job in getting expert inputs and many of its leaders are impressive, scholarly folk who certainly know a lot more than I do about governance: P.Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh and Prithviraj Chavan come to mind. How well the Prime Minister has handled the pressures of electoral politics is surely open to some debate -- however, I don't think that e.g. walking out of the coalition with DMK when the Raja issue started to surface was the "obviously best" choice, as people keep saying nowadays. A collapse of government would have an economic cost. How many percentage points of our economic growth should we be willing to sacrifice for such a noble act? I don't know the answer but it's not simple, and clearly the rich have the maximum luxury of contemplating this possibility without personal cost.

2. Despite everything, India is an emerging and powerful global presence and  a lot of poor people are moving daily into a better standard of living. This is thanks to ALL factors involved: the business community, professionals and academics, farmers, labourers, the judiciary, bureaucrats and politicians... The fact that such an incredible diverse "team" could pull together over a long time is a miracle. Truly inept governance could have easily collapsed the understanding that makes all Indians -- on average -- work for India. That this isn't happening is remarkable when  you consider that so many other countries are today on the brink of revolution/civil war/regime change (with devastating  consequences for growth at least  in the near term). I don't see why the Indian political class shouldn't get some credit for this stability.

Yes it's true that one shouldn't be given special credit for doing what one is supposed to do. But  keep in mind that an important component  of politics in most countries -- the highly educated class -- has in post-independence India largely seceded from politics. Politics is not a career they would themselves embark on or wish on  their children. Indeed, far from working for India, the children of the most highly educated Indians simply migrate overseas. When an entire empowered class declines to shoulder any part of the burden of running the country, we ought to appreciate the people who are actually doing it.

3. A very specific point. The single most powerful blow against corruption in India today has not come from hand-wringing or even from an intelligent suggestion by middle-class people. It came from Sonia Gandhi's pet project of implementing the Right to Information act. We may remind ourselves what a landmark this has been by reading Price-Waterhouse Coopers' study on the RTI act, circa 2009. The Executive Summary is quite compact and well worth a read.

The Wikipedia entry on the RTI act also contains some useful historical background. Among other things it recalls that in the previous NDA-sponsored Freedom of Information Act, "there were no penalties for not complying with a request for information." So today's rigorous implementation of the act, which is seriously working, is entirely to the credit of the present government. You can read here about how the Adarsh and other housing  scams were uncovered using this act.

In the RTI process some corrupt Congress politicians and allies have come out deservedly bloodied. Yet the government continutes to support the act, and the affected persons (Ashok Chavan onwards) have been sacked. Hardly the action of "bandits, whose only morality is self-gain".

For lack of space and expertise I won't discuss the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the National Knowledge Commission and the Unique Identification Authority of India.

I don't deny, of course, that everything could be better. Equally, it could all be worse.


ajitjadhav said...


I would like to know a bit about your opinions [and convictions], if you have [and hold] any, concerning the science and research establishment in India, in as much candor (possibly including honesty) and brevity as possible to you. In particular, regarding how it treats what it considers an outsider or a newcomer to the fields it considers its own.



WebMiner said...

"I don't deny, of course, that everything could be better. Equally, it could all be worse."

What exactly do you mean by "equally"? Political equality of the participants of the discussion, or equality under some measurable domain of "betterness" and "worseness"? I.e., are we at some approximate "median" status?

I am not quibbling, this is important.

vbalki said...

Sunil, Your points are well taken. It IS remarkable that such disparate forces have managed to keep the country together for so long, and yes, the political class does deserve some credit for this.

But it cannot have escaped your attention that the very large inertia present in such a ponderous entity as the Indian nation is itself a strong factor on the side of over-all stability. While the political class can be given credit for not having (as yet) caused the country to fragment, much of this is a serendipitous effect, or at least not a direct result of some deep, well-thought-out, long-range policy eolved by politicians. THAT sort of deep thinking stopped a little after the founding fathers composed the Constitution of India. After that it has largely been ad hocism, as the cliche goes.

The other factor that has not been mentioned, and that is absolutely crucial (in my opinion) for the experiment called the Indian nation to reach a stable and satisfactory level of success, is a little thing called (self-)discipline among the people of the country. Without it (and the evidence seems to point to a rather glaring lack of it), it is not clear to me that we will ever "make it", not even if a billion people are able to buy (and do buy) designer jeans and nike shoes. I find it strange that this vital ingredient's absence has not attracted much attention from analysts.

Sunil Mukhi said...

@WebMiner: I approved all three of your comments, but only one has appeared on the website so far for some reason. To respond to this one: "Equally" is a figure of speech with a particular meaning, which isn't any of the ones you've suggested.

@Vbalki: You're right that self-discipline is largely lacking in our country. However I'm not sure this is a key to stability. The famously gentle, smiling, self-disciplined, Buddhist people of Thailand are locked since several years in a political battle that virtually borders on civil war. Case closed?

Cheeta said...

The people of Thailand are undoubtedly Buddhist (95%) and do indeed smile very frequently; and everyone comments on their generally very polite and gentle ways. In what way, though, are they noticeably more self-disciplined than Indians? And even if they were: just how would any such self-discipline contradict or prevent or be an obstacle to their current, often violent, political struggle? Self-disclipined people can't disagree? Don't fight?

Sunil Mukhi said...

@Cheeta: It was Vbalki who suggested that self-discipline was necessary for India to reach a "stable and satisfactory level of success". I merely pointed out that it wasn't a sufficient condition.

Koushik Dutta said...

Dear Sunil,
You summed it up so well: "I don't see why the Indian political class shouldn't get some credit for this stability." I also think that the 'success story' of India is more due to its political success than its economic growth! I am still not sure whether it is a success-story or success-facts, but that is a different question all together! We, as educated Indians, have accepted the 'the most difficult part' as 'obvious' and never ever give credit to past/present politicians for that. I rarely see people who even try to know how the country was formed, what are the difficulties we have overcome! I find my friends saying "I don't care about politics, but want my clean water in my house!" This is just contradictory, in my opinion! In any case, thanks for your post.