governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for February, 2014

Hypocritical India

 

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Indians are affably argumentative (Amartya Sen, 2005). Less likably, the Indian State is intensely hypocritical. It remains very medieval despite its veneer of modernism.

Examples of medievalism abound. We value Indian lives very low. No minister has ever resigned because citizens, in their charge, starved to death or died due to lack of emergency medical aid or if large numbers of students fail to pass in public schools. Corruption is a leitmotif of even the simplest public transaction like lodging a First Information Report at a police station (this is something which should even be possible by email or sms or whatsapp); avoiding getting arrested for drunk driving; getting a copy of case records from the lower courts or seeking protection from physical harassment and assault.

The best illustration of lingering medievalism and nascent modernism is the conscious use of hypocrisy by the State, to keep alive the hope of change without disturbing the status quo. There are many such State hypocrisies but five major ones stand out.

The biggest hypocrisy is the Constitutional provision that religion does not matter for State policy formulation and execution. Everything points to a different truth. The Shah Bano episode (1986) is the best example of how religion and politics have been inseparable. In this case the Supreme Court granted maintenance to a divorced Muslim woman (as is the right of any Indian woman) but the government rescinded this progressive judgment through a perverse, new law to appease orthodox Muslim sentiment. Meanwhile, to placate orthodox Hindu sentiment, which was being fanned by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (a Hindu rights outfit), it also opened the gates of the disputed site of the Babri Masjid which had been locked by the government since 1885 to preserve the status quo on counter claims to possession rights by Muslims and Hindus. Incidentally 1885 is also the year the Indian National Congress was founded. By 1986 (a century later) the Congress was not averse to play the communal card with an eye to the 1989 elections.

Other more visible “red flags” of regressive religious politics are the low pan-Indian representation of Muslims in government; the increasing ghettoization of Muslims even in new urban areas; blatantly pro-Muslim or Hindu political parties and decreasing levels of productive social interaction between the two major communities since 1947. Let’s face it. The religious cleavage exists in an antagonistic form and is increasing. It is only once we accept this that we can get to talk about how to bridge it.

The second big hypocrisy is that all Indians are created equal. Democracy and the positive affirmation (reservations) policy have solidified caste much more than the dilution effect from urbanization. If Pandit Nehru saw Sardar Patel as a biased Hindu he would be shocked at the manner in which political leaders today pander to narrow interests of backward caste and Dalit vote banks. After religion, caste is the next most significant political identity of Indians. The majority of Indians wed within their caste and vote for caste candidates. Indians are not born equal. They struggle to overcome the inherited, rigid social and economic barriers of caste and very few succeed, despite the Constitution and a range of laws prohibiting caste based biases.

The third big hypocrisy (which we share with much of the World) is that women are treated equal to men. They are not and never have been. The good news here is that since this is an international problem, the state of play is fairly advanced. Policy, law and programs are working to empower women economically in the hope that social change will follow; to measure their levels of satisfaction; to assess results and to provide special protection to them in the transition period.

The fourth big hypocrisy is that poverty is reducing at a satisfactory rate. This is far from true. Even worse, asserting this statistically, as the government does, lulls us into believing that following the current path and simply doing more of what we do already, will get us to a poverty free India. It cannot.

Average per capita income needs to triple in real terms and inequality to reduce significantly before we can even claim to have found the correct direction. Some measurable indicators are a consistent growth above 8% per year; a more equal sharing between the rich and 70% of the rest, of the benefits of incremental growth (we don’t monitor this periodically) and the rate of job creation in the formal economy.

The fifth hypocrisy is that the existing governance architecture of Parliamentary Democracy is suitable for India. It is not. Both Parliament and Cabinet have ceased to play their intended role as checks on personal aggrandizement and protecting minority interests. This has been true for State Governments over the last three decades but over the past decade even the GOI Cabinet has become the poodle of Party bosses. The sanctity and effectiveness of Parliament is eroded by the behavior of lumpen elements, more familiar with brute force than reasoned argument or moral persuasion. Corruption vitiates executive decision making to the extent that the judiciary becomes the aam admi’s “de-facto government” for seeking redress.

How can this familiar tale of woe be altered?

First what is not measured and recorded cannot be dealt with. Enumerate caste/tribe and religion in the census so we know the numbers; the spatial distribution and their wellbeing. Map caste and religion data on a publicly available GIS down to the village and urban ward level so that government interventions can be calibrated to local social norms and results assessed by third parties. Assess poverty levels bi-annually using mobile based rapid data collection instruments to better relate schemes (like the Right to Food or the Right to Work) to poverty reduction outcomes.

Second review the existing incentive structures for diluting religion, caste, gender inequality, poverty and improving the functioning of the executive, parliament and judiciary.

Caste based affirmative action (reservations) clearly perpetuates an “us versus them” psychology. Diluting it by adding poverty criterion, requires more data and monitoring, but can lead to the dominance of more modern pressure groups like professional affiliations (farmers, business owners, employees), locational interests (Biharis or Mumbaikars) or ideological solidarity (environmentalists, big or small government advocates, gay rights advocates).

All government programs and projects should be evaluated for their poverty reduction potential before approval by the government and income enhancement targets fixed. Achievement against targets must be monitored by third parties with the results made public. This will reduce pork (roads to nowhere) and gold plating (capital heavy projects which do nothing for jobs-why not let private business do these?).

The Constitution should be revised to completely separate the Executive from Parliament. The PM and her deputy to be directly elected with minimum vote shares prescribed in each constituency to ensure inclusion. The ministerial executive team to be nominated by the PM and endorsed by the Parliament. The internal emergency provisions should similarly require the endorsement of parliament to protect state government autonomy from an aggressive PM. The 2014 elections are being fought in any case on the basis of “US President like” identities.

This simple change can ensure that the PM is popularly elected and is not just a “shoo-in”. It can also  improve the quality of MPs by getting rid of those who contest for Parliament seats (often by paying for them) only as an avenue for eventually getting into lucrative executive positions. Legislative ability requires skills in law and social sciences apart from a feel for the local interests an MP represents. Executive ability requires specialization and narrow experience. The system must present separate choices to the electorate and to those desiring to enter politics.

The bottom line is to transit from being an affable but hypocritical India to a more results oriented and honest India. In the modern world time is money and the long route to poverty reduction whilst changing incrementally is costly. Social stability is a merit good in the Indian plural context. But the price for social stability must be paid by the rich and not the poor or the marginalized.   

Corruption and growth; are they bipolar options?

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The Chinese are masters at human psychology. They stuff citizens’ faces so full of money that they can’t dissent and have left the government to its own devices over the last thirty years of high growth. When the average citizen sees her lot improving every year she is more forgiving about the big boys raking in billions. Now that growth is dipping (below 8% in 2012) and constraining the future for Chinese citizens, they are fingering princelings, party bosses and shady business men for corruption and chaff at the lack of “voice” and participation.

In contrast, Indian citizens have unfortunately never experienced the thrill of sustained, explosive, growth.   In China growth dipped below 8% per year in only five years during 1980 to 2012. In India, growth was 8% or more in only seven years of these thirty two years. Low and fluctuating levels of growth, high levels of poverty and hopelessness engender negativity and citizens cast around for scapegoats. Foreign domination (no to FDI in retail) and big business (“sab chor hai” “thieves all”) are the standard fall guys.

The Liberal development literature presents corruption as a drag on high growth since it reduces the effectiveness of public expenditure; muddies signals for entrepreneurs and enhances uncertainty.

The actual development experience is quite different and nuanced. Whilst it is no one’s case that either is a precondition for the other, many would agree that “grand corruption” of the 2G, Coalgate kind, is less corrosive for social harmony than “petty corruption” which is more in your face; babus extracting their share from citizens seeking public services; getting a passport; a car registered; a birth certificate; getting public health care or acceptable quality education.

Strange as it may seem, the volume of “petty corruption” is much more than of the “grand corruption” kind. Just as a dripping tap wastes more water than can be stored, petty but visible corruption etches the primacy of the bureaucracy over citizens into our minds and dilutes our sense of entitlement (our right to be served) as citizens. We stand humbled before the discretionary power vested the petty representatives of the State.

Arun Kumar (Indian Economy, 2013) has diligently collected data on scams reported by Times of India during the period 2005 to 2007. These collectively amount to just 0.4% of the Gross National Income during that period. How does this compare with the levels of “petty corruption”? We use a back of the envelope calculation which assumes that the aggregate budgeted salary bill of government under estimates the real earnings of babus. Think of the “dastur” for peons, court case clerks, policemen, inspectors, higher level babus getting their children educated abroad for free courtesy an obliging company, luxurious gifts at Diwali, consumer durables, houses and commercial property bought at less than market prices, houses rented out at more than market prices, spouses provided employment courtesy a supplicant, “lifestyle benefits and you get the picture.

Would it be fair to say that the actual income of government servants is 30% higher to conservatively assess the ball park number for the level of petty corruption? This amount is more double the level of scams reported but is still just 1% of GNI. Both data sets are flawed for a rigorous estimate. But they serve our purpose to highlight why “petty corruption” is more significant, principally because it creates a, pervasive, vitiated governance environment.

It is easier to deal with “petty corruption” and quick results become visible. In the 49 days of Kejriwal’s government, harassment of the aam admi who occupy public land for private business, like street vendors, reduced significantly…though their prices did not come down to pass on the reduced transaction cost to customers! Digitization of processes can further reduce discretion; dilute the physical interface between service provider and user and enhance service quality.

It is also easier to track “petty corruption”. Corruption indices, like Transparency International primarily track “petty corruption” because it is based on the actual experiences and perceptions of citizens which can be periodically and reliably surveyed.  In contrast “grand corruption” has to be unearthed by the Vigilance Commission, Auditor General or Parliament, all of whom are inevitably politically tainted.

Consider Kejriwal’s FIR against Moily and Ambani. There is hardly any useful information available in the public domain; the subject is so very technical and international indexing of costs so difficult, if at all possible, that it is tough to take a reasoned view on the substance of the allegation of corruption. Opinions, expressed in support of Kejriwal seem biased by the perception of Reliance, as a company, which is not averse to bending rules and leaders to their advantage; in which, whilst they are numero uno, they are not the only one, or on the generic desirability of market based pricing methods. Neither set of views are credible.   

Controlling grand corruption needs a leader with impeccable credentials and high ideals; sound technical advice; efficient public financial management and procurement systems which generate and share management information publicly; an efficient and independent prosecutorial agency; an efficient and independent judiciary and a watchful Parliament.

India has all these preconditions except credible leadership. The last four decades of rapacious loot of public resources have eroded public morals and made corruption “acceptable” to citizens as a part of life, very much like daily commuters impossibly squeezing themselves into the Mumbai local trains by “adjusting”.

Credible and value based leadership is a gift not a certainty. Of course voting for credibility and honesty helps. But the electorate has seen too many seemingly committed and honest leaders go to waste in the hot seat. The trick is to distinguish those who have lived by their ideals and who are in public life for the long haul, from opportunists and poseurs. Controlling corruption is important but growth comes first.

 

The yin-yang of Indian democracy

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Why has anarchism become a fashion statement? Is it an early warning sign of the fracturing of the edifice of liberal democracy, built up over the last century?

Parliaments are held in contempt now with their membership dominated by lumpen elements that are there to expropriate public resources for private gain. Citizens trust nothing except the decisions they take themselves. Representative democracy is passé. Direct democracy is in. Parliamentary democracy and cabinet functioning is out. Strong man rule is in.

If political architecture is under stress, economic management principles are in severe distress. In the bastions of Western liberalism there are deep reservations about the sustainability of the smart economic solutions of the last five decades. Jobless growth is not what was targeted but it is the reality. Increasing inequality was an unintended outcome of rapid growth. The unmasking of limitless human greed continues to shock. The moral turpitude of those paid handsomely to be in positions of financial and political trust seems to have no bounds.

In the 1950s and 1960s we put our faith in planned public expenditure financed by foreign aid and debt to pull us out of the poverty trap. Poverty remained with us.

In the 1970s we fingered big business as the villain and put our faith in public enterprises to provide jobs. Instead we built a small molly coddled labour aristocracy and stamped out India’s entrepreneurial exuberance, whilst distributing the stagnant economic pie in ever thinner slices.

In the 1980s we put our faith in dismantling the complex system of government controls which were strangulating industry and trade. We found that whilst this was an adequate strategy to give “escape velocity” to small, island countries, large economies like India needed deeper domestic reform.

In the 1990s and 2000s we tried to jettison structural inefficiencies and segmentation in the labour and financial markets, liberalized the external account and kick started private infrastructure development and this worked well. In the 2010s we tried to do more of the same and it stopped working, partly because the world had slowed down, partly because we had run out of reform steam.

We are drifting now into an electoral storm in 2014, bewildered, lost and directionless, stumbling over the discarded political shibboleths of the past and feeling our way across the new crevasses in liberal economic thought.

The rise of Modi and of Kejriwal illustrates this discontent with established doctrine. The appeal of both leaders cuts across traditional vote banks of caste and class, though Modi is more constrained by his “Hindudtva” image on the issue of religious pluralism.

Elites are not comfortable with either leader because they sense in both the desire to smash the status quo, built assiduously over the last six decades, ensuring elite appropriation of public resources for private gain.

It matters little to Modi’s supporters that he does not pay lip service to “secularism”. Similarly it matters not a jot to Kejriwal’s supporters that he defies established principles of good governance in economic management by subsidizing energy and water and generating regulatory uncertainty for private industry and finance.

Neither set of supporters really care that both leaders are openly autocratic and self-opinionated and that neither has much time for the niceties of bureaucracy and traditional political decorum. The bottom line for their supporters is that the established doctrines have not served them well and so they are willing to dive into the deep end with their eyes closed.

There is a new, harsh political reality out there. Gandhi’s principles have been spurned and today the ends justify the means. Gandhi’s instruments of social mobilization however are much in demand; personal contact with citizens, effective communication in a familiar idiom instead of hectoring; a heavy reliance on personally walking the talk and never getting too far from the “nautanki” format of public discourse, so popular in India.

Cynics would call this “lumpenisation”, the demise of all that was good and proper in Indian democracy. Realists would argue that till the masks are ripped away and the ugly reality underneath revealed, there can be no reconciliation and no change. In politics, genuflecting to liberal democracy in public whilst working to deepen the roots of mutually exclusive traditional identity groups, as captive political vote banks, has been the hypocritical norm.  

Liberty is achievable only when the masks we habitually wear, of caste, class, religion and culture are ripped off and an honest conversation started, amongst ourselves, of how we can get ahead.

As the battle lines are drawn for 2014, it is useful to be mindful that every Modi juggernaut needs a Kejriwal to keep the collateral damage of an overwhelming majority in check. The rule of the multiple of 10 can be useful. If Modi corners no more than ten times the seats Kejriwal gets, it will ensure that the rest will group themselves around these two nuclei; both of whom are progressive and compatible yin and yang.

 

Avoid zero-sum political games

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The best thing about democracy is that it provides options to the zero-sum game where the winner takes all. Even the losers, in a democracy, retain their right to participate in decision making and benefit from state actions. We have seen too little democracy in India; the largest and the developing World’s best functioning democracy, and too many zero sum games being played.

One such game revolves around identity. Why is India still stuck in traditional identity models based on religion and caste? Babasahib Ambedkar’s big fear was that decentralization would further deepen these traditional identities by entrenching elite power, whilst centralized democracy, guided by more evolved minds, could pave the way to a more liberal future for the marginalized. The literature suggests that, perversely, centralized democracy has actually strengthened traditional identities across the board, rather than substituted them with more modern identities.

Dravida politics in Tamil Nadu; Dalit and backward caste politics in the North has led to political empowerment, which is welcome. But entrenchment of caste identity runs contrary to the aspirations of modernity, principally since caste is a non-meritocratic classification. One either belongs or does not. It bungs citizens into a static identity framework and denies them the right to choose and develop alternative non-traditional identities.

India inherited the Muslim “identity” issue from the colonial mindset, which used it to its advantage. The acrimony and violence of the partition strengthened the divide. But the “Hindu pride” movement of the BJP/RSS in the 1990’s sharpened the cleavage. Whilst provoking the less liberal it assuaged the guilt of the liberal Hindu and encouraged them to merge their Hindu identity with their politics. The Indian tricolor has both saffron and green. But Hindus rarely don the latter, whilst Muslims rarely use the former.

Sikh identity was just a mix of bravado, large heartedness, the absence of religious bias, a preference for chicken tikka and deliciously hot langar, available for anyone, in Gurudwaras. Till the events leading to 1984, Sikhs were integral to the Hindu tent. Today their children shave their beards to join and the Akali Dal is the dominant party in Punjab.

Focusing on identity, for short term political gain, is a zero sum game. Identity is the last refuge of political mediocrity. Parties, which are bankrupt in ideology and short on demonstrated success, are the ones most likely to use “traditional identity” as a means to gain political support.

Modi is demonstratedly keen to get away from the popular perception of being a “Hindu nationalist” but it is not easy unless the BJP dilutes its links with the RSS. Modi cannot win without the fringe Hindu and Muslim, urban vote. But the fringe voter is unlikely to support a deepening of traditional identity.

Muslims increasingly have an urban presence. They are functionally integrated into the lucrative, crafts based export and machining industry and pervasive in informal, skill-based employment thereby building social capital within urban communities. But outside Gujrat, Muslims view Modi only through the lens of Hindu identity politics.

Modi will, consequently, be denied a significant section of the urban vote, which should naturally have accrued to him since Modinomics is primarily, an urban vision. This illustrates the self-defeating character of identity politics. The decline of the Congress is another example of a self-goal. The Congress built its support based on identity politics since the 1970s. But once Muslims, upper caste Hindus and Dalits were weaned away by more efficient, identity based parties, the Congress floundered.

Unfortunately, India’s newest party; the AAP is also engaged in a zero-sum game. This game is about exposing the corrupt. Kejriwal must appreciate that voicing the demands of the Aam Admi does not have to be done in the shrill, make or break confrontationist form, he has adopted. It may get him media attention to denigrate Najeeb Jung, the courtly, Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, but it is unlikely to get him votes. Just as Mani’s diatribe against Modi’s chai serving past, has floored Mani, whilst elevating Modi.

Gandhi stood out as a negotiator by being an accomplished “incrementalist”, not by presenting a zero-sum fait accompli. What distinguished him, from those he led, was his ability to be firm but civil and eager to first explore if incremental change could happen, within the four corners of the existing law. Enacting a law is no assurance that the desired outcomes will follow. Making the enactment of a law as the fulcrum of a government’s achievement is the lazy politician’s route to populism and a zero sum approach to governance. We have lately seen too many such attempts.

Good governance is about problem solving at the margin, using stealth, guile and innovation with an eye out for maximizing value for money. It is not about proclaiming a grand vision of “total revolution”. What citizens value most, is the least disturbance to their daily lives and incremental but steady improvements in the quality of life. Supreme sacrifices by citizens to attain a vision call for conditions to be intolerable. The problem for the politicians of modern India is that life is not insufferable in India even for the poor. Democratic safety valves operate to keep the pot from boiling over. Had it not been so, the Communists and the Maoist would have realized their revolution long ago.

Please Arvind, you don’t need a multi-hull, state-of-the-art catamaran to navigate calm, inland waters. A simple canoe would do as well. Don’t hanker for a nuclear bomb to eliminate a few rodents.

 

 

  

 

 

 

Mega-cities are inhuman

Unlike monkeys, it is not in the nature of humans to huddle though we take to cuddling quite easily. The instinct to explore new frontiers and the excessive demands which we impose on natural resources; both push us to put space between each other. The ancestors of today’s Indians trekked all the way from Africa to the sub-continent around 500,000 years ago, possibly to put space between themselves and their African cousins. It is not for nothing that the self- sufficient, “Marlboro Man” was an icon for three decades starting from the 1960s albeit now discredited in a tobacco-less World.

monkeys huddling

There already are too many humans at 7 billion. Of these, 1.2 billion souls are concentrated in India, making us the most densely populated, large country in the World. Worse Indians are huddled in habitations in just 9% of the land available. The rest is forests (an implausible 23% in government data), private groves, pastures and agricultural land.

Humans huddle in cities more out of necessity than choice. Group living does not come naturally to humans, unlike lions, elephants, antelopes and penguins. The Swedish alternative lifestyle experiments in the 1960s, demonstrated that whilst cuddling was definitely in, huddling was out. Commune members tended to pair off, even if temporarily. More evidence on human choice is available from the preferences of the rich, who sprawl in gardens, whilst the poor are crammed into tiny, multiple stories precariously piled on houses.

Babus, in India, are willing to serve the government, even without pay, for the privilege of living in Lutyen’s green, heritage, garden city. The nouveau rich meanwhile are busy buying up unauthorized, “farm houses” in Delhi suburbia. Part of the fascination of “going West”, particularly to the US, is the affordability of sprawling houses as compared to the tight, modular, frightfully expensive “paper” abodes of the Japanese.

Neither time not technology, augur well for huddling or cuddling. Thanks to digitization of information; the internet and social media, human relationships are now virtual and often best conducted remotely. Many a face to face encounter has spelled disaster. Business is also increasingly digital and even government is going that way. All of this reduces the need for huddling in cities. The modern “Morlboro Man” is a woman with her Iphone.

Gandhiji’s vision of “self-sufficient” villages and Julius Nyrere’s vision of “Ujama villages”, on which the Washington Consensus smart set poured scorn, now increasingly seems not only a reality but a potential option for preserving the best of humanism. Consider that with the revolution in printing technology, it is already possible to print out a plastic tumbler or bowl in one’s home. Consumer durables are most likely to follow suit. This will completely change the “scale economy” for manufactured goods. The most scalable part of the new technology would be the software, which in all probability may have been conceived in a garage! Of course we would still need some “old industry” type factories to make the chips, the computer accessories and most importantly the printer, which makes all this possible.

Old age technology and industrial habits have fueled the international trend in urbanization towards mega cities (population of 10 million and above) whose number increased from 2 (Tokyo and Rome) in 1970 to 28 in 2013 and will likely go to 37 by 2025. India today has 3 mega cities and Mumbai is the second most densely populated megacity after Dhaka. The demise of the mega huddle of a mega city is not immediately imminent because the available “industrial age” technology still makes them scale efficient. But in India recent data indicates that growth in the mega cities is slower than in second rung cities which shows that they have reached the economic limits of their efficiency.

Mega cities are bad news for the following four reasons.

First, humans are bad huddlers because with the existing technology, cities with a density in excess of 4000 persons per sq km, end up severely polluting the air, land and water. Our mega cities have a density of around 12,000 persons per sq km and are unsustainable, as are China’s.

Second, as population density increases, the pressure on land drives up the price of realty, making “land intensive” business like “international scale multi-brand retail” uneconomic. Contrary to popular criticism, the AAP knows that no international multi brander would want to locate in Delhi because land is too expensive and hence had no downside in siding with the populist naysayers.

Third, increasing population density requires a higher spend on environmental mitigation of local pollution further driving up the cost of doing business.

Fourth urban led growth is inherently iniquitous. It creates pockets of luxury amidst vast swathes of wretchedness. The IMF (the bastion of the erstwhile Washington Consensus) estimates that in the US, 90% of the incremental wealth from growth benefits just 1% of the population.  Inequality is a growing concern and a key driver of political and social instability and crime and a major threat for poorly governed countries.

The term SMART city is the current buzzword to make cities efficient. This is a misnomer since cities by definition are not SMART. SMART is to digitize; connect electronically; disperse population; integrate rural and urban areas seamlessly and not to huddle.

Our cities should be self-financing and not draw on central or state funds. Public spending on infrastructure should focus on making rural areas more productive. It should improve the quality of life for rural residents since dispersed habitations make market based solutions for basic services unviable. At the best of times, making sensible public investment is tough. It becomes unconscionable when public funds are used to artificially drive up the demand for realty through public expenditure on creating cities. This growth pattern has also been a key source of corruption with elite capture of the land just prior to its development into an urban area using State finance.

The US is the best example of publicly funded investment in highways since the 1950s. However, even they found it difficult to do so efficiently. They also have bridges to nowhere. The recent publicly financed programs of demand creation since 2008 have been downright wasteful. California, for example, is persistently broke because it is wedded to “big government”. Publicly funded research and infrastructure can only be attempted by very efficient governments and India is not one of them.

We should go back to our roots in communities. Public finance should be used primarily to subsidize connectivity (ports, airports, rail, roads, airwaves and electricity)in segments where market solutions are not available and private investment unviable. Building and maintaining stuff is best left to the private sector.

The urban-rural divide is an artificial cleavage. Gandhi’s village need not be devoid of modern facilities. Migration should be a choice enabling people to vote with their feet but it is demeaning as a necessity. Spending public money on urban areas is like giving a hungry woman a fish to eat. But investing seamlessly across the country is like teaching people how to fish. Only the latter is sustainable.

Modi’s wife

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At last the horrible secret is out. Courtesy an Indian Express scoop, we know that Modi has a wife, whom he hasn’t seen or talked with in the last 42 years.

Apparently, they never got divorced. Jashodaben is reported to have said they only saw each other occasionally for the first three years, of which they spent only three months together, since Modi travelled a lot on Shakha business. Thereafter Modi applied himself solely to the RSS. Jashodaben, as advised by Modi, got herself educated and worked as a teacher. She never got any support from Modi, or his family, but was not ill-treated either, by him, or his family. The marriage simply died away and she returned to her brother’s home.

A tragic tale of millions of middle class, urban Indian girls, whose only future and function in the 1960’s was to get married.

How is this likely to affect the Modi electoral juggernaut? The bulk of the electorate is unlikely to bother much. Abandoning wives to their own devices, is a national habit, which whilst not celebrated, or condoned, is accepted as a possible outcome of poverty or other compulsions. This approach is aligned to traditions which prescribe socially limited roles for wives. This is evidenced by Jashodaben’s own placid acceptance of the situation; continued admiration for Modi and his spectacular “personal” achievements and a willingness to share in his glory should he invite her to do so.

The few who are horrified, view this incident as yet another piece in the puzzle which unpeels the true Modi. A socially backward looking, egotistical man, focused on self-advancement. Of course this is the correct view.

National leaders are rarely expected to be sinless unless they are American Presidents. Obama is so squeaky clean that he is unreal. His only sins are lighting up a smoke and a light hearted “selfie” at Mandela’s funeral with the attractive, blonde, Danish Prime Minister and Cameron. India is today more aligned to the American way of doing things, than ever before. The Lok Sabha elections themselves are being managed like Presidential elections. This makes the personal lives of “Prime Ministerial” candidates fair play, in the run up to the elections.

Godhra, “snoopgate” and Jashodaben are now three issues that Modi needs to publicly talk about.

After Arnab’s scoop of Rahul’s TV interview, it is time Modi gave a similar opportunity to a Hindi TV channel. Modi’s executive capabilities are well known and not all the Planning Commission’s rebuttal statistics can convince people that Bihar is a better place to live in than Gujarat.

But Godhra does need to be put to rest. Rahul’s interview confirmed the widely held view that the Congress was complicit in the 1984 riots and subsequently loathe to pursue the criminals. It is not enough for Modi to rely on the serial judicial confirmations exonerating him and the positive statistics on convictions by the court in Godhra versus the low conviction rate in 1984 . He needs to be open to a free-wheeling discussion about what he went through, whilst Godhra was happening. He should explain all that he tried to do personally to control the violence and subsequently to resettle the victims. BJP representatives have often shared this information but not hearing it from Modi and his not encouraging a discussion around minority security does not serve him well.

“Snoopgate” and now the case of Jashodaben are both broadly similar in that both relate to Modi’s personal life. Is Modi a Brahamchari? Was he personally involved in snoopgate? Why did he abandon his wife? Does he still consider himself married to her? Is he keen to have her live in Racecourse Road in a grand, happy conciliation of earlier personal inconsistencies? This is rich material for Modi to reach out in a reality show, not just to the electorate, but also to the World and allow it to understand him better.

In all this, the only real winner is Jashodaben, who comes like the role model she is; dignified; proud without being an egotist; accomplished, competent and determined. The modern World would of course disagree and call her a loser for not dragging Modi to court for abandoning her and not seeking support or even for not divorcing Modi. All these actions would have been justifiable. But Jashodaben, by refusing to beg for favors and living life on her own terms; by being self-reliant and courageous, emblemizes the best in Indian womanhood.

Modi publicly worships his mother. He would do well to worship Jashodaben too, for she loves him as much and wishes him as well.   

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