India Battles for Survival: circa 2014
Ravi Shanker Kapoor
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s rule in the last nine years will be remembered for the rampant corruption it spawned, the perversity it showed in hurting the economy, and the monumental incompetence that became the regime’s hallmark. Against this backdrop, one is tempted to pin one’s hopes on 2014 when the general elections are due (or before that, which is possible). A close look at the situation will reveal that a fundamental change in the situation is unlikely, even if the inglorious rule of the UPA ends. For, the root cause of economic slowdown and political atrophy—the resurgence of doctrinaire Leftists—is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future. At any rate, the disappearance, or even diminished severity of the root cause, will not happen on its own.
Resurgence of the Left
At the heart of the problems related to the economy, polity, national security, and diplomacy is the comeback of ideologically hardened Leftists since the UPA came to power in 2004. By Leftists, I refer to not just the constituents of the Left Front but also the Left-leaning intellectuals and academics. The resurgence should be viewed in the proper historical setting.
The tumultuous events of the late 1980s and the early 1990s had left the Indian communists and their fellow travelers ideologically shattered and psychologically battered. The fall of the Berlin Wall and later of the Soviet Union, unraveling of Moscow’s client states in the Eastern Bloc, China’s embrace of capitalism in all but name—these events disoriented pinkish intellectuals. They could not pose a big challenge to former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao when he opened up the economy in 1991 and did away with some of the worst features of Nehruvian socialism. Not that they did not try, but they were too demoralized and badly discredited in the public eye to check the economic reforms Rao authored.
The reforms continued unabated even after Rao demitted office in 1996. Later regimes continued with liberalization; this was despite the fact that the Communist Party of India was part of two governments during 1996-98. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which ruled for six years (1998-2004), carried forward the reforms agenda, notwithstanding its Swadeshi rhetoric.
Economic reforms brought unprecedented prosperity, and it was not confined to the rich and middle class; according to official data, the percentage of people below poverty line came down from 36 to 26 between 1993-94 and 1999-2000 (Of course, these and other figures of poverty reduction are religiously challenged by Leftwing experts, but then these experts are often wrong, though never in doubt, as we shall see).
Doomsday projections belied
All the Leftist predictions about the ill-effects of economic reforms proved to be wrong. They said that Indian companies will be crushed or eaten up by multinational corporations (MNCs); actually many domestic corporations themselves became MNCs. Professional revolutionaries said that ‘cut-throat competition’ will spell doom for the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs); but the MSME sector grew very fast after liberalization; its growth rate was usually more than the index of industrial production. It was claimed that the rich would become richer and the poor, poorer; the rich did become richer but the poor also gained from all-around growth and development. The Left’s apocalyptic assertions and weird theories consistently proved to be wrong, but there was no let-up in the creation of outlandishness.
The Left’s tenacity was matched only by the complacency of Big Business and the political class. In the early 2000s, it was frequently said at business conferences and other public forums that ‘reforms have become irreversible.’ The rants of the Left were tolerated as the fulminations of outdated radicals.
Many relics of the past, like public sector undertakings (PSUs) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), were viewed as dinosaurs that would slowly but surely become extinct. Administration, the law and order situation, judicial processes, police functioning, national security, etc. were expected to improve gradually. Or so the productive sections of society, the middle class, and the responsible politicians thought.
Lutyen’s Delhi as Jurassic Park
But 2004 witnessed Lutyen’s Delhi transform into Jurassic Park, with red and pink tyrannosauruses trampling economic reforms, creating mechanisms to strangulate business, devising ways to augment public (read wasteful) expenditure, weakening fight against Maoist and jihadist terror, and playing havoc with diplomacy. Owing to the 13 years of reforms, however, the economy had acquired certain resilience which not only withstood the depredations of the communists (who supported the UPA regime from outside during 2004-08) and the National Advisory Council (NAC) but grew at a fast pace for the first four years. It needs to be mentioned that the NAC, headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, comprises professional radicals, green lobbyists, bleeding hearts, and some downright Luddites. What makes them really dangerous is the fact that they are Sonia’s handpicked advisers to shape public policy; and she is the de facto ruler of India.
Most of the time during UPA I, the communists and NAC fanatics planted landmines in the economy. Over the years, many have tripped on the landmines. The proposed food security legislation is one such landmine that, if the Bill is cleared by Parliament in its present form, would play havoc with the economy in the next few years.
But, instead of confronting the anti-business statists, many industrialists, politicians, and liberalizers have been pleading with Leftwing intellectuals to accept, or at least not oppose, economic reforms since 1991. Capitalism—or, at any rate, some aspects of it—can be beneficial for all sections of society, including workers and peasants. This is the sum and substance of the message of the Swaminathan Aiyars and the Gurcharan Dases to their “Leftist friends.” The latter, however, disdainfully rebuff such entreaties. The liberalizer proposes, the Leftist intellectual disposes.
But how does it matter? The Left has been politically isolated and electorally battered; it does not appear to be a big player in any possible political configuration in the foreseeable future. So, why seek sanction from the commies and fellow travelers? Why worry about them and their cantankerousness?
Marketplace of ideas
The cause of worry is that the Left’s influence is, and has always been, greatly disproportionate to its political strength. For the marketplace of ideas is curiously egalitarian in more than one sense of the word: first, social and economic equality attracts a huge premium; and, second, what matters in the public discourse is the ability of the participants to promote their ideas, not their political muscle. It’s a level-playing field.
Unfortunately, no effort was made by anybody—be it India Inc, sensible politicians, people with heightened consciousness—to offer a viable alternative to the Leftist ideology. Many commentators glibly talk about a Centre-Right ideology or the BJP evolving into a Centre-Right party, but nobody has spelt out either the content of such an ideology or the roadmap for the BJP. So, the grammar, phraseology, and rules of public discourse continue to be determined by the Left.
Hence the continued relevance and dominance of the Left in the intellectual arena. And hence the continued genuflection to NAC-types and pinkish public intellectuals. Food security? “Very good idea, but you see we don’t have the money right now.” Reservations in the private sector? “Ummm… it would be nice to have diversity, but there are problems in implementing it.” Mandatory corporate social responsibility spending? “Oh, yes, we are committed to the society. But the mandatory thing would be troublesome.” The partisans of liberalization have always been hiding behind the problems of implementation, always citing practical considerations, always avoiding the real issue, always beating about the bush. Never telling professional revolutionaries that their economy—their entire philosophy—is off the mark.
The liberalizers never had the moral courage to take on the Left. They couldn’t tell the pink radicals that all over the world, rich nations follow the capitalist path; and there has not been a single nation that has become prosperous by adopting socialism. Besides, rich nations are also the freest ones in the world. As Milton Friedman said, capitalism is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for political freedom. Further, faithful adherence to socialism leads to either manmade catastrophes (100 million dead in communist countries) or excessive controls in and arrested growth of the economy. One would have expected liberalizers to bombard NAC activists and other zealots with such facts. If you can’t convince them, crush them. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. The liberalizers fear the consequences; the fear is not groundless, as the enemy is an immensely powerful coalition.
Argumentum ad hominem
In the last few years, an alliance of the idealist and the practitioner of realpolitik has come into being, a sort of politician-intellectual complex. The idealist keeps crying for expanding the role of the state—of course, for the sake of the poor—while the politician keeps reaping the benefits. Hence the relevance of the NAC. NAC fanatics and their lackeys keep nagging businessmen on one pretext or the other; they are forced to seek remedy; politicians offer the remedy—of course, at a price. It is a win-win situation for the intellectual-activist and the politician: the former derives the sadistic pleasure of teaching the capitalist a lesson for whom his hatred is pathological; the politician mints money.
The weapon of mass deception intellectual-activists use to devastating effect is argumentum ad hominem. Ad hominemis the form of argumentation in which the opponent-arguer rather than his argument is attacked. If somebody makes a case for, say, foreign direct investment (FDI) in a sector, the pros and cons of the case are not debated; the person promoting FDI is accused of working on some agenda. Similarly, the champions of economic reforms are maligned as stooges of big business, the skeptics of food security as anti-poor villains, the opponents of subsidies as heartless experts, the doubters about reservation as anti-Dalit, the advocates of stronger Indo-US ties as CIA agents, votaries of tough stand on terror is jingoists, and so on. The ad hominem attack is so vicious and concerted that the person forgets the main issue and starts defending himself or herself.
Argumentum ad hominem is considered a dishonorable method but it is very effective. Even in the US, it is used by Obama’s supporters to tarnish conservatives and libertarians: criticism of the president on policy matters is often misconstrued as a racist assault. In India, where there is hardly any Right-wing intellectual establishment, argumentum ad hominem is even more damaging.
With the Left in ascendance and its discredited doctrines viewed as gospel truths, India has started sliding in every sphere, be it economy, polity, national security, or diplomacy. From the 8-9 per cent growth rate, we are facing the prospect of growth around, or even below, 5 per cent. The rupee is on a downward spiral; industry is down; services are also slowing; fiscal and current account deficits have become a headache; infrastructure development continues to face a myriad of bottlenecks; investors, domestic as well as overseas, are avoiding India; even state-run PSUs are unwilling to invest in India; long is the list of economic woes. The India Story has taken a tragic twist.
Politicians, especially from the ruling party, have lost all sense of propriety, national interest, internal security, or national defence. Notice the irresponsibility and cynicism with which they sought to gain mileage from the recent calamity in Uttarakhand; notice also the perversity with which the Congress is trying to play the Central Bureau of Investigation against the Intelligence Bureau. Power is not the means to give a concrete shape to their ideas, if they have any; it has become an end in itself, the summum bonum of political existence—an end to make money, to stay in power forever, to exercise it with aplomb.
Earlier, political parties kept foreign affairs out of their politicking. These days, however, nothing is inviolable. So, Mamata Banerjee impacts Indo-Bangladesh ties; DMK’S political calculations cast their shadow on India’s relations with Sri Lanka; when the communists were in the reckoning, China had to be dealt with kid gloves.
Petty politicking has also adversely affected military preparedness. After Bofors, maligning any arms deal has become easy. It’s not that everything is proper in such deals, but it is also a fact that vested interests also play a role. In the process, procurement has been badly hit. Typically, the government, whose obsession is about entitlements, is least bothered.
Just do it
Since the root cause is the unchallenged ascendance of the Left, the solution lies in posing a creditable challenge to it. Its intellectual constructs have to be destroyed; its falsehoods, ludicrous theories, and preposterous claims have to be exposed. It will not happen on its own; we have to do it.
Economic reforms happened in 1991 because of a quirk of fate, because of a fortuitous combination of circumstances. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May, big bosses in the Congress thought that Narasimha Rao, an old leader who was contemplating retirement, would be a pliable tool. Rao, however, proved to be a Chanakya in wisdom and wiliness. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
It is important to note that the 1991 liberalization was not the result of any efforts by the captains of industry, some Rightwing intellectual revolution, or sagacity on the part of the political class or even some sections of it. Unfortunately, reforms were never provided moral or philosophical justification. At best, the liberalizers argued that economic reforms would help the poor. But then efficiency is a poor justification for any policy framework, especially when the opponents incessantly castigate it.
Ditto with foreign affairs. You cannot have a public discourse that is inveterately anti-America and anti-MNC, and yet expect to deepen and broaden ties with the developed world. Thirdworldism has to be dumped; NAM has to be discarded. India should also improve relations with Western countries and Israel.
All this is possible, but it will not happen by another quirk of fate. Nor will it happen by a change in government. The BJP simply does not have the cerebral caliber, moral uprightness, and political savvy to take on the Left intellectually. Often, the saffron party implicitly accepts the logic of the Left and claims that it could do a better job in promoting socialism. A recent instance is the BJP’s response to the food security Bill, something like ‘we are not against the legislation but against the way it is being done.’
The only good thing that can come from the BJP’s victory in elections would be that the Aruna Roys and the Jean Drezes would stay away because of their hatred for the ‘communal party.’ But they would come back, as they did in 2004 after 15-year hibernation. This comeback has to be stopped, or at least made less hazardous.
Men and women of heightened consciousness have to work for these goals and fight the Leftists of all hues. The enemies are strong and vicious; they will deploy all weapons in their arsenal—lies, misinformation, subterfuge, insinuations, innuendoes, argumentum ad hominem—but our fight against them is the only hope for our survival.
The author is a freelance journalist and Senior Fellow SAISA. Views expressed are personal