Sunday, 20 December 1998

Sonia Gandhi: Placebo or Miracle Cure?

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

That Sonia Gandhi has enthused Congress workers is clear. Like
a bird that returns to its cage after a stint in freedom, the
Congress cadre has returned to the control of the heir to the
Nehru dynasty. Barring a few cases such as R. K. Dhawan, the
candidates selected by the Sonia Congress will be those expected
to be obedient to her wishes. Unless the Congress tally goes
below 100, she can be expected to control it. Should it rise
beyond 200, Sonia may emerge as the Prime Minister.

Even placebos do wonders for the mood of critically-ill
patients. However, they do nothing to cure the ailment, and
before long the depression returns. Thanks to the excellent
networking of those associated with the various institutions in
Delhi controlled by Sonia Gandhi, the media has been respectful
of claims of her popularity. While lesser breeds such as
T. N. Seshan and H. D. Deve Gowda got immediately exposed
when using private aircraft, there is silence on the sources of
Sonia’s facilities and their cost.

Knowledge of the reach of Gandhi family loyalists in
officialdom, and the fear of hyper-attention by such authorities,
can do wonders in dampening the ardour of the "free press".
However, even awestruck journalists cannot bring in the vote.
Thanks to the "minority-friendly" image of the Kesri Congress,
it was expected that much of this crucial vote bank would return
to the party, thus giving it around 20 more seats than the 1996
tally. Thus, any figure below 160 will be seen as the failure of the
Sonia Congress to improve upon the Kesri Congress. However,
used as they are to rule by the Dynasty, Congresspersons are
unlikely to return to the post-Dynasty situation unless the Lok
Sabha tally falls below three digits.

Given the likely improvement in Congress fortunes in three
southern states — Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh — as a
result of the incumbency factor, such an outcome is improbable.

Thus it was a reasonably safe calculation by Sonia Gandhi to
plunge into open politics. Short of an electoral or legal disaster,
she will play a key role in the 12th Lok Sabha. Her Congress will
once more have closeness to the Nehru family as the touchstone
for individual advancement.

However, the ills afflicting the Congress are many, and most
have been caused precisely by dynastic politics. The first
deficiency is the gap between the "leaders" and the "followers".
Because promotion flowed from closeness to the top in a rising
pyramid, very little effort was spent in cultivating the base.
Ordinary cadres were ignored, and consequently there was a
lack of appreciation — and even knowledge — of popular needs.
As for the cadres, since hard work by them benefited only the
favoured few and not those who put in the work, the tendency
was to go slow unless substantial monetary compensation was
paid. Thus, as Sriperumbudur and its measly crowd of 9000
showed, even the top stars of the party could not attract
audiences that were not rented. Despite delaying the meeting by
three hours in an effort to drum up the crowds, the turnout
remained low by Tamil standards.

The second problem facing the Congress party is the lack of
any definitive policy position on crucial issues. Pranab Mukherjee
and Manmohan Singh jockey for the prime slot in economic
policy formulation. Arjun Singh and Jitendra Prasada send off
differing signals on social issues. In each state the party is
splintered into different wings with sharply differing
prescriptions. For example, in Andhra Pradesh there is the
Reddy group led by V. B. Reddy, and the "social justice" set of
Hanumantha Rao. In Maharashtra there is the Maratha lobby led
by Sharad Pawar and the rival social group of
A. R. Antulay and S. R. Naik. The pulls and pressures cancel each
other out, and leave a policy vacuum.

The Nehru family technique has been to cover up this void
by projecting personalities and slogans. Thus, both Sonia and
Priyanka — and a few words of the local language — are expected
to overpower the negative impact on the Congress of the other
formations, all of whom have much more sharply defined policy

Instead of the "omnibus" Congress model, the rest have been
reaching out to different segments of the electoral bazaar, and
attracting the "niche" segments. Until the Congress begins to
target specific groups with clear policy prescriptions, and
establishes its credibility as a delivery system, all the media hype
generated by 10 Janpath is unlikely to alter the current picture
of a better Congress performance only in three southern states
and (perhaps) Madhya Pradesh, the last owing to the alliance
between Digvijay Singh, Madhavrao Scindia and Arjun Singh.

That Sonia Gandhi was born in Italy, or that she and
Priyanka Vadra are Catholics, is not a "hot button" issue to an
electorate that is overwhelmingly secular and moderate. It is on
the opacity regarding the policies that the boss of the Congress
party favours that attention needs to get focused.

However, a breathless media appear unprepared to give
Sonia Gandhi the same level of scrutiny as it did to a Deve
Gowda or a P. V. Narasimha Rao. The United Front too, which
may have to share portfolios in a Sonia cabinet, is concentrating
on the B]P while almost ignoring the Dynasty, even though logic
indicates the Sonia’s debut will help the BJP (by its effect of
consolidating more nationalist votes away from Congress).

Even should the "miracle cure" work and the Congress tally
cross 160, her party can be freed of its descent into irrelevance,
only if Sonia moves away from dynastic prescriptions and
encourages inner-party democracy. This appears an unlikely
proposition. What is more probable in a Dynasty-led government
is a stiff dose of populist policies and the increase in regulation
that characterises Nehru family rule. This will fit in with the free-
spending ways of the present United Front government, though
not with economic realities, which — along with Sonia's party —
need tough medicine rather than placebos for health.

Tuesday, 15 December 1998

Elections 1996 - The Emergence of Kathakali Politics

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

No visit to Kerala is complete without witnessing a kathakali
performance. Onstage, actors don masks and change their facial
expressions with kaleidoscopic speed. What keeps the whoops
and grimaces from being frightening is the knowledge that it is
all make-believe; that today’s Ravana will be tomorrow’s Rama,
and that this minute’s growl will change to the next minute’s

Malayali audiences regard their politics too as theatre; by not
taking the feints and jabs seriously, the state has avoided much
of the violence associated with its ideological cousin, Bengal. The
roars and abuses hurled at rivals from public platforms may
sound ferocious, but close to the surface is the realisation that it
is all a charade, and that apparent enemies are in reality cousins,
if not twins. Just as there is usually only a small percentage of
votes separating the Congress-led front from the CPM-led one,
there is only a very small shading of policy differences between
them, a difference that is lost on most citizens.

That there appears to be a similar unacknowledged consensus
on many issues between the major players in the national
political stage may be an indication of approaching maturity in
the Indian democratic process. For the same phenomenon can be
seen in two of the most established democracies in the world,
Britain and the US, where rival parties alternate in power with
only a small difference in policies.

An Example 
Such a tendency towards consensus works against those who
seek to sharply define their positions from the rest. V. P. Singh
is an example. The individual who in 1975-80 was a loyalist of
Sanjay Gandhi, presiding over the slaughter of lower caste
"dacoits" by the police while chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, 
metamorphosed into an economic reformer during 1985-86, 
giving the country two very good budgets as finance minister. 

During 1987-91, he donned the avatar of social reformer, pushing 
caste war to the top of the national agenda. In contrast, P. V. 
Narasimha Rao has, since his takeover in mid-1991, focused on 
economic issues. The BJP, which appears to be 'blessed’ with two 
heads, has been moving from one camp to the other, sometimes 
stressing social issues, and at other times the economic. In the 
process, it appears to be confusing some of its sizeable vote bank.

The emergence of consensus-builders over confrontationists
in each of three major troupes in the current political drama
indicates the growth of what may be called middle-class
aspirations in the country. This is to have a reasonable level of
growth and social stability, rather than promote attempts at
pushing forward divisive agendas. Such aspirations now appear
to cut through the more traditional divisions in Indian society,
such as the forwards and the backwards, or the Hindus and the
Muslims. Hence, even on the platform of V. P. Singh and Ram
Vilas Paswan, the emergence of R. K. Hegde, Deve Gowda and
Laloo Yadav as key players. All three are acceptable to the
Congress as potential partners in a way that the first two names
are not.

Odd One Out
In the line-up of the three major formations, the BJP is the odd
one out. This is because the party has yet to understand the
changes brought about by economic progress in the political
chemistry of the land. With affluence—albeit very moderate by
international standards—there is a reluctance to generate tempests
such as those created by demanding the pulling down of
established houses of worship in Kashi or Mathura. While the
Naib Imam of Jama Masjid may not agree with this, the fact
remains that December 6, 1992 was the date when the BJP's
swell began to ebb. The tensions unleashed by the violent
demolition of a house of worship in Ayodhya by so-called
"responsible" leaders of a mainstream party repelled many who
were otherwise drifting towards the BJP.

Thanks to the acceptance by the Rao government during
1991-94 of the nostrums peddled by the Pakistan-centric Clinton
administration, the BJP was awarded the nationalist platform by
default. However, since last year the Prime Minister appears to
have moved away from the "Voice of America" - the troika of
officers in the PMO, Finance Ministry and Ministry of External
Affairs, who were perceived as relying on faxes from Washington
for guidance on how to deal with policy issues. Last year, the
abandoning of the earlier preference for MNCs over Indian
companies became clear in the ITC case, when the financial
institutions refused to gift the company to the foreign principal
in the same way as dozens of other companies had been given
away during 1991-94. The moving away from blind acceptance
of Washington’s dictates on security issues became clear when
India refused to sign the Non-proliferation Treaty. Had Rao
adopted, during his first four years in office, the same policies
that he is following now, the Congress may have been a sure
winner this election. However, at present the most it can hope for
is to emerge as the single largest party in the next Lok Sabha.

However, the advantage the Congress has over the BJP is
that its threshold for cobbling together a viable coalition is much
lower than that for the BJP. Thanks to the latter’s sharper
differences with the other major players, the BJP will need a
minimum of 220 seats to attract the 60 more that will be needed
to form a stable government. The Congress, on the other hand,
needs only about 170 to be able to attract 110 more MPs. While
there is likely to be a challenge to Rao’s position as leader of the
Congress parliamentary party in the event of it’s score falling
below the 200-seat mark, a tally of 170 is enough to position the
Congress at the head of a new coalition.

This difference in the acceptability of the Congress as
compared to the BJP is what gives a kathakali flavour to the
current electoral scene. Apart from the ideological JD hard
liners—V. P. Singh and Paswan—most of the other leaders are
likely to support a Congress-led coalition after the polls, both in
order to form a stable government and to keep the BJP out of the
reckoning. So far as the Congress is concerned while a post-poll
alliance is eminently feasible with Laloo Yadav or Mulayam
Singh Yadav, it is not so with A. B. Vajpayee. Thus, even while
abusing each other in public the leaders of the Congress and
several of the components of the NF-LF would be keeping an eye
on the post-poll scenario, when "Ravana" Rao may become
Rama, and "Duryodhana" Mulayam may reappear as Lakshmana.

Policy Changes
In such a coming-together, there would be policy changes, again
at the margin. Greater emphasis would be given to Indian
companies, even while liberalisation proceeds apace. There
would not be a reflexive kowtowing to Western security
perceptions. The advantage would, in time, go to a cleaner lot of
politicians, such as I. K. Gujral or A. K. Antony. The members of
the "Sonia Lao, Desh Bachao" brigade would disappear into their
natural habitat, the kitchen area of 10 Janpath. All in all, not very
different from the Narasimha Rao rule of the past nine-and-odd

In kathakali things change while remaining the same. The
middle of May will reveal whether political life in India imitates
this art, or whether our democracy is still distant from the
subcutaneous stability of the advanced democracies.

Sunday, 13 December 1998

A Vote for Reform - Lessons from the Southern Debacle

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

After leading the United Kingdom to victory in World War II,
Winston Churchill and his Conservative party were bundled out
of office in the 1945 parliamentary poll. Five years later, he
returned to office, this time more respectful of the doctrines of
the Labour opposition. The conciliatory policy followed by the
Conservatives under Churchill from 1951 onwards resulted in
the sharp growth of union power in Britain, and to a diminution
of competitiveness that eventually pushed that country below
France, Germany and even Italy in the growth league. The effects
of Churchill's flirtation with Fabianism were effaced only with
the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. The eleven
years of Thatcherism saw the taming of organised labour and the
withdrawal of the state from key economic sectors. Today, rather
than the Conservatives acquiescing in Labour dogmas, it is the
latter party - led by the 'non-ideological' Tony Blair - that is
shifting to the right.

The swelling cacophony of voices within the Congress party
calling for a rethink on the policy of liberalisation is reminiscent
of the Conservatives in 1945. The difference is that unlike
Churchill, P.V. Narasimha Rao has made it clear that he would
not go back on the process of economic reform initiated by him
in 1991. However, the Prime Minister is facing considerable
opposition to this stance. Should one of his rivals unseat him, it
is possible that the populist policies favoured by Deve Gowda,
N. T. Rama Rao and Mulayam Singh Yadav will also be adopted
by the Centre. The Nasik Security Press is ready at hand and can
be placed on overtime to finance pet schemes through a ballooning

Short-Lived Benefit
However, the 'benefits' of populism would be short-lived. Easy
money would perpetuate the system of leakages, in which most
of the funds spent on specific programmes disappear into the
pockets of the officials and contractors entrusted with
implementation. It would also lead to pressure on prices. India
was on the verge of hyperinflation when the Rao government
took over in mid-1991, and two to three years of fiscal
extravagance would lead to a return to high inflation rates. This
would have an immediate impact on social stability. With their
real incomes and savings destroyed by rising prices, the middle
classes would take recourse to agitational methods. Issues now
dormant, such as Mandal and the temple controversy, would
once more erupt. The government in office may attempt to douse
the flames by releasing fresh wads of banknotes for yet more
populist schemes, thus stoking the flames of inflation higher.
Finally, the populist alliance may itself disintegrate, each
constituent blaming the other for the crisis.

Any move to meet populism with populism is bound to
recoil on the Congress as did its attempt to fight the Akali Dal
in Punjab by propping up a Sikh fundamentalist like jarnail
Singh Bhinderanwale. This flirtation led to a conflagration that
consumed the state for over a decade. Ostensibly aimed at
reducing the temperature of protest within the Muslim
community, the Muslim women’s Bill sponsored by Rajiv Gandhi
similarly boomeranged on the Congress. The act gave legitimacy
to fundamentalist groups and encouraged them to gain control
over the minority agenda. There is a lesson in this: Neither
populists nor fundamentalists can be beaten at their own game.
The trick is to change the parameters of the dialogue so that the
short-term and essentially destructive nature of their policy
formulations get exposed.

Critical to Success
In a democracy communication with the voters is critical to
success. And it is in this that the Narasimha Rao team has failed.
It took a convulsion within his party to goad Finance Minister
Manmohan Singh into ’selling’ his reforms to MPs of his own 
party. Before that, his attitude was largely one of disdain for
those who were ignorant of the programmes or had the temerity
to criticise them. The Prime Minister's publicity managers too 
did precious little to improve his image in the media. There were
few formal interviews to the media and apart from the anodyne
speeches in public, there was little projection of Rao’s policy
imperatives. For any policy to succeed it is essential that it is
perceived as having wide support. This is especially so with the
new economic policy because after a point reform should be self-
sustaining, and not depend on governmental fiats. If a perception
has gained currency that the defeats in two southern states last
month were an indication of voter anger at the reform process,
the Prime Minister’s lack of contact with the media should carry
a major share of the blame.

This is because the anti-Congress vote in Andhra Pradesh
and Karnataka was not an anti-reform vote. Indeed, a case can
be made out that it was a vote in protest at too little reform. For
it is a fact that the process of reform has remained largely
confined to the Finance, Commerce and Industry ministries at
the centre. The discretionary powers enjoyed by the state and
district administrations continue. Consequently the average
voter’s interface with the bureaucracy has remained unchanged
despite the reform. The palms stretched out to be greased, and
the forms needing to be filled, are as plentiful as before. Small
wonder that he is impatient with the talk of liberation.

In Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka (not to mention Uttar
Pradesh) the state governments will need to generate resources
to pay for the populist schemes they have introduced. Assuming
that the Centre refuses to meet such expenditure through deficit
financing, the state governments will have either to raise taxes
or sell off assets to generate funds. Increasing taxes will make
their states less attractive for investors, thus leaving disinvestment
in government assets as the only way out. Such a ’takeover’ of
the public sector by the private would in fact help the process of
reform, rather than retard it, though of course only till the assets
last. After that, the only option would be—again assuming we
have a sane government at the Centre—a scaling down of
administrative expenditure by cutting back on government staff.
In the years before the reform process got underway, expansion
of government employment or what was euphemistically known
as "planning" was seen as a desirable end in itself. As a
consequence, much of revenue now gets spent in salaries for
individuals with very little effective work. Both major
disinvestment in state assets and a scaling down in government
employment are desirable, although they have to be carried out
in ways that are politically acceptable.

Three Directions
The finance ministry’s technocrats forget that they are functioning
in a democracy, and not the junta administration so familiar to
Chicago School theorists. A scaling down of public sector
employment can take place, provided a golden handshake is
provided in the form of discounted shares of the public sector
units, or by other means. In the same way, labour resistance to
relocation can be overcome by making over a percentage of the
revenue from sale of land (at the old site) to the relocated
workers. At present much of the cream from such sales is
accruing (in black money) to politicians. Instead, it should go to
those affected by the reform process. Thus, rather than go slow
on reform, political commonsense dictates a speeding up of
reform in three directions: first, helping the domestic producer
by removing obstacles to expansion; second, by carrying forward
the process of reform to the state and district level, so that not
only a handful of businessmen but the average citizen also 
enjoys its benefits: third, by much quicker disinvestment and
curtailment of government overhead costs, accompanied by
golden handshakes to reduce the political fallout. The lesson
from Andhra Pradesh and Karanataka is not that reform should
be abandoned. Rather, it is a protest that reform has not yet
percolated down to the state, district and tehsil level.

World of Information - the Importance of Being Credible

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

The role of the journalist vis-a-vis the manager in newspaper
establishment has provided the backdrop to a number of
controversies. Depending on their persuasion, the protagonists
have posed the issue in terms of either press freedom or the need
to survive as a business. While journalists see any abridgement
of their power to control editorial content as an attack on their
freedom to write as they want to, managers point to the need to
make profits the reason for limiting journalistic discretion. What
both sides tend to forget is that the relationship between the
editorial and the managerial sides of a media team is synergistic
rather than zero-sum.

Television’s Popularity
The term ’media' is being used in this article in the narrower
sense of the print media, and more specifically, newspapers. In
the market sociology prevailing in the sub-continent, television
and the magazines are usually seen as sources of entertainment,
and newspaper as a source of information. This explains the
much higher popularity of television soap operas over news
programmes or the greater readership of a film magazine over
a science one, as also the fact that tabloids have not been able to
make a significant impact among the newspaper-reading public
in India. 

While truth may be an inessential attribute in a package
designed for entertainment, it is critical in one conveying
information, and it is in this context that credibility enters the
equation. A byline is as valuable as the credibility attached to it,
and such credibility can be sustained only if a journalist is given
the freedom to report events as they occur, without any biases
for reasons other than factual accuracy and public interest.
Should a journalist-or, indeed, a newspaper - succumb to the
temptations of ’campaign journalism', readers would quickly be
able to identify the motivated slants, and would then proceed to
discount the information given. Any newspaper that has
consciously taken sides in a political or a business dispute has
soon found its credibility, and consequently its readership,

Thus, while the focus of managers should be on the financial
bottom line of a company, journalists need to fix their gaze on
something very different. In the case of newspapers with a pan-
Indian circulation, this would be the national interests. In the
case of newspapers sewing less wide markets, it would be the
interests of the region or the segment to which it caters so long
as this does not clash with the overall national perspective. A
journalist qua journalist should therefore look at issues not with
reference to an individual company's balance sheet, but with
reference to much broader societal interests. And one of the tasks
of a newspaper’s management would be to facilitate this process.

The point of this analysis is that the print medium is an
industry where journalistic independence—defined as the absence
of a conscious bias, whether political or otherwise—and a
healthy bottom line go together, and this is because there exists
in the market a mechanism that rewards activities that are of
value to consumers. And there can be little doubt that a vigorous
and unbiased press is of great value to consumers who regard
themselves as members of a cohesive society. Such a press serves
the function of identifying and exposing what may be described
as social maladies, which may be administrative corruption or
communal animosity. It can also be individual or corporate
misdemeanour. Whatever it is, it is the responsibility of the press
to highlight such aberrations. It is no accident, therefore, that a
newspaper which is regarded as unbiased is usually also the
market leader.

The debate that has been conducted intermittently about
journalistic freedom in this country has lacked a clear definition
of exactly what constitutes this 'freedom’. In the view of this
writer, journalistic freedom means the ability to write in a 
manner unfettered except by considerations of accuracy and the
national interest. Should a management preserve this freedom,
it cannot be held guilty of infringing on journalistic liberty
simply because it reserves to itself certain functions such as
monitoring of costs or the guidelines for employment. To stretch
the concept of journalistic freedom to mean a space where no
other function can enter is to ignore the essentially interdependent
nature of the newsgathering process.

Strong Marketing
To adopt a simile, a newspaper may be compared to a centre for
healing. Just as the presence of excellent doctors in such a centre
would be of little use in the absence of proper equipment and
medicines, the presence of a strong journalistic team within a
newspaper establishment would not be itself guarantee success
unless joined to a strong marketing and administrative group.
Even a prima donna cannot perform sans an orchestra. By adopting
an absolutist position, votaries of journalistic independence may
in fact be depriving themselves of an ally. This is because the
preservation of credibility is as essential to the manager as it is
to the journalist.

The reason for this lies in newspaper economics. But for the
subsidy provided by the advertiser, the printed word may have
been out of the financial reach of most consumers. A separate
debate has often sprung up as to whether a newspaper needs to
accommodate the views of an advertiser in its news columns.
The short answer to this is that a quality newspaper needs to take
account of the views of all significant elements and this would
usually include the advertiser as well. However, any attempt at
gilding over the facts - in the sense of avoiding justified criticism -
merely because the institution concerned is a major advertiser
would be counter-productive not just for the newspaper but also
ultimately for the advertiser.

Advertiser's Image
A corporate entity will find itself out of sync with the societal
environment should it adopt a stance that it has no warts. Rather,
by recognising and eliminating such blemishes, it can take steps
to fit better into the environment. As for a newspaper, it has
value to the advertiser only to the extent of its credibility. Should
the newspaper lack credibility, advertising in it would have a
negative rather than a positive effect on the advertiser's image.
By adopting an editorial stance that is uninfluenced by biases, a
newspaper would be building up credibility that would be an
asset to an advertiser.

It is in case when a newspaper is seen not as a profit centre
in itself but as an adjunct to a much larger entity that there exists
the risk of dilution of journalistic independence. Even in India,
there are instances of corporate entities setting up newspapers
with a view to propagating their own views on themselves and
their competitors. Once they begin doing this in earnest, their
readers quickly catch on, and lose trust in such items. Thus,
paradoxically, by implementing a hidden agenda, the very
purpose (of making the public accept a particular viewpoint) is
defeated. On the other hand, institutions that treat the newspapers
run by them as independent businesses will take care to see that
their credibility—and consequently profitability—is not affected
by inaccurate reporting. If it is accepted that the protection of
credibility is central to the success of a newspaper, it follows that
the protection of journalistic freedom is an essential function of
a newspaper’s management.

Friday, 11 December 1998

Moderates Vs Fundamentalist Asia as Next Theatre of War

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

The policy of the Clinton administration of supporting
fundamentalist groups at the expense of moderate states should
cause little surprise since US policy on South Asia has always
been directed by a decidedly pro-Pakistan defence department.
However, this policy ignores the reality that the next major war
may well be fought between moderate and fundamentalist

The primary theatre of such a war is likely to be Asia. Except
for Christian fundamentalists—active in the US, Ireland and the
former Yugoslavia—this continent has within itself extremists
from almost all faiths. While it is Hindu or Muslim extremism
that has made headlines, Buddhism has generated not just
Sinhala extremism in Sri Lanka but anarchic manifestations such
as the Aum Shinrikyu sect in Japan. In Israel, the killing of
Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist has been preceded by
decades of contempt for indigenous non-Jewish cultures there.

Little Difference
The growing fanaticism in many parts of Asia appears to support
the view of some social analysts that there is little difference
between East and West. If the European races have been guilty
of genocide of indigenous people in South America, North
America and other parts of the world and of support for slavery
and colonisation, the Asian races have been no less harsh.
Cambodia is a recent example of this, and the frenzy of partition
in the subcontinent was another.

Israel and Pakistan are two states created by western powers
in the name of religion. Bosnia could in effect be another. The
instability in all three underscores the fact that an exclusivist
policy will, after it has destroyed other faiths, begin cannibalising 
itself. In the Kashmir valley, for example, Muslim extremists
have begun killing each other after having driven out the
Hindus. In Pakistan, now that there are hardly any non Muslims
left, conflicts have broken out between the Sindhis and Mohajirs
and between the Sunnis and Shias.

The recent Clinton-Gore formulation that Pakistan is a
“moderate” state indicates the extent to which excuses become
accepted as truth later. In such a deception, Islamabad is not to
blame. Pakistan has never hidden its fundamentalist character,
nor its reliance on laws such as those decreeing separate electorates
for non-Muslims or a woman’s evidence having only half the
value of a man’s, according to the Shariat. Indeed, during the
1980s, much of the funding for the creation of the fundamentalist
jihad forces came from the US and Saudi Arabia. The CIA worked
closely with Pakistan's ISI in training and equipping the very
terrorists who are now active not only in Kashmir but in Egypt,
the Philippines and even the US. Having invested billions of
dollars in such "moderate democrats", US policymakers are
understandably reluctant to admit that they were wrong, and
that their remedy for the Soviet incursions in Asia was worse
than the disease.

Today, the mistake made in Afghanistan during the 1980s -
of allowing the ISI to dictate the terms of engagement, and to
sabotage all prospects of a moderate regime in Kabul - is being
repeated by the present American President. In most of the new
states of central Asia, the US is backing Pakistan-supported
fundamentalists against the moderate leaders now in power. In
Afghanistan, it is helping Pakistan to prop up the Taliban, an
organisation not particularly known for its enlightened values.
Within South Asia, Washington is frittering away the chances of
a strategic tie-up with India in favour of continuing its 43-year
old policy of buttressing Pakistan with arms directed against

In Asia, there are two competing tendencies within the
Muslim world. The first is represented by Indonesia and Malaysia,
where non-Muslims have an honoured place and where a culture
of social moderation has been sought to be developed. Then
there are Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which support the concept
of jihad and where non-Muslims are regarded as inferior. While
Saudi Arabia has had a long tradition of Wahabbi extremism, the
areas now comprising Pakistan had long been imbued with the
moderate Hanafi doctrine. However, this came under attack
from religious fanatics from 1947 onwards, and has by now
almost totally disappeared. However, this has not prevented the
Pentagon and the state department from regularly certifying that
Islamabad is moderate entity.

Moderate Policy
The hope of getting a similar certificate from Washington should
not, however, lead India into abandoning its moderate policy.
Should the religious groups within India follow the example of
Pakistan rather than Indonesia, this country would soon become
a Bosnia. South Asia has within itself some of the great religious
traditions of the world—moderate Islam, Hinduism, Jainism,
Sikhism and Buddhism—the central point of which is the need
for tolerance, the right of all faiths to equal treatment. If, in
Pakistan, this "South Asian" value system has been replaced by
a fanatic strain imported from Saudi Arabia, that is reason
enough for India to beware of the danger of such an infection
spreading to its shores.

In the countries of the region - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri
Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar - India needs to
support moderates against extremists. There is for example no
cause to hesitate in extending material and moral support to
President Rabbani in his bid to fend off the Taliban attack. As for
the two anti-India regimes in the neighbourhood, Bangladesh
and Pakistan, both need to be met with a dual policy. The first,
a statement that any attempt to secure concession through
threats or blackmail will fail. On the other hand, it must be made
clear that friendly dialogue will be rewarded with reciprocal
benefits. The second strand should be that any attempt by one
of the countries in the region to involve outside powers in
regional disputes should be resisted. For example, by raising the
river waters issue in the UN, Bangladesh should forfeit an Indian
response till such time as it abandons the international track and
returns to the regional one. Logically, this would mean that
bilateral issues can be raised within SAARC, but only within

Closer Alliance
Further afield, the Gulf states need to realise that by following
the policy of the US regional surrogate - Saudi Arabia - they have
abandoned the quest for regional development of technology.
Had the Gulf states contracted a marriage between Indian
technology and Arab capital, their present dependence on western
technologies may have ended. Despite years of huge capital
inflows, the Gulf powers are still technologically deficient.
Rather than play the game of another US surrogate - Pakistan -
and needle India over Kashmir, a closer alliance between this
country and the Gulf states will benefit both.

Analogously, rather than focus near-exclusively on the US
and the EU as economic partners, India needs to expand its ties
with East Asian countries, especially ASEAN and China. Unlike
in many cases of western investment, inflows from other Asian
countries do not bring with it political baggage designed to
reduce technological prowess or force security concessions.
India’s immediate future is in Asia. And Asia's future is in India,
by duplicating this country's development of moderate, secular
structures rather than the extremist variants propagated by the
two US surrogates, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Thursday, 10 December 1998

Reviving the Congress Virtues of the Bitter Pill

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

Two years ago, a close friend suffered a heart attack. His family,
members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, refused to pollute his body
with medication, relying instead on prayer. In most cases of
illness, the natural resistance of the human body is enough to
overcome the ailment. After a period of sickness, recovery and
regeneration take place naturally. In my friend's case, this did
not happen, the damage having been too extensive. As a
consequence, despite the prayers conducted round the clock, he
passed away.

The recent deliberations within the Congress Working
Committee suggest that the party's highest policy-making group
too believes in natural regeneration. After a year in which the
party has been defeated in state after state, the 'prescriptions’
suggested by the CWC amount in effect to prayers that a miracle
will take place. The maladies afflicting India's ruling party are
all too visible. The necessary remedies are available, whether
medicinal (changes in policies and improvements in their delivery)
or surgical (excision from decision making levels of individuals
who have been identified as liabilities). However, rather than
tackling the ailments squarely and administering the medicine,
relief is being sought in exhortations and platitudes about the
need to 'help' the poor.

Photo Opportunities
That there are actually poor people in India, and that it is part
of the tasks of an elected government to help them, appears to
have been a recent discovery. Until the Karnataka and Andhra
Pradesh verdicts, the assumption was that the lower strata of the
population would wait patiently for the benefits from the expected
flood of foreign direct investment to percolate down to them.
Our national leaders availed of photo opportunities with one
foreign delegation after the other; graciously discussing how
best India could be integrated into the global economy.
Regrettably, similar media exposure to meetings on how to
reduce inflation or unemployment have been sadly lacking.
Obviously, such events were not deemed glamorous enough to
be highlighted.

Whether it is Sharad Pawar’s invitation to Manmohan Singh
to inaugurate the Congress campaign in Maharashtra, or
Narasimha Rao’s talk of the torrent of dollars soon to flood India,
a conviction has developed that a message welcomed by the
well-heeled in New York or Bombay would prove equally
enticing to those eking out a living in slums and shantytowns
across the country. A farm pricing policy that puts huge incomes
in the pockets of the minority of farmers with significant
marketable surpluses was thought attractive enough to the small
farmers and landless labourers, who would presumably have
been elated at contributing to national welfare by purchasing
foodgrains at higher and higher prices. Naturally, food stocks
with the FCI needed to increase, because too big an influx of
grains into the market would depress prices and upset those who
looked upon Balram Jakhar as their saviour. 

Economic Reform
Under its past leaders, the Congress party retained its base by
sleight—of—hand: professing concern for the poor while taking
care of the concerns of the affluent. To Narasimha Rao’s credit,
he has abandoned such hypocrisy and squarely backed a policy
of welcoming foreign investment. Indeed, after decades in which
entrepreneurs were treated like criminals (at least in public), the
Rao government has put economic activity at the forefront of its
policies. As a consequence, even the CPM has had to change its
public stance and welcome capital, whether Indian or foreign.
Now that he has once again been entrusted with the governance
of his state, it is likely that even Laloo Prasad Yadav will begin
to make encouraging noises about investment.

As long as the Central government is in the control of a party
committed to fiscal responsibility, there is a limit to the damage
that can be done to the economic structure by state governments
that favour intervention in the form of subsidies to favoured  
sectors. The danger that investment would turn away from
problem states and go to more responsible ones will help to
moderate regional populism, one reason why both Deve Gowda 
in Bangalore and Manohar Joshi in Bombay made clear soon 
after taking over that business-friendly policies would not get
jettisoned. ln the case of Karnataka at least, the new government
appears to have stolen a march on the old one by prompt
approvals and follow—up action. States like Tamil Nadu, where
political fund collection may have become the primary goal of
public policy, are losing projects as a consequence.

However, the picture would change radically were the
Central administration to fall into the control of a group of
political parties with disparate interests. The temptation to resort
to the mint for financing favoured schemes would be great, and 
difficult to resist. Today within the Congress party there are only
individuals trying to demonstrate through one-up—manship their
deeper commitment to the public interest. In a coalition, not
individuals but political parties would try to poach on the
other’s base. In place of a competition in responsible behaviour,
there would be one in populism. It is no accident that most
successful regimes have a clear central focus of authority. When
such leadership gets diffused through viable internal threats,
governance suffers.

Therefore, there is truth in the assertion of Narasimha Rao's
supporters that the open criticism of him by Arjun Singh and
others has strengthened the hands of the opposition. One of the 
few remaining strengths of the Congress party has been its image 
of stability, in contrast to the constant breaK—ups and realignments
in the Janata Dal. By containing Arjun Singh’s revolt, the Congress
leadership has preserved this image. However, while this may
be regain public support, it is not nearly enough.
The major ailment afflicting the Congress party is a perceived
tolerance of corruption, and an insensitivity to the concerns of 
the poor. Mere prayer - in the form of declamations of concern
for probity and the disadvantaged — are not strong enough
medicine for a disease that has struck at the very roots. Remedies,
in the form of action, are needed. 

Impact of Corruptions
Reform of the economic structure cannot be carried out in
isolation from reform of the structures of government. If TADA
could be promulgated against terrorist acts (it was another
matter that it was misused in states like Gujarat to extort funds),
a similar legislation can be brought forward against administrative
misfeasance. The present cumbersome legal procedures need to
be replaced with quicker processes for identifying and punishing
officials found guilty of abusing the trust placed in them. The
impact of corruption on the body politic is at least as pernicious
as that of terrorism, but one will have to go through the jails with
a fine tooth comb before locating individuals who are there on
being found guilty of corruption. The sight of a dozen senior
public servants being punished with jail terms would do more
for Narasimha Rao’s party than several hundred strong
resolutions passed in Congress fora.

There is a constant refrain that Prime Minister Narasimha
Rao is "indecisive". And yet, it is this same "indecisive" individual
who freed Indian industry from its many shackles, rectified
some foreign policy errors by establishing diplomatic ties with
Israel, and pushed through elections in Punjab. Where he has
been slow — indeed, frozen — is in cleansing his party and his
administration of elements that make a mockery of the pledge of
clean and efficient government. If his party is to survive its
coming tryst with the electorate, the Prime Minister will have to
stop confining himself to presiding over prayers at the patient’s
bedside, and effectively use the scalpel and the medicine bottle.