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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Misinterpreting the mandate

Narendra Modi ran the 2014 election campaign, asking for a mandate in his name; the party was secondary. In the event, he helped the BJP secure 282 seats in Parliament, an absolute majority. The last time any party singly won so many seats was in 1984 when the Congress won 404. Modi seems to have interpreted the mandate as an irreversible affirmation of his popularity as a leader, right up there with the luminaries who won India its independence, then nurtured its democracy and diversity and finally transformed it into a dynamic new player on the world stage.

There are two ways to understand Modi’s unrealistic assessment of his own popularity. One, he single-handedly took the BJP’s tally of 18 percent in the 2009 election to 31 percent from 18 percent, its traditional share of the vote. Two, Modi may have been right in interpreting that he broke through beyond the Hindutva vote to new constituencies with his message of development and governance. Clearly, though, that is a temporary surge that can disappear very quickly as Rajiv Gandhi found in 1989.

A mature leader with greater experience in national politics would have looked beyond the absolute majority. In 2004, when the Congress-led the UPA coalition to an unexpected win, Sonia Gandhi and her colleagues took the sober view that it was a rejection of the BJP’s “India Shining” narrative tacked on to the party’s baseline Hindutva agenda. Accordingly, the Congress view was the party’s communal core remained intact but new adherents, who had, by and large, voted the BJP for change, pulled out, disappointed in the lackluster performance of the Vajpayee government.

Likewise, had Modi been a more contemplative leader, he would have recognized that 69 percent of the electorate spurned both his Hindutva appeal and his promise of development and governance. Looking at a glass that is one-third full as a huge improvement over less than the traditional fifth, Modi thought he could do just about anything and get away with it. He was used to that in Gujarat, where his writ ran because the number of seats in the assembly matched the vote on the ground.

For a while it appeared as though the absolute majority in Parliament was a Teflon coating: Lalitgate, VyapamFTII, a series of faux pas in India and overseas, the loss in Bihar, the botched-up attempts to dislodge Congress governments in Arunachal and Uttarakhand, rank communalism and beef politics, JNU, Hyderabad, Pathankot, Kashmir, Uri…nothing seemed to stick. This emboldened him to swear and sneer at opponents, favour cronies and generally stride about the landscape like some colossus batting off scam and scandal, fraud and failure.

Until the demonetization, that is. On November 8, Modi’s megalomania finally went haywire. In one fell swoop, he knocked the bottom out of the nation’s money supply; with a dramatic announcement, he invalidated all 500 and 1000 rupee notes, a full 87 percent of the currency in circulation, valued at over 200 billion USD. The speech, as always cunning, contained a cadence of dog whistles that seemed to suggest that in his 30 months as prime minister, the Indian economy has become one of the bright spots in the world and in single-handedly achieving this, he had the support of 125 crore Indians.

His televised address will go down as the biggest display of chutzpah since George W Bush’s announcement of the “shock and awe” campaign against Iraq in 2003. Unlike Bush, who seemed to have become a neocons mascot and pretty much went along with the program, Modi conveyed the decision was his and his alone.

As the magnitude of the disruption became clear, Modi backtracked. A narrativewas issued suggesting the following: demonetization was devised by “concerned officials who wished to shield those in high positions in banks across the country from the consequences of the crony-oriented lending that they had been doing especially since 2006, the year when Narasimha Rao’s liberalization policy was fully substituted by the UPA into a faux Nehruvian economic policy that combined Fabian socialism with Wall Street ways.”

In other words, holdovers from the corrupt UPA are responsible. “Prime Minister Modi was presented with the issue in such a way that turning down the scheme was out of the question,” the narrative quoted “senior officials” as saying. It goes on to add that Modi “raised several queries, especially on the impact on the common man and only when it was conveyed to him that steps were being taken to minimize hardship did he agree to the measure.”

So there you have it. It’s all the doing of the corrupt UPA that still has its talons hooked into the bureaucracy. It’s not clear from this story if the Modi government plans to prosecute former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former Finance Minister P Chidambaram and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi for promulgating this draconian edict.

As the shock and awe receded to reveal huge lines at banks and ATMs, millions of harassed citizens and dozens of deaths, it became apparent the demonetization was flawed. Certainly, the implementation was disastrous; increasingly, however, the intent has come into question. Modi needs to answer for this cynical, ill-conceived and mean-minded “masterstroke.” What are the reasons for it: to end the black money menace? To deal with counterfeit currency? To spike terrorist funding? To speed transition to a cashless economy?

If we accept Modi’s assertion that the demonetization was aimed at bringing black money into the system, there are questions of his government’s track record. With his photo writ large over advertisements, Modi has claimed that in two-and-a-half years, his government has brought black money worth 1.25 lakh crore rupees “out in the open.” This is braggadocio considering that in its last two years, the UPA government netted 1.31 lakh crore. This is just the kind of statistical fact checkthat people have started to make. It’s clear that other than his core supporters, no one is taking Modi’s assertions at face value anymore.

He may have the support of 282 MPs but has just 31 percent of the vote. Shouldn’t he have had wide consultation? Shouldn’t he have taken the opposition into confidence? After all, everyone is on the same side as Indians first and the Opposition would have supported any move that is in the larger national interest. The reason he didn’t, leads to questions about intent. Such a massive disruption should have been planned better. That it wasn’t, leads to questions about competence.

Just 31 percent vote share, dubious intent and evident ineptness are reasons for the nationwide protest that was reported all over the world as a massive uprising against demonetization. Most credible analysts believe that such a huge blow to the economy, to citizens will cripple India for years.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com, December 3, 2016.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The old priviligentsia and the new vulgarians

At a boarding gate in Delhi’s chaotic Terminal 1, an Armani-clad young man bristling with the accoutrements of wealth: flashy phone, big watch, designer sunglasses, tried to push past me. “Excuse me, we’re all going to board the same aircraft; it will not leave without you,” I admonished him. He stared back uncomprehendingly, insolently. It was not language that was his problem; what he didn’t understand was why I was not letting him through. The civility of queuing up seemed to be completely beyond his experience.

This young man is a representative of the newly emergent middle class that the early decades of 21st-century India have thrown up: crass, belligerent and reckless. This new middle class is the polar opposite of the privileged class that presided over socialist India: snobbish, full of intrigue and cautious. There’s not much to choose between the two. The new one is vile; the other was servile. The new middle class is just as hideous as the privilegentsia. I call them the vulgarians.

The privilegentsia was bred on elitism: the right connections, the right schools and Oxbridge. The vulgarian instinct is to push and shove; and when push comes to shove, to buy their way out. Similarly, while mouthing homilies about the rule of law, privilegentsia held themselves above the law. They never waited their turn for anything and without the slightest bit of embarrassment bent rules, flouted regulations and scorned the law. The new vulgarians make no such pretence: they seem to believe everything has a price: schools, colleges, hospitals, and more worryingly: bureaucrats, policemen and judges.

During privilegentsia raj, India had to reckon with parasitic elites who drained state coffers, extorted usurious taxes and provided almost no public goods or services in return. Under their dispensation, ordinary citizens were cruelly ignored: no power, water, public transport, or roads, no airports, telephones, jobs, no primary education, housing, public healthcare and sanitation.
The minuscule unprivileged middle class was targeted by privilegentsia policies and in many cases, driven into exile in the United States, Canada and Britain. Those who couldn’t emigrate witnessed rapidly declining conditions: famines, civil disturbances, war, scarcity, suspension of civil rights under the Emergency proclamation of 1975 and finally total national bankruptcy, which forced the government to fly out the country’s gold reserves in secret and mortgage them to the Bank of England.

Forced to free the shackled economy, the government scrapped industrial licensing and numerous other controls. In the process, it unleashed the long-suppressed entrepreneurial spirit of the people which has transformed the economy. From being pitied as a ‘basket case’, India quickly gained admiration as an emerging world power with a dynamic economy. With the annual GDP growth rate doubling to 7-9 percent, millions were lifted out of poverty. From being an apostrophe in the demographic profile, the middle class burgeoned and global business rushed in to cater to it while local businesses shaped up to provide quality goods and responsive service.

Sadly, post-independence India’s long neglected education system inhibited the transformation; it has achieved less than what it should have. Under privilegentsia raj, primary education was neglected and higher education became a screening process to weed out “people like them”. Thus, the ordained ones went on to Ivy leagues and Oxbridge to return to exalted positions within the privilegentsia. The others, who had no connections in the elite segment, either went abroad to seek their fortunes or struggled through an irrelevant higher education system to become rabble-rousers for political parties.

On the other hand, the IITs and IIMs produced engineers and managers whose skills were far too advanced to be accommodated in the makeshift Ambassador car economy. Consequently, these heavily subsidised elite institutions became feeders to the global economy. All the Indian success stories in global business trumpeted in the pink papers are outcomes of the privilegentsia’s misbegotten priorities.

In sum, free India offered three types of ‘education’. The first was the classic Oxbridge type whose quality didn’t matter because you came back to an exalted place in the elite establishment. The other was technical training where you had no place in India but found a perch in multinational corporations, universities or other institutes of higher learning in the West. Now you have the third variety: of trained personnel focused on specific cog-in-the-wheel jobs. Undergirding this is a vast pool of illiterates, the cannon fodder of India’s increasingly confrontational politics.

This unfortunate outcome is the result of continuing neglect of primary education, politicisation of secondary education, and usurpation of higher education by a technical and managerial aspirational class. At a time of an existential challenge to the very idea of India, the need is for a growing mass of the population to be schooled in the liberal arts. Illiterates, semi-literates and technocrats are simply not up to the challenge of nation-building.

(This article appeared in Education World, November 8, 2016)

Monday, November 7, 2016

Trump or Hillary, American politics will never be the same again

According to Christian belief, there is an afterlife. But first you have to die. That is roughly what Donald J Trump, Republican presidential nominee, tells his audiences.

"The system is rigged. It works against you. You are the fall guy, victim of big finance, international trade, unchecked immigration, violent crime... you name it. I can fix it."

But first you have to vote for him. Just as most people wouldn’t kill themselves to test the afterlife proposition, not many American are buying into Trump’s airy-fairy promises.

In the waning hours of the most bizarre presidential campaign in US political history, Latino and African American voters are rallying to vote against him; it’s pretty much the same for women. These are the major groups the Republican candidate has insulted with racist and misogynist remarks on the campaign trail.

One of the main reasons Trump was able to come so far also has to do with the systematic weakening of the liberal hold on the American imagination. It began in the 1960s, when Senator Barry Goldwater first hoisted the conservative standard, embracing a hawkish foreign policy and challenging the liberal agenda of social welfare and civil rights.

The Goldwater 1964 campaign was met with an aggressive response by the Democratic Party, the mainstay being a commercial that preyed on growing American paranoia about nuclear Armageddon and effectively destroyed the Goldwater candidacy.

In the following 1968 presidential election, Richard Nixon became only the second Republican elected to the Presidency since 1932; the first was Dwight D Eisenhower in 1952. Eisenhower, the war hero, won the Republican nomination as a moderate, vanquishing Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who was supported by the party’s conservative wing.

During his six years in office, Nixon did not do much to further the conservative cause, first getting embroiled in the divisive Vietnam War, and later, in the Watergate scandal.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the conservative agenda was revived by Ronald Reagan and persisted through the decade. The single-term presidency of George H W Bush got caught up in the war for the liberation of Kuwait that had been invaded by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. It paved the way for Bill Clinton, whose two terms were marred by impeachment proceedings in Congress, having to do with an alleged dalliance with an intern, Monica Lewinsky.

The two terms that George W Bush served in office were eight years of intense ideological polarisation, which saw the rise of an extreme neoconservative movement, the religious Right and the populist Tea Party.

The liberal agenda receded on the domestic front, while on the international front, a militant, shock-and-awe nationalism in response to the attacks of 9/11 dragged the US into messy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the two terms of Barack Obama, though there were important initiatives, both globally and at home, the liberal agenda continued to flounder under the onslaught of uncompromising Republican partisanship. An immensely popular president, Obama could not get his nominee to the Supreme Court to be heard, leave alone confirmed, by Congress.

As such, the solid liberal base got eroded in the Democratic Party, leading to the emergence of Bernie Sanders as a major challenger for the party nomination in 2016.

With an avowedly socialist agenda, Sanders divided the party into true believers (his adoring faction) and workaday supporters of Hillary Clinton.

By the time Clinton sealed the nomination, doubts had arisen that the loyalty of Sanders’ supporters may not be necessarily transferred to Clinton. This left a gaping hole in her campaign.

On the Republican side, the Bush inheritance saw the party fall into the clutches of extremists, replacing mainstream conservative themes of fiscal rectitude and globalisation with dubious themes of bigotry and isolationism.

Trump fell upon the riven party and launched a campaign that plumbed the depths of abuse and violence. Yet, miraculously, he convinced voters he was capable of winning.

When Trump is finally defeated, Republicans will be staring at a massive overhaul of the party’s organisation and reputation. What happens to country-club suburban membership that is typical of the party and to the "lock her up" less educated, poor and blue-collar whites that have emerged, egged on by Trump’s reckless exhortations?

What will be the new mainstream? Is the party doomed to fall into the hands of bigots and nativists?

On the Democratic side, will Hillary’s win bring the Sanders radicals to her side? Or will she have to contend with incessant sniping from the left of the party spectrum?

If she wins handsomely, she may have some breathing room before the ideological sniping begin. The question is whether the new normal will be considerably left of center under the influence of Sanders.

Either way, there is no doubt that American politics has been shaken up like never before and it will take time for new majorities to be established in both parties.

Is there a lesson for India in the US political maelstrom? Actually, there are striking similarities.

Modi captured the BJP at the Goa conclave in May 2013, leaving the old guard agape and soon after, installed his comrade-in-arms Amit Shah as BJP chief.

Just as they did in Gujarat, they sidelined just about every power center in the saffron party. In the process of elevating themselves to such rarefied heights, they appear to have lost touch with political reality and appear to be lurching around to find solid ground while using the sovereign power of government to stifle dissent and opposition.

On the opposite end, just as there is Hillary Clinton in the US, there is in India as well a member of a famous family that’s been around since the freedom struggle.

The Modi-Shah duo played a huge role in discrediting the Gandhis but now must face a sustained challenge from them. This is largely because Modi’s personality cult helped win a parliamentary majority but is clearly of no use in running a government. Their panic is palpable, their actions condemnable and their prospects dim.

In the US, the equivalent of Modi appears set to lose. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton could become not just the first woman president but the first wife to follow her husband to the White House.

(This article appeared in www.dailyo.in, November 7, 2016).