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Book review: Tharoor, An era of darkness

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Shashi Tharoor’s latest book originated in a debate at Oxford on whether Britain should pay reparations to its erstwhile colonies. The YouTube clip of Tharoor systematically demolishing the opposition, his brilliance evident in the thrust and parry of debate, has been watched by more than three million viewers. But the author says he felt a “moral urgency” in informing the “layman and students” in India and in Britain, about the “horrors” of colonialism and hence this book.

The book is conveniently divided into eight chapters. Unusually, each is virtually self contained though each focuses on specific topics, as for example, the extent of the loot; dividing, rather than unifying India; subverting Indian diversity in ersatz modern British institutions; the policy of divide and rule; the absence of enlightened despotism et al. Whilst this stratagem of comprehensive rendition adds to the length, it facilitates selective, speed reading. There are also 295 helpful references to other works—both Indian and foreign, a veritable treasure trove.

The Raj – long on loot short on local benefits?

The author deploys the familiar nationalist tactic of talking up the wealth and virtues of pre-British India, while playing down the inadequacies of much of post-independence India, to book-end the “horrors” of the Raj. The benefits from the Raj are dismissed as few and that too, unintended, barring the development of a pan-India modern press and media; development of canal irrigation; scattered electrification of towns; and of course -the railways. Oddly, the planning and building of regulated, urban settlements for the British, expanded versions of which, subsequently, also became the refuge of India’s political, business and professional elite and in less oppulent versions for India’s middle class, goes unacknowledged.

The “loot” neither began nor ended with the Raj 

The litany of colonial woes is expectedly long. Nothing attracts instant attention more than stories of loot and rape inserted early on in a book. The British drained 8 per cent of India’s GDP as per Paul Baran’s 1957 estimate. Annual outflows are separately estimated by William Digby at 4.2 billion British pounds during the 19th century. Extrapolating this trend onto the first half of the 20th century, the additional outflow was 2 billion British pounds. Huge as this cumulative sum seems, consider that Indians themselves are estimated to have amassed $500 billion of illegal wealth abroad in less than seven decades of India’s independence as per the CBI in 2012. Consider also, that against the less than 10,000 British subjects employed in India, the Report of the Indian States Committee of 1929 lists a total of 562 princely states, each with a retinue of vast numbers of relatives of the ruling family living off the state treasury. There is no corresponding account of how much these effete rulers and their families cost the ordinary Indian.

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Indian Maharajas delighted in maintaining humongous households and extravagant habits – and why not, since the aam admi paid for it all.

Yes, the British used India as a source of capital and raw material for their industries, which stilted Indian industrial development. Yes, they helmed organised commerce in India via the Managing Agencies. But just as surely, Jamshedji Tata’s dream of establishing a modern steel mill saw fruition because British India guaranteed the off-take of steel and built the railway to link the steel mill with raw materials and markets, thereby making it India’s first Public Private Partnership.

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Jamshedpur, 1912: The first steel ingot is rolled 

The author cites the regulations forcing Indian mills to produce only British Specification Steel as a low stratagem to make them uncompetitive. But it could also be viewed as the first step towards internationalising standards in Indian industry. Not producing to international standards was our failing till we liberalised industry and opened our markets to competition in 1991.

The Raj was neither elightened nor did it serve a moral purpose

Of course, the British, as a colonial community, were rapacious, openly racist and self-serving. But the evidence is thin that they were any worse than the long line of Indian rulers that preceded them. Admittedly, it mattered where you lived. The princely states of south and west India were generally better managed and more progressive than those in north and eastern India.

Colonial consequences: The death of institutionalised privilege & rise of the new middle class

Tharoor’s view that neither the political unity of India nor the adoption of democratic norms was a direct outcome of the pan-India political architecture of the Raj is inadequately backed up with evidence. The mere fact that Arabs refer to all Indians as “Hindi” is hardly evidence that pre-British India was already integrated. By this logic, all those living south of the Vindhyas are “Madrasis” because that is what ignorant North Indians called them and all of Arabia is one because we refer to people from there as “Arabs”.

The author ignores the greatest accomplishments of the Raj—the decimation of the old order of inherited privileges and rights; kindling of the spirit of democracy and incubation of the great Indian middle class via government jobs in the railways, the army and in civil governance.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, by abolishing privy purses in 1971, ended what the British began—the consigning of India’s numerous Maharajas to the dustbin of history. By institutionalising the common law and opening up vacancies—admittedly too few—at the very top, the Raj inspired millions of young, ordinary Indians to aspire to be literate and professionally qualified. That three generations of Indians had to serve as clerks to British superiors, not necessarily more accomplished than themselves, is a regrettable but possibly an inevitable consequence of gradual transition.

The Indian Constitution – equity, liberty and inclusion

The Indian Constitution is a direct outcome of the groundwork done over the previous four decades, since the Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909, to implement consultative democracy by including the professional middle class in the process. Ask any Dalit, backward caste, tribe or other minority and they will ascribe their liberation from traditional shackles to the modernist, reformist social and economic thinking which emerged, possibly as a nationalist response, to British rule.

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Babasaheb Ambedkar: Iconic messiah of dalit inclusion

It is not for nothing that Babasaheb Ambedkar wore a suit and a tie rather than a dhoti. For him the suit was a symbol of liberation from the oppressive rule of India’s traditional, upper caste elite and the Constitution was his guide to a more equitable future. Mayawati, Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Modi are the organic outcomes of the much-needed, albeit self-serving, prising open, by the British, of India’s dormant, traditional cleavages—a black box of competing religions, castes and regions. Consolidation of these traditional identities at the national level via democratic institutions is what has changed the social landscape of India.

Sans the Raj – either a balkanised Hindustan or Red India

Tharoor speculates that if only the East India Company had not been as successful as it was, India would have found its own way to modernity. But what if we had remained hopelessly Balkanised instead? Why would we have not succumbed instead to the romance of Communism and gone the Chinese way? Would bloody revolution, social upheaval, the end of private enterprise, de-legalisation of religion and cultural diversity, unrelieved even by the constitutional promise of human rights and freedoms, have been better?

Contempt for the “box wallah” and the bania -Colonial hangover or the convenience of ersatz socialism? 

Tharoor speciously links our inward looking, anti-business attitude in the first four decades of independence till 1991, to our bad experience with the East India Company. This looks awfully like a red herring. It would be more instructive instead to examine the role played by our ineffective brand of ersatz intrusive socialism, used by the elite as a cloak, to retain domestic privilege. The ordinary Indian has looked westward for higher education and advancement, primarily because the professional choices at home have been too narrow and the glass ceilings too low.

Even the author accepts that the British Raj was more efficient than the domestic institutions it replaced. He is right that the rapacity of the Raj was exaggerated, precisely because its extractive capacity was greater than the loosely regulated Princely States. Consider the establishment of land records and the uniform and regular assessment and collection of revenue.

High taxes, yes but also efficient systems and records

Tharoor bemoans the high rates of taxes and the resultant penury for landowners since the burden of taxation fell on land and not trade. Yes, indeed. But that very system also bequeathed an embedded practice of recording individual property rights and updating transactions thereof, which is fundamental for development of private enterprise and for access to bank finance. The British left us with a treasure chest of land tenure, revenue and demographic data and an entire community of rule-bound “babus”. Better this than the institutional anarchy many other developing countries faced, post-independence.

Tharoor packs in masses of information and opinions around the British Empire in India. But it is all done in a grand, Quixotic style of tilting at windmills. The book is a hard-hitting, one-sided debate and caution is advised in succumbing to its mesmerising message, that the Gora (white man) is to blame.

Adapted from the authors book riview in Swarajyamas December 2016 http://swarajyamag.com/magazine/tilting-at-windmills

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Bleeding heart liberals are social hypocrites

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Graphic credit: chloesimonevaldary.com

Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage — playing in Mumbai and Delhi — makes us laugh at ourselves by stripping bare the self-serving hypocrisy underlying socially acceptable roles. Bleeding-heart Indian social liberals would do well to see themselves in the mirror via this play.

Admittedly, we humans must get beyond our basically brutish nature. But the first step to doing this is not to be in denial about the brute within us. Narendra Modi baiters are particularly delusional about themselves.

For them Mr Modi is forever damned because of the Gujarat riots in 2002 and because he refuses to atone at the altar of “secularism” that Indira Gandhi embedded in the Constitution in 1976 along with the subsidiary altar of “socialism”.

We have, since 1990, correctly turned a Nelson’s eye to the latter as has the rest of the world. But liberals fear that both the right (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party) and the left (communists), are so committed to their own political “ideology” that they aim to substitute liberal democracy with state authoritarianism.

The left has made itself redundant in India, so the real threat to liberalism is from the Modi government. The examples used to illustrate the increasingly “heavy hand” of the state are the clamp down on NGOs — Teesta Setalvad and Greenpeace; the attempt by the executive to reclaim the power to appoint higher judiciary; and current administrative practices like the “gag order” by home minister Rajnath Singh on officials hobnobbing with the press.

Are, then, Prime Minister Modi’s intentions subversive?

First, let’s consider the alleged attempt to misuse official authority to muzzle NGO critics.

Misuse of authority can only be assessed in two ways — either via the judicial process or via loss of public support, as happened resoundingly in 1977. Indira Gandhi was damned by the judicial process before being damned by the electorate post-Emergency.

In Mr Modi’s case, no adverse judicial outcome taints him. His significant popular mandate is likely to be re-endorsed in the Bihar state elections later this year. The Opposition has a majority in the Rajya Sabha and the judiciary remains generously tolerant towards public interest litigants. Both checks are working well. With respect to the “gag order”, post the RTI legislation, access to public information is institutionalised. Yes, news hounds can no longer get “breaking news” easily, but that is no great loss.

Second, when was India ever a social, liberal democracy? Mahatma Gandhi was a social liberal, like Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but the tactics he used show that the country was not. That is why he mobilised the majority via religious means — bhajans and kirtans.

By preferring Nehru as the de facto Congress leader to Jinnah (who was never much of a hard-core Muslim), the Mahatma bowed to his political assessment that the Hindu majority would not accept anyone except a co-religionist as their leader. This was good realpolitik and has been the broad political trend since Independence.

After Independence, none of the national parties — the Congress, the Janata Dal, leave alone the BJP — have ever had anyone other than a Hindu as their supreme political leader. The only recent exception is Sonia Gandhi of the Congress. But even her links into politics are exceptionally pucca, upper caste Hindu. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is meant to be areligious, has had only one non-Hindu — a Sikh, Harkishan Singh Surjeet — as its general secretary from 1992 to 2005.

Indians feel comfortable being led by those who are from their own social group. For national issues religion and caste are the bonding factors. For state level elections, caste is the major factor; at the village level it is sub-caste or clan. This is hardly a characteristic of a liberal democracy.

The liberal political elite do a great disservice by spinning the myth of a liberal India. A more honest assessment would be of India as a seething cauldron of competing social groups held in balance by quasi-colonial state power. Recognising oneself, as I said earlier, is the first step to reconciliation and reform.

In a democracy, numbers count. To protect itself, minorities either have to increase their numbers, as the Hispanics and blacks are doing in the US, or they have to stay below the radar while aligning broadly with the majority goals. The US, a land of immigrants, has no qualms about requiring everyone to be American — in language and in culture, such as it is. France is even less tolerant of cultural or linguistic deviance. In comparison, India adjusts to linguistic, religious and cultural diversity. But till the Hindu population is in a majority they shall dictate the music to be played, as they have done since 1947.

India has remained an “administered” democracy of the colonial style — the spirit is scarce but bells and whistles abound — albeit better administered than it was pre-Independence. Prime Minister Modi’s moves are merely a muscular rendition of what all directly elected Prime Ministers did prior to 1989. Thereafter, coalition governments diminished the stature of the Prime Minister, who, in terms of formal powers, is more powerful than the American President. Those who have been socialised only during the last two decades of “coalition dharma”, when listless governance was the norm, need not be alarmed at the vigorous use of the available constitutional powers.

Any real democracy merely reflects the norms and aspirations of the people. This is the central conundrum of the Arab Spring that ended up fanning radical Islam instead of modernising North Africa and West Asia.

Urban folks worry too much about the seeming frailty of Indian democracy. They also exaggerate the role played by the media, civil society and intelligentsia as the bulwarks against its demise. The real custodians of democracy are the enormous variety of vertically and horizontally arrayed social groups, each negotiating to safeguard its own special interests and societal norms. By their very presence they illustrate that there is a competitive market for political power in India. Unsurprisingly, as in any market, bargaining power in a democracy is with the majority. But every market has to be regulated to be efficient and equitable. That is what Parliament and the judiciary are expected to do in our system. If democracy ever dies, it is these two institutions which will be responsible, not the executive or the people of India.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age July 29, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/hypocrisy-socialist-liberals-635

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