Rahul Gandhi is angry again. Yesterday, he barged into a press conference being addressed by Congress general secretary Ajay Maken and announced that the ordinance passed by the Union Cabinet to protect convicted legislators from complete disqualification as “complete nonsense”.
The Supreme Court had ruled on July 10, that an MP or an MLA, if convicted by a court in a criminal offence with a jail sentence of two years or more, would be immediately disqualified. On September 24, the Union Cabinet cleared the the Representation of the People (Amendment and Validation) Ordinance, 2013 to negate the Supreme Court ruling.
This ordinance allows convicted MPs and MLAs to continue in office to the condition that their appeal is admitted by a higher court within a period of 90 days and their conviction is stayed.
Rahul Gandhi felt that this was incorrect and said “I’ll tell you what my opinion on the ordinance is. It’s complete nonsense. It should be torn up and thrown away. That is my personal opinion.”
“I am interested in what the Congress is doing and what our government is doing. That is why what our government has done as far as this ordinance is concerned is wrong,” he went on to add, embarrassing the Prime Minister and his cabinet of ministers, which had cleared the ordinance only a few days back, in the process.
A lot of analysis has happened since yesterday afternoon, when the Gandhi family scion said what he did. Some people have suggested that “Rahul has his heart in the right place”. Some others have said “what is wrong with calling rubbish, rubbish”. A television anchor known for his loud and aggressive ways called it the “victory of the people”. And still some others have asked the obvious question “how could the government have cleared the ordinance without the consent of Rahul or his mother Sonia Gandhi?”
On the whole, Rahul’s decision to call the ordinance “nonsense” and something that should be “torn and thrown away” is being projected as a surprise. While nobody could have predicted what Rahul Gandhi did yesterday, at the same time this can’t be termed as a surprise.
Rahul Gandhi over the last few years has made a habit of raking up issues to embarrass the government and his party, by saying something controversial and then disappearing. In July 2008, Rahul visited the house of Kalavati Bandurkar, in the village Jalka in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Her husband had committed suicide in December 2005, hit by crop failure and debt. He left her with a debt of Rs 1 lakh. After visiting her, Rahul highlighted her plight in Parliament and then quickly forgot about her. It was an embarrassment for the Congress Party given that it ruled the state of Maharashtra. Since bringing her into the limelight, Kalavati’s daughter and a son in law have also committed suicide.
In October 2008, while addressing girl students at a resort near Jim Corbett National Park, Rahul Gandhi referred to “politics” as a closed system in India. “If I had not come from my family, I wouldn’t be here. You can enter the system either through family or friends or money. Without family, friends or money, you cannot enter the system. My father was in politics. My grandmother and great grandfather were in politics. So, it was easy for me to enter politics. This is a problem. I am a symptom of this problem. I want to change it.,” he said. Where is the change? When was the last time the Congress party had an election for the post of its president? If the top post of the party is not democratic, how can the party be expected to be democratic?
On February 5, 2010, Rahul came to Mumbai and travelled in a local train both on the western line (From Andheri to Dadar) and the central line (from Dadar to Ghatkopar). A lot of song and dance was made about him defying the Shiv Sena, but nothing constructive came out of it. The local trains continue to burst to the seems.
On May 11, 2011, Rahul riding pillion on a bike managed to enter the Bhatta-Parsaul villages in Uttar Pradesh, giving the district administration a slip, and challenging the might of Mayawati, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
The villagers in Bhatta-Parsaul were protesting against the acquisition of land by the state government and the protests had turned violent. A few days later Rahul went to meet the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to appraise him of the situation.
After coming out of the meeting he told reporters “The issue here is a more fundamental one with regard to these villages in particular and a large number of villages in UP down the Agra highway, where state repression is being used, where people are being murdered…quite severe atrocities are taking place there….There is a set of 74 (mounds of) ashes there with dead bodies inside. Everybody in the village knows it. We can give you pictures. Women have been raped, people have been thrashed. Houses have been destroyed.” These were serious allegations, but nothing ever came out of them.
On August 26, 2011, Rahul gave a speech in favour of Lok Pal in the Lok Sabha, where he said “why not elevate the debate and fortify the Lok Pal by making it a Constitutional body accountable to Parliament like the Election Commission of India?” That was the last we heard of Lok Pal. Meanwhile, Anna Hazare, continues to threaten to go on another hunger strike if the bill is not passed by the Parliament soon.
More recently, on April 4, 2013, Rahul addressed the Confederation of Indian Industries. It was a 75 minute speech, and one of the things he recounted about was about a journey he made a few years back on the Lokmanya Tilak express from Gorakhpur to Mumbai (Lokmanya Tilak is a station in Mumbai at which many long distance trains coming from the Eastern part of the country terminate). “I spent a large part of the Thirty Six hour journey moving across the train and talking to travellers – youngsters, weary families, and migrants moving from the dust of Gorakhpur to the glitter of Mumbai. Took us Thirty Six hours. It is called an Express!”
Some time later in the speech he said: “I am a pilot. I learnt to fly in the United States, I came back. I wanted to convert my license. So I went to the DGCA and I asked what do I have to do. They gave me the curriculum, I opened the book. A large section in the book talks about how to drop mail from aero-planes. How many of you are getting your mail dropped from airplanes in the sky?…And it’s not only in pilot training, it’s everywhere. Look at our text books, open them out. Most of the stuff is not really relevant to what they are going to do.”
The things that Rahul said were not only an embarrassment for the current government. The fact that Indian Railways takes so much time or our education system is not up to the mark, has not happened overnight. The degeneration has happened over a period of time, meaning Rahul’s great-grandfather(Jawahar Lal Nehru), his grandmother (Indira Gandhi), his uncle (Sanjay Gandhi), his father(Rajiv Gandhi) and his mother(Sonia Gandhi), who have been de-facto heads of government at various points of time since India’s independence, are responsible for it.
But then we all know that? How does just pointing out the obvious help anybody? Where are the solutions? As The Economist wrote after Rahul’s CII speech “Gandhi could have spelled out two or three specific measures, ideally in some detail, that he would support—for example, getting an Indian-wide goods-and-services tax accepted; promoting investment in retail or other industries; or devising a means by which infrastructure could be built much quicker. If he were really brave, he might have set out thoughts on ending bureaucratic uncertainty over corruption, or on land reform.”
But all Rahul seems to do is hit and run. He says something on an issue, embarrasses his party, his government or his ancestors and moves on. Rahul Gandhi is not a serious politician. He is in politics because he cannot do anything else or is expected to continue the family tradition and keep the flag flying.
One can only speculate on the reasons for his lack of interest, given his reclusive nature. From his father and grandmother being assassinated to the fact that the future generations are no longer interested in what their forefathers built, be it business or politics.
I am more tempted to go with the latter reason. Rasheed Kidwai, makes this point in the new edition of his book 24 Akbar Road. As he writes “It is said that the conqueror Taimur the ‘Lame’ once spoke to the famous historian and sociologist Ibn Khuldun about the fate of dynasties. Khuldun said that the glory of a dynasty seldom lasted beyond four generations. The first generation inclined towards conquest; the second towards administration; the third, freed of the necessity to conquer or administer, was left with the pleasurable task of spending the wealth of its ancestors on cultural pursuits. Consequently, by the fourth generation, a dynasty had usually spent its wealth as well as human energy. Hence, the downfall of each dynasty is embedded in the very process of its rise. According to Khuldun, it was a natural phenomenon and could not be avoided.”
Hence, evolution is at work. As historian and author Ramachandra Guha told me in an interview I did for Firstpost in December 2012 “I think this dynasty is now on its last legs. Its charisma is fading with every generation. And Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre.”
That to a large extent explains Rahul’s hit and run mentality and his reluctance to take a more active role in government. After his yesterday’s statement, the least that Rahul Gandhi can do is take on more responsibility either by advancing the Lok Sabha elections or becoming a part of the government in some form.
But neither of these things is going to happen because Rahul Gandhi has said what he wanted to and disappeared again. His attitude is best reflected in an interview he gave to the Tehalka magazine in September 2005, in which he is supposed to have remarked “I could have been prime minister at the age of twenty-five if I wanted to.”
The statement created an uproar. The Congress party immediately jumped to the defence of its princling. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, specifically mentioned that Rahul had not said ‘I could have been prime minister at the age of twenty-five if I wanted to’.
(Tehakla initially stood by its story but backed down later. “This seems to be a clear case of misunderstanding. Mr Gandhi thought he was having a casual chat whereas our reporter took it to be a proper interview,” the weekly said in a statement(The ‘edited’ casual chatcan still be read on Tehelka’s website)).
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 28, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)
The New York Times has referred to him as ‘perhaps the best among India’s non fiction writers’; Time Magazine has called him ‘Indian democracy’s preeminent chronicler’. Meet Ramachandra Guha, one of the few intellectuals in India, who is a liberal in the classic sense of the term.
He has pioneered three distinct fields of historical inquiry: environmental history (as in The Unquiet Woods, 1989), the social history of sport (A Corner of a Foreign Field, 2002), and contemporary history (India after Gandhi, 2007). He is currently working on a multi-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi.
His latest book Patriots and Partisans (Penguin/Allen Lane Rs 699) is a collection of 15 essays based mostly on all that has gone wrong in modern India.
“Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre… He has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession,” he says in this interview to Vivek Kaul.
You write that “Indian constitution had always been impalatable to the Marxist-Lenninists since it did not privilege a particular party(their own), and Hindu radicals since it did not privilege a particular faith (their own).” Can you discuss that in a little detail?
Marxist-Leninists the world over believe in a state run for and by a single party, their own. Hence the problems encountered by the Communist Party of China, which is paranoid that a call for freedom and democratic rights will lead to the dismantling of their monopoly. Indian Marxist-Leninists are no exception. The Naxalites fantasize about planting the Red Flag on the Red Fort. Even the CPI(M) still somewhere believes that one day it will be the sole party in control in India.
And what about Hindu radicals?
A core belief of the RSS(Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh) is in a Hindu Rashtra, a state run and for Hindus. Muslims and Christians in this scenario have always to prove their loyalty, in fact, they have to acknowledge their distant or proximate, real or fictitious, origins in a Hindu family and in Hindu culture. When the NDA came to power, under the influence of the RSS they constituted a Constitutional Review Commission. Knowing that the former Chief Justice, M. N. Venkatachaliah, was a practising Hindu with a profound knowledge of the scriptures, they asked him to head the Commission, hoping he would advocate amendments in the direction they desired. To their dismay, Justice Venkatachaliah said the secular Constitution of India was completely sound.
Which is a bigger threat to India, naxalism or Hindu bigotry?
In the 1990s, Hindu bigotry; now, Naxalism. Things may yet again change, or an altogether new threat may emerge. Historians cannot predict!
In one of your essays you talk about the senior Congress leader Gulzari Lal Nanda, who was twice the acting Prime Minister of India, dying in a small flat in Allahabad. You also talk about Lal Bahadur Shastri to highlight how upright Indian politicians used to be. What has made them so corrupt over the years?
Ironically, leaders of the CPI and CPI(M), despite their strange and archaic ideology, are perhaps the least corrupt of Indian politicians. They do not have Swiss bank accounts and do not sup with corporates. The compulsions of election funding, the state’s control over natural resources (including land), and sheer venality and greed have encouraged leaders of all other parties to become grossly wealthy by abusing their office.
There remain exceptions. Manmohan Singh is completely honest in a personal sense (though complicit in the corruption of his party and government). And there still remain some outstandingly upright judges, IAS officers, and Generals. The day his term ended, Justice Venkatachaliah moved out of his Lutyens bungalow in New Delhi and returned to his modest home in Bangalore. Others would have at least stayed on for the six months allowed for by the law, using that period to lobby for another sarkari post with perquisites.
You also suggest that if Lal Bahadur Shastri would have been around for sometime more India would have been different country than what it is today. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Shastri has been greatly under-rated both as politician and Prime Minister. It was he who laid the foundations of the Green Revolution (although Indira Gandhi took the credit). He was a far more focused leader in defence and military matters than his mentor, Nehru. He had initiated moves to open out the economy and encourage entrepreneurship. And he was scrupulously honest and completely non-sectarian. Had he lived another five or ten years India may today be a less discontented democracy and a less corrupt society.
Normally when people want to refer to dynasty politics in India they talk about the Nehru Gandhi family. You say it should be just the Gandhi family. Why do you say that?
I show in my book, with concrete evidence, that the dynasty originated with Indira Gandhi, not Nehru. I think this dynasty is now on its last legs. Its charisma is fading with every generation. And Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre. Rajiv at least had a vision–of making India a technologically sophisticated society. Sonia has enormous stamina and determination. Rahul has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession.
Has chamchagiri increased in the Congress party over the years? Are the chamchas of Sonia Gandhi bigger chamchas than the chamchas of Rajiv, Sanjay and Indira Gandhi?
Quite possibly. As there is less to go around, there is more active chamchagiri to get what remains. The cult around 10 Janpath in Congress circles is sickening.
Are the Internet Hindus the new kar sevaks?
Yes and no. They have the same bigoted worldview and fanatical fervour of the kar sevaks, but express this through the safe medium of the Web. The kar sevaks had more raw energy, travelling to Ayodhya, provoking riots on the way there and on the way back. The Internet Hindus are as narrow-minded and sectarian as the kar sevaks, but, since their abuse is verbal and not physical, far less dangerous.
Gurucharan Das talks about the need for a new party which understands the Indian middle class in his new book India Grows At Night. You also make a slight mention in one of the essays. Do you see that happening? Does the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) look like filling in that gap?
The anti-corruption protests of 2011 were an important wake-up call to large sections of Indian society, not just the politicians. However, for the energy and passion to have a substantial and enduring impact, the movement must stay focused, and be patient. Too much media attention is inimical to solid grassroots work. The leaders of AAP should, for the moment, stay away from TV studios and build state-level units and forge alliances with civil society groups across India. To fight the next General Elections would be foolish and premature. They should aim rather to make an impact in the General Elections of 2019.
Over the years have we become less liberal as a society than we were before?
It may not be accurate to say that we have become less liberal as a society. On the whole, Indians are more aware of the rights of Dalits and women than they were 50 or 60 years ago. Sectarian religious sentiments on the ground are markedly less intense and polarizing than they were 10 or 15 years ago. At the same time, the media only gives space to extreme positions. And the state capitulates to bigots when it should stand up to them. This capitulation is sadly true of all parties.
Why did the UPA encourage India’s greatest artist to flee into exile? Could it not protect his life and dignity in his own homeland? Why did the Left Front not provide protection to Taslima Nasreen? The tragedy is that the so-called secular parties cave in most easily to the sectarians and the bigots—the Congress to the Hindu right, the Congress and the Left to the Muslim right, the NCP and the Congress in Maharashtra to the Shiv Sainiks.
Could you elaborate on that?
About four years ago, I wrote a piece in a Delhi newspaper known to be read by senior Congress leaders and Ministers. I said there than when the next Republic Day awards were announced, the Government should give MF Hussain the Bharat Ratna and Salman Rushdie the Padma Vibhushan. This would be just reward, no less than their artistic and literary genius deserved. It would strike a blow for artistic and literary freedom. And it would simultaneously insult Hindutvawadis and the mullahs. The rest of India (namely, the majority of Indians) would praise the Government, and the bigots would be speechless, the Hindutvawadis not knowing whether to praise the Government for honouring Rushdie or abuse it for honouring Hussain, and the mullahs confused in the other direction.
But that moment has now passed…
Sadly, Hussain is now dead, the moment has passed, and one does not see the Government—any government—stand up boldly for liberal and democratic values. This is the tragic paradox—that while society as a whole may be becoming slightly more liberal, the further progress of liberalism is halted by the encouragement to illiberal forces by the state and political parties.
The interview originally appeared in www.firstpost.com on December 17,2012
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])
Gurcharan Das is an author and a public intellectual. He is the author of The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma which interrogates the epic, Mahabharata. His international bestseller, India Unbound, is a narrative account of India from Independence to the turn of the century. His latest book India Grows At Night – A Liberal Case For a Strong State (Penguin Allen Lane)has just come out. He was also formerly the CEO of Proctor & Gamble India. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul on why Gurgaon made it and Faridabad didn’t, how the actions of Indira Gandhi are still hurting us, why he cannot vote for anyone in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and why democracy has to start in your own backyard if it has to succeed.
What do you mean when you say India grows at night?
Essentially the full expression is India grows at night while the government sleeps. I thought that would be insulting to put in the title. So I left it at India Grows at Night. And I subtitled it a liberal case for a strong state. The basic idea is that India has risen from below. We are a bottom up success, unlike China which is a top down success. And because our success is from below, it is more heroic and also more enduring. But we should also grow during the day meaning we should reform our institutions of the state, so that they contribute much more to the growth of the country. We cannot have a story of private success and public failure in India.
Could you explain this through an example?
I start chapter one of the book with a contrast between Faridabad and Gurgaon. If you were living in Delhi in the seventies and eighties, the big story, the place you were going to invest was Faridabad. It had an active municipality. The state government wanted to make it into a showcase for the future. It had a direct line to Delhi. It had host of industries coming in. It had a very rich agriculture. It was the success story. So if you were an investor you would have put your money in Faridabad.
And what about Gurgaon?
In contrast there was this village called Gurgaon not connected to Delhi. No industries. It had rocky soil, so the agriculture was poor. Even the goats did not want to go there. So it was wilderness. And yet 25 years later look at the story. Gurgaon has become an engine of international growth. It is called the millennium city. It has thirty two million square feet of commercial space. It is the residence of all the major multinationals that have come into the country. It has seven golf courses. Every brand name, from BMW to Mercedes Benz, they are all there. And look at Faridabad (laughs)…
Faridabad missed the bus?
Faridabad still hasn’t got the first wave of modernisation that came to India after 1991. It escaped Faridabad. Only now it’s kind of waking up. And Gurgaon did not have a municipality until 2009. This contrast really is in a way the story of India grows at night. And the fact is that the people of Gurgaon deserve a lot of credit because they didn’t sit and wait around. If the police didn’t show up they had private security guards. They even dug bore-wells to make up for the water. The state electricity board did not provide electricity, so they had generators and backup. They used couriers instead of the Post Office. Basically they rose on their own.
So what is the point you are trying to make?
My point is that neither Faridabad nor Gurgaon is India’s model. Faridabad is a model where you have an excessive bureaucracy. Why did Faridabad not succeed? Because the politician and bureaucrats tried to squeeze everything out in the form of licenses. And Gurgaon’s disadvantage turned out to be its advantage. It had no government. So there was nobody to bribe. But at the end of the day Gurgaon would be better off, people would have happier if they had good sanitation, if they had a working transportation system, they had good roads, parks, power etc.
All that is missing…
All the things that you take for granted that you would get in a city, you shouldn’t have to provide them for yourself. This is the point. Neither model is right. And we need to reform the institutions of our state. And we need to create what I call a strong liberal state.
What’s a strong liberal state?
A strong liberal state has three pillars. One an executive that is not paralysed like Delhi is right now, where you have push and drag to get any action done. Second that action of the executive is bounded by the rule of law and third that action is accountable to the people. When I mean a strong state? I am not talking about Soviet Russia or Maoist China. I am not even talking about a benign authoritarian state like Singapore which is very tempting because it has got such high levels of governance. I am talking about classical liberal state the same kind of state that our founding fathers had in mind or the American founding fathers had in mind when they thought about the state. And so that is not easy to achieve.
Why do you say that?
It is not easy to achieve because some elements in these three pillars fight with each other. In other words you have an excessive drive for accountability then the executive gets weakened. I mean right now the Anna Hazare movement has so scared the bureaucrats that they won’t put a signature on a piece of paper. The Anna Hazare movement is a good thing because it awakened the middle class but it also weakened the executive. So, today more important than even economic reforms are institutional reforms i.e. the reform of the bureaucracy. If a person is promoted after twenty years regardless of his performance there are repercussions. If it doesn’t matter whether he is a rascal or outstanding, and both are treated the same, you won’t get high performance. You will get a demoralised bureaucracy. Those are the kind of reforms we need.
What are other such reforms?
Take the case of the judiciary, why should it take us 12 years to get a case settled when it takes two or three years anywhere else? You go to a police station to register an FIR, do you think they will do it? Either you have to bribe somebody or lagao some influence. You have this rising India amidst a very very ineffective state.
One of the things you write about in your book is the fact that India got democracy before it got capitalism. World over it’s been the other way around. How has that impacted our evolution as a country?
That also explains some of our problems. By getting democracy before capitalism, you had a populist wave. The politicians when they thought about going to elections started realising ke bhai we will tell people that I’ll give you four rupee kilo rice and get elected. In Punjab the politicians said we will give free electricity to the farmers and got elected. So you killed your finances through this populism. The states which did this really went bankrupt. Punjab and Andhra Pradesh which did these two things couldn’t pay their salaries to their bureaucrats.
And this started with Nehru’s socialism?
Nehru’s socialism created the illusion of a limitless society, that the state would do everything. Jo kuch hai, which we used to do for ourselves, through our families etc, we now expected the state to do. That was the message given by the socialists. The fact is that the state did not have the capacity. In the courts judges knew their jobs. It was a good judiciary. Even the police was very good but suddenly you expanded the mandate so that half the cases today are government cases. You haven’t been paid a refund. Or the government is taking your land or something and so you go to court. So the guilty in many cases is the state.
What you are suggesting is that the mandate of the state was expanded so much that it couldn’t cope with it?
And they did not expand the capacity. Suddenly you needed a tenfold increase in judges and a tenfold increase in bureaucrats. This is because the jobs you expected this people to do were so much greater. And you told people, especially workers and government servants, that you have rights. So a school teacher suddenly realised that he did not have to attend school, he could get away with it. The person who was his boss or her boss was too scared because of the union of the teachers. So one out of four teachers is absent from our schools. And nothing happens to that person. I am answering your question about how embracing democracy before capitalism hurt us. We became more aware of our rights. We tried to distribute the pie before the pie was baked. Before the chapati was created we started dividing it.
In fact there is a saying in Punjabi ke pind vasiya nahi te mangte pehle aa gaye (the village is still being built and the beggars have already arrived)…
Bilkul. Perfect. That’s an even a better saying. This has been one of the problems. In 1991 we did start building the economy base to support a democracy like ours. But these people fettered away some of the gains. Just see how much subsidy is being given on petroleum products. It is around Rs 1,80,000 crore. I mean you could transform your school system with that kind of money.
And the health system…
Yes even the health system.
How much do you think the socialism of Nehru and Indira Gandhi is holding us back?
The damage that Indira Gandhi did was far greater. Her license raj combined with the mai baap sarkar, this double whammy gave the illusion to the people that the state would do everything. Nehru had never talked about a mai baap sarkar. The second was the damage she did to our political institutions. We owe Nehru a great debt because he built those institutions. Our modern political democracy we owe it to him. But she did a lot of damage to those institutions. Could you elaborate on that little?
During the period she was the Prime Minister, I think she dismissed fifty nine elected governments in states. Now we hardly hear of this. This is partly a reaction to what she had done. She tried to change India’s culture and change our political system. A lot has been written about the emergency and so on. But the enduring damage we don’t realise. Before her, Chief Ministers were a little afraid when a secretary said no sir you can’t do this. And if you tried to do it, the secretary wouldn’t bend very often. Now they just transfer. Look at what Mayawati did. Also after Indira Gandhi the police became a handmaiden of the executive. The police lost its independence. Even the judiciary was damaged. She wanted committed judges. Fortunately the Supreme Court did not succumb to that rot.
“It is tempting to compare crisis-ridden Hastinapur with today’s flailing Indian state,” you write. Could you explain that in some detail?
Before this I wrote this book called The Difficulty of Being Good. I interrogated the Mahabharata in a modern contemporary way. And I realised that the Mahabharata is us, still. The great scholar Sukthankar, the editor of the critical edition of the Mahabharata had once said that the Mahabharata is us. And I had always wondered what he had meant. I realised reading the book that really it’s a story of India. And why I preferred the Mahabharata to the Ramayana is because in the Ramayana, the hero is perfect. The brother of the hero is perfect. The wife of the hero is perfect. Even the villain is perfect. Luckily I had done Sanskrit in College and so I went back to my roots. I went to study in Chicago.
And what did you realise after studying the Mahabharata?
Essentially the Mahabharata is about the corruption of the kshatriya institutions of that time. The way the rulers, the nobles behaved, it clearly upset the author of the Mahabharata or we should say authors, because it was continuously evolved over 400-500years. They were very upset and enraged as today young Indians are enraged by the government. They were enraged by the institutions of these kshatriyas. The sort of the big chested behaviour. The idea that you went to heaven if you died fighting on the battle field. That sort of notion. So most people think Mahabharata is about war, but actually it’s an anti war epic.
So what is the point you are trying to make?
In Mahabharata, Hastinapur is the capital of the kingdom of the Kauravas. The Pandavas have created a new capital at Indraprastha. The point is crisis ridden Hastinapur is somewhat like our crisis ridden institutions of today. People were impatient and they were enraged by what was going on and so they had to wage a war at Kurushetra. And I just hope that we don’t have to do that. We can reform the institutions before we reach that point. That’s the comparison to Kurushetra and Hastinapur that I spoke about.
You were a socialist once?
I was a socialist like all of us when we were in the 20s and 30s. But then we could see that Nehru’s path was leading us to a dead end. Certainly a part of India Unbound is a story of the personal humiliations that I experienced, and on top of that Indira Gandhi’s failures really converted me. When the reforms came in 1991 I had become a libertarian. I really celebrated the reforms. For me that was Diwali and so I began to believe that the story of India rising without the state was a sustainable story. And I began to believe that this was a heroic thing and a laissez faire state was the best state. Back then, in my view the state was a second order phenomenon. Now writing this book partly and looking back over twenty years, I have concluded that state is a first order phenomenon. So I have gone from being a socialist to a libertarian to what I would go back and say is a classical liberal, who really doesn’t believe that laissez faire is the answer, and who does believe that you need the state.
Can you elaborate on that?
You need a limited state and not a minimalist state as Nozick(Robert Nozick, an American political philosopher) would have said. But that limited state must perform. So I have come to realise that the success after 1991 has partly been because there were regulators in those sectors, which rose. The election commissioner, the RBI, the Sebi, these have all contributed. Or even the first TRAI(Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the telecom regulator) under Justice Sodhi and Zutshi. That first TRAI sent the right signals. If we had left it to the Department of Telecom (DOT) and did not have any regulator things might have been different. DOT wanted to crush the new private companies. So what I am saying is that you need good regulators. You need government as a good umpire. You don’t need government to own Air India. But you need a good civil aviation regulator who will ensure a level playing field for everyone in the market.
You explain in some depth in your book as to why Indian political parties treat voters as victims. One can see that happening all the time and everywhere…
And it also explains why I cannot vote for anybody in 2014. Really as an Indian citizen I have been thinking who will I vote for? Every party treats voters as a victim. They are all parties of grievance. We don’t realise that one third of India is now middle class. This new middle class are tigers. They have just made it. They don’t want to be reminded that they are victims. They are looking for the state to further their rise. And they are looking for good roads, good schools and these things.
But nobody talks about development in India…
Yeah. BJP if you scratch them you know they are talking about 1000 years of Muslim oppression. Congress says you are victim of globalisation and liberalisation. So we will give you free power, free this and free that, NREGA etc. Dalit parties say you are a victim of oppression. OBC parties say you are a victim of upper caste oppression. Nobody is talking about the reform of the institution. Even the Anna Hazare movement was talking about only one Lokpal, which is fine, but it had to be couched in a bigger story.
You critique the Anna movement by saying that they have further undermined politicians and political life. Could you explain that in detail?
They have undermined the politics and political life. It is very easy to do that. When you attack politicians then you are also unwittingly attacking the institution of elections. The good thing is that it has put a fear in the minds of politicians. Whether the Anna Hazare movement fails or succeeds is no longer important. What is important is the legacy that it has woken up the middle class. That won’t go away easily. The question then for a young person today is that the Anna movement may have gone, but what can I do? The answer is start with your neighbourhood. Start with your ward and see what can be done. And that is the local democracy I am talking about. That’s where politics begins and that’s where habits of the heart created. I am so in favour of grass-root democracy, the fact that we should put the power downwards. Also even in the rhetoric of the Anna Hazare movement they talked about the gram sabha, the mohalla sabha, that’s where we get the habits of the heart.
What about Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to enter politics? How do you view that?
Before I get to that let me discuss something that I talk about in my book. In this book I hope for a formation of a new political party along the lines of the erstwhile Swatantra Party. But the agenda of this party is not just economic reform but institutional reform. At the Delhi launch of my book Arivnd Kerjiwal was there. TN Ninan, Chairman of the Business Standard newspaper,was moderating the discussion and he said since both of you are advocating a political party, why don’t you join hands. I said, I admire Kejriwal, but he has got all kinds of crazy people around him, who still think that reforms were a bad India. Also, they never talk about institutional reform. So I am not sure that we could be together. But I said were we would be together is that both of us are tapping into the new middle class, which is impatient, confident, assured and which wants to get rid of corruption. But I feel that we need the hard work of institutional reforms and that street protest is not the answer. I also said I am so glad that Kejriwal is now looking at politics because that is the right route to go.
One of the things that one frequently comes across in your book is that you are hopeful that the politics of India will change in the next few years as more and more people become middle class.
But it doesn’t look like…
It doesn’t look like because politics has been left behind. But now they are realising. They have been shaken up because so many of them (the politicians) have gone to jail. Even the language is a little more cautious now.
So you see the kind of chaos that prevails right now will go away?
It is only out of chaos that something happens. As Nietzsche(Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, a German philosopher) said that it is the chaos in the heart that gives birth to a dancing star. I see things positively even though we have been a weak state. But as they say, history is not destiny.
“The trickling down of power has made India more difficult to rule,” you write. Could you explain that in the context of the politics that is currently playing out?
It has made India more difficult to govern. But it remains a very important development because I am in favour of federalism. The best thing about FDI in multi brand retailing is that they have given the states the freedom to decide whether they want foreign investment or not. So imagine an FDI decision is now in the hands of the state. And I think that is wonderful because each state is like a country in India. The state of UP has 180 million people and I have no problem is with the trickling down of power. My problem is that we should be able to have an effective executive at the centre. Today we have a very weak Prime Minister. We need a stronger person in the role. We don’t want an Indira Gandhi, but we want a strong person who can be an institutional reformer.
You hope for the rise of a free market based party like the erstwhile Swatantra Party(a party formed by C Rajagopalachari and NG Ranga in 1959 to oppose the socialist policies of Nehru). Do you see really see that happening?
You have to be lucky to some extent and hope to get a young leader. I don’t know who it will be. But there will be somebody in their thirties and forties. Then the country will rally behind them. The way they rallied behind the Kejriwal, Anna Hazare movement. In one sense the last thing India needs is a another political party. But I also see that I cannot vote for any political party. I see that there is a wing of the Congress which does not like this free power and that entitlement culture and the corruption that is being bred in the Congress. There are people even in the BJP who have faith in the past, but they are not anti-Muslim necessarily. So I think they will come together for a secular political liberal party. Similarly there are people in the regional parties. And this is a good time for a liberal party. Swatantra Party was at the wrong time. They were too early. They were ahead of their time. So if we are lucky we will throw up a leader, but you can’t depend on that. But the hopeful thing is the rise of the middle class which will make the politics change.
(The interview originally appeared on www.firstpost.com. http://www.firstpost.com/india/how-india-grows-at-night-while-the-government-sleeps-469035.html)
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected]