Facebook Badge

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Can a Barack Obama rise in India?

Regrettably the answer is in the negative.

Indian politics is feudal, driven by divisive agendas of caste, ethnicity and religion. It is also nepotistic, fueled by ties of kinship. The political class has no ideology, except knee-jerk responses evoked by flawed and leftover notions of socialism, secularism and nonalignment. The system that has grown out of the cloud of an opaque democracy is chaotic and plutocratic. It exploits the twin sores of poverty and disparity. Politicians tend to be kleptomaniacs, who seek rent for providing governance by exception. Their supporters are primarily favour seekers; in this ethical morass, conformity and sycophancy are valued over innovation and competence.

The amorphous world of Indian politics is currently in focus because state elections are at hand. Driving around my assembly district, I see newly-established offices of the Congress, the BJP and the BSP. Just one look into them and it becomes evident that they serve as a hangout for unemployed, uneducated youth, who sit around hoping for a handout of few rupees to get them through the day. In sharp contrast, American campaign offices are a productive buzz of volunteers and party staffers, churning out voter lists, poll data and demographic profiles. Someone is in charge and the field office is responsible for getting the vote out in favor of the party candidate.

Thus, Barack Obama came out of nowhere, a young mixed-race person from a broken home, the son of an immigrant Kenyan father and a peripatetic white mother from Kansas. He has lived in Hawaii, Indonesia and Midwest USA; attended the finest universities on the East Coast and graduated with high honours in political science and law. He taught at the University of Chicago Law School and then spurned an academic career to become a community organiser in the city’s impoverished and mostly black South Side. Over the years, he rose through the ranks of city and state politics to be elected a US senator in 2004.

In 2007, he announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States and launched a superb campaign focused on the message of change. He used information technology to build a network of support groups all over the country and to raise funds, in small denominations; in the event, he accumulated the largest ever campaign treasury in the history of American presidential elections. He exudes coolness, compassion and an intellectual brilliance that won him not just votes but the deep admiration of youth, Latinos, women and blacks. Indeed Obama fired the imagination of the whole world. As such, when he is inaugurated in January 2009, he will be America’s first global president.

The stark difference between the grass-roots operations and the political aspirations of the world’s two largest democracies speaks of the difference in governance. In the US, governance tends to be positive and enlightened. Roads are well maintained; there is round-the-clock power and water (that you can drink straight from the tap). There are excellent government schools and well-stocked community libraries. Local governments operate and maintain parks and recreation services. They also provide a variety of social services for the aged and the handicapped as also efficient mass transport.

In India, there is little or no governance. Except for Lutyens Delhi, home of the power elite, most of India is rubble-strewn, unkempt and unfinished; pocked with inadequate roads, erratic power and water supply and virtually no law enforcement, let alone education or health care. The random manner in which civic authorities operate shows how kleptocracy works. Roads are patched rather than re-done; of a 10 km road approved for funding, just half gets built and the rest remains ragged and jagged. A multiplicity of bus stops is set up in some places and none at all in others. Central verges start to collapse immediately after they are finished.

Outsourced as it is to an increasingly rusty ‘steel frame’ bureaucracy, governance has very little to do with the delivery of public goods and services. Instead, it has become a muscular exercise to plunder money from the public treasury and to keep the citizenry at bay. Even a third-rate politician like Mayawati travels in an envelope of ‘Black Cat’ security cover, directed less at personal safety than at making a statement of power to her impoverished dalit supporters. In her warped understanding of politics, Mayawati seeks to impress her base with such over-the-top displays. “Look at me,” she seems to say, “I’m as powerful as upper-caste rulers, and I can do things for you.”

Meanwhile, swarms of corrupt and venal bureaucrats at all levels of government excavate age-old laws and regulations with a view to extorting money from citizens. Not too long ago, some of them visited my office and informed the manager that on the basis of something done by a long-dead former owner, the building was in violation some code and therefore illegal. We haven’t heard from them since but they may well have “opened a file,” giving them the option to harass us whenever they choose. Maybe they need to fund a wedding in the family; or send a son to an overseas university or whatever. Nobody in the political world can rein in democratic India’s marauding bureaucrats. That’s because no politician even thinks of governance. It’s all about power and pelf, unmindful of the citizenry.

No, a Barack Obama cannot rise in India. A Nero, a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao…maybe.

an edited version of this column appeared in education world, december 2008

The Failure of the Political Class

The political class is like the public sector, which seeks to run a modern enterprise in a bureaucratic fashion that died abruptly with the Soviet Union. Likewise, politicians and bureaucrats and their cohorts in the academy try to operate a modern nation-state with command and control techniques more suited to the colonial era.

This contradiction was outlined in stark relief by the terrorist strikes in Bombay. Not even the most modern nation-state could have anticipated the strikes; however, the key is the response. Right or wrong, governments in the United States and Western Europe responded swiftly. Certainly in the US there has been not even a minor incident of terror since 9/11. Now compare that to the dithering, uncoordinated response of the Indian authorities. A cogent approach might, at the very least, have contained the number of casualties.

It took nearly ten hours for commandos to show up. Plus the police proved once again unable to do the simplest job of sanitizing the area. Instead, you had crowds of curious onlookers and the inevitable television crews and reporters. What’s more, television reporters, in their eagerness for “Breaking News,” were oblivious of the impact that their coverage could have, especially in keeping the terrorists informed about the commandos’ tactics.

Plus various spokesmen fed the media with information about police plans, government strategy and commando tactics in a random manner. It was clear that no one was in charge: not the union home minister, not the state chief minister, not the state home minister, not the NSG chief, not the police commissioner, not the state and central information ministries…it was a comprehensive failure of governance.

The question arises: could politicians and bureaucrats done any better? Of course, they could have. So why didn’t they? Why did it take the state chief minister so long to grasp the true nature of the attacks? Why did his deputy, who also serves as home minister, downplay the magnitude of the problem? Why did the center take so long to wake up: what was the national security adviser doing? What was the home minister doing? A National Disaster Management Authority office was established recently. Was this not a disaster included in its terms of reference?

Nevertheless, let’s not play the blame game; instead let us analyze why things went so terribly awry. My 27 years of intimate acquaintance with the political process leads to the following answers to questions raised above:

1. The position of a politician in any party is vicarious. Except for the supreme leader, no one is secure. This puts a premium on sycophancy that cascades through the ranks and explains why politicians wear rings, undergo elaborate religious rituals and are deeply superstitious. Their survival is not on the basis of performance or leadership; if he or she should in some way displease the leadership, it’s curtains. Neither chief minister Vilas Deshmukh nor any of the Patils (central and state home ministers) was capable of getting anything done except ceremonial posturing that in their minds would please their overlords. In such a culture, politics becomes process rather than goal oriented. Meaningless gestures and flatulent rhetoric are all you get. Hence Deshmukh’s “terror tourism” trip to the Taj with Bollywood celebrities or Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s gift of money to the family of a slain security officer. Compare that to 9/11, when the New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani took charge and directed the response.

2. National priorities are much lower in the politician’s hierarchy of values. Every situation he faces is judged on the basis of whether it strengthens or weakens his position. In addition to sycophancy, the political culture celebrates opportunism. This explains why the chief minister of a neighboring state rushed to Bombay and the Oberoi, where he swaggered before the assembled media, charging the government with failure and calling for new laws and what have you. If ever Modi was stripped of his recent image building sheen, this was it. He was shown up for what he is: a small-time opportunist with an agenda that is clearly too large for him. Meanwhile opposition leader L K Advani, with his refusal to support the government, wrote his obituary as a possible prime minister. Contrast that to solidarity shown by American and European politicians in the face of similar terror attacks.

3. Innovation and ideology are an intrinsic part of modern political cultures. Barack Obama steamrollered his way to the presidency of the United States with a high-tech campaign and a message of change. In India, Mayawati is feted for her ability to rabble rouse among the impoverished and oppressed Dalit castes, wearing diamond rings and disclosing mind-boggling assets. The BJP, with its pursuit of a communal ant-Muslim agenda, offers no real message other than hate and deceit. The failure of the party to emerge as a center right alternative is unforgivable and speaks to a lack of vision. On the other hand, the Congress is hopelessly paralyzed by various competing factions including a socialist left that seeks to return to the days of Indira Gandhi; feudal groups based on caste and religious affiliation; and a ruling progressive section that is held in the check by the various factions. The result is reform by stealth, a hesitant foreign policy and mindless populism.

Sapped by such a cancerous culture, the political class was simply incapable of responding to the terrorist assault on Bombay.

an edited version of this column appeared in the times of india, december 4, 2008