During his heydays in the 1990s and the early 2000s, Lalu Prasad Yadav never organised political rallies.
He organised Railas.
These were very big political rallies held at the Gandhi maidan in Patna. And they were deemed to be so big by Lalu that the feminine sounding word ‘rally’ proved inadequate to describe them.
Hence a new word Raila was coined.
But time passed and the world went around, and in the end the old adage ‘you can’t fool all the people all the time’, came true in case of Lalu as well.
These days Lalu is a minor player both at the state and the central level. Given this, every few months you can hear him saying nice things about Sonia Gandhi, whenever the opposition parties choose to attack her.
A couple of days earlier Lalu went back to his favourite method of political engagement. He organised a parivartan (change) rally in Patna (and not a Raila). News reports suggest that Lalu hired thirteen trains to ferry his supporters to Patna for the rally.
This is a huge change from the usual. In the Bihar, that this writer grew up in, a rally would mean an open invitation to the supporters of Lalu to board any train that they wanted to.
Also like any good father would, Lalu used the occasion of the parivartan rally to soft launch his sons Tej Pratap and Tejashwi into big-time politics. Tej Pratap is a BA drop out and Tejashwi was a budding cricketer who played one Ranji trophy match for Jharkhand in November 2009. He was also a part of the Delhi Daredevils IPL team, warming his bum on the bench for a few seasons.
It is interesting if we compare this launch with that of Lalu’s own launch into serious politics which happened in the early 1970s. Lalu had quit student politics in 1970, after he lost the election for the post of the President of the Patna University Students Union (PUSU) to a Congress candidate. Before losing this election, Lalu had been a general secretary of the PUSU for three years.
As Sankarshan Thakur writes in Subaltern Sahib: Bihar and the Making of Lalu Yadav, “On the eve of elections of Patna University Students Union (PUSU) in 1973 non-Congress student bodies had again come together, if only for their limited purpose of ousting the Congress. But they needed a credible and energetic backward candidate to head the union. Lalu Yadav was sent for.”
The trouble of course was that Lalu was no longer a student. He was an employee of the Patna Veterinary College by then. But then those were the seventies and the state was Bihar, so not being a student was a small problem that could be fixed.
As Thakur writes “Assured that the caste arithmetic was loaded against the Congress union, Lalu readily agreed to contest. He quietly buried his job at the Patna Veterinary College and got a backdated admission into the Patna Law College. He stood for elections and won. The non-Congress coalition in fact swept the polls.”
And this set up Lalu for the big league as the agitation launched by Jai Prakash Narayan, against Indira Gandhi, gathered speed. The next year i.e. 1974, the agitation against Indira Gandhi spread throughout the country. As Thakur writes, “An agitation committee was formed, the Bihar Chatra Sangharsh Samiti to co-ordinate the activities of various unions and Lalu Yadav as president of PUSU was chosen its chief.” These events catapulted Lalu Yadav into the big league from which he never looked back. He became a member of the Lok Sabha in 1977 at a very young age of 29. He became the Chief Minister of Bihar in 1990.
But the fact of the matter remains that he if he wasn’t asked to contest the 1973 PUSU elections, Lalu might have never returned to politics and probably retired by now from the Patna Veterinary College.
Lalu was lucky because he was at the right place at the right time. His sons are lucky because they are his sons. The next generation of politicians(even those who are not a part of electoral politics) is always luckier to that extent. They already have a base that has been built to work from.
But the question does the next generation respect this base because of which they get lucky? And they answer seems to be no, as a spate of recent examples show. Robert Vadra, with his land dealings in Haryana and Rajasthan, has been a huge embarrassment for Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul and the Congress Party.
Sharad Pawar had to recently come to the rescue of his nephew Ajit, after he made insensitive comments in drought hit Maharashtra. Mamata Banerjee’s IIPM educated nephew Abhishek stands accused of running Ponzi schemes in West Bengal. News reports suggest that UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has been spending a lot of time trying to settle ‘who gets the government contract’ dispute between his step brother Prateek and his first cousins. Pawan Bansal, had to recently quit as the Union Railway Minister after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) caught his nephew Vijay Singla for running a jobs for bribes racket in the Indian Railways.
And there are examples from the past as well. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s spotless reputation as the Prime Minister of the country was marred by the dealings of his foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya. J Jayalalithaa’s weakness for her foster son V Sudhakaran tarred her reputation. The late Pramod Mahajan’s son Rahul was and continues to be an embarrassment.
The late Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao’s son Prabhakar was accused of being involved in the urea scam in the 1990s. If we go back a little further, Moraji Desai, the fourth prime minister of India, had to deal with allegations of graft against his son Kanti Desai. Kanti Desai had allegedly collected Rs 80 lakh for party funds misusing his position as the PM’s son. Raj Narain a minister in Desai’s cabinet, even came up with the slogan “Hamse kya parda hai, Kantike haath mein garda hai (Why hide it from us, Kanti’s hands are muddied).”
Jagjivan Ram could have become the first dalit Prime Minister of independent India if he hadn’t been embarrassed by his son, Suresh Ram. Nude pictures of Suresh were published in a magazine called Surya, which was edited by Maneka Gandhi. The pictures showed him in a compromising position with a 21 year old student of Satyawati College, Delhi University, called Sushma Chaudhury, who he eventually married (On a slightly different note Suresh’s sister Meira Kumar is the speaker of the current Lok Sabha). “If the Kamasutra has 64 poses of making love, this one certainly had 10,” wrote Khuswant Singh in a later column, with regard to these pictures.
As veteran journalist and editor Inder Malhotra has been quoted as saying “In fact, in many ways Suresh Ram tried to emulate Sanjay Gandhi and received the same shelter from his father which Sanjay got from her mother. It was a game of one-upmanship.”
And Sanjay Gandhi, among all the sons, daughters and relatives of politicians, was the biggest embarrassment of them all. His dictatorial ways ensured that the Congress party was thrown out of power for the first time since independence in 1977 (For a detailed study on this Vinod Mehta’s The Sanjay Story is an excellent read). Indira Gandhi who was known to be very stern otherwise continued to be a mother when it came to Sanjay.
The broader point is that the politicians’ weakness and love for their progeny (or even other close relatives) puts them in embarrassing situations. At times, the progeny are acting as fronts for the shenanigans that the politicians indulge in and at times they are on their own. But in either condition there is a cost that is to be paid for.
A major reason that Lalu Prasad Yadav finally lost in Bihar was because of the shenanigans that his saalas (brothers in law) Sadhu Yadav and Subhash Yadav, indulged in. They had the political patronage of Rabri Devi, who was the Chief Minister of Bihar. News reports coming out now suggest that Lalu’s two sons are also not the best of buddies. And this can’t be good news for Lalu Yadav whose political fortunes have taken a huge beating since 2005.
All the politicians who promote their progeny in politics and allied areas, need to thank Indira Gandhi. If it wasn’t for her, politics in India would have never become a family owned business. As historian Ramachandra Guha said in a lecture titled Verdicts on Nehru: The Rise and Fall of a Reputation (Second V. K. R. V. Rao Memorial Lecture, Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, 20 January 2005) “After Nehru the Congress chose Lal Bahadur Shastri to become Prime Minister, a post on which he quickly stamped his authority. Mrs (Indira) Gandhi herself may never have become Prime Minister had not Shastri died unexpectedly. She was chosen by the Congress bosses as a compromise candidate who (they thought) would do their bidding. But once in office Mrs Gandhi converted the Indian National Congress into a family business. She first brought in her son Sanjay and, after his death, his brother Rajiv. In each case, it was made clear that the son would succeed Mrs Gandhi as head of Congress and head of Government. Thus, the ‘Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’ should properly be known as the ‘(Indira) Gandhi’ dynasty.”
India is still paying the costs of this monstrous mistake as almost all politicians now want to pass on the baton to their progeny and other relatives close to them. Professor Pulin Garg of Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad used to say with regard to family owned businesses in India “Haweli ki umar saath saal ( a family owned business lasts for 60 years).” It will be interesting to see how long political hawelis last on an average? That will be a big determinant of which way India goes in the decades to come.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on May 17,2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)
Having grown up on a staple of bad Hindi cinema of the seventies and the eighties, I have always associated people with ‘French’ beards as being villanious. Indeed, this is a stereotype of the worst kind, which I have been unable to get rid off.
But now comes the news that a Delhi court has set aside the closure report of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Jagdish Tytler, in connection with the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and ordered that the case against him be reopened. For those who don’t know, Tytler has had a rather impressive French beard, over the years.
Tytler along with many fellow Congressmen took an active part in inciting the anti-Sikh riots that happened in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of the country, being assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on the morning of October 31, 1984.
As Tavleen Singh writes in Durbar “Mrs Gandhi (Indira) had set out of her house at about 9 a.m. And was walking through her garden towards her office, in a bungalow that adjoined her house, when her Sikh bodyguard, Beant Singh, greeted her with his hands joined together. Then he shot her with his pistol. Another bodyguard, Satwant Singh, opened fire with his automatic weapon.”
Gandhi was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) by her daughter in law Sonia, where she was declared dead.
Indira’s son Rajiv was sworn in as the Prime Minister in the evening of the same day. As Singh writes “We watched him on television. In a calm, emotionless voice, he said India had lost a great leader. Someone who was not just his mother but the mother of the country, or words to that effect. Then he stopped and stared sadly at the camera while Doordarshan showed shots of H.K.L. Bhagat (another Congress leader) and his supporters beating their breasts and shouting, ‘Khoon ka badlka khoon se lenge.’ Blood will be avenged with blood.”
In the environment that evovled the entire community of Sikhs were held responsible for the murder of Indira Gandhi. By the evening of October 31, the violence started. As Ramachandra Guha writes India After Gandhi – The History of World’s Largest Democracy “Everywhere it was Sikhs and Sikhs alone who were the target…In Delhi alone more than a thousand Sikhs perished in the violence…They were murdered by a variety of methods, and often in front of their own mothers and wives. Bonfires were made of the bodies; in one case, a little child was burnt with his father, the perpetrator saying, ‘Ye saap ka bachcha hai, isse bhi khatam karo’ (This offspring of a snake must be finished too).”
And this was not a spontaneous outflow of grief as it would be made out to be. It was mob-violence that was directed at the Sikh community in a cold and calculated way. “The mobs were composed of Hindus who lived in and around Delhi…Often they were led and directed by Congress politicians: metropolitan councillors, members of Parliament, even Union ministers. The Congress leaders promised money and liquor to those willing to do the job; this in addition to whatever goods they could loot. The police looked on, or actively aided the looting and murder.”
Jagdish Tytler was seen inciting one such mob around Gurdwara Pul Bangash near the Azad market in Delhi. Surinder Singh, the Head Granthi of the Gurdwara testified against Tytler on sworn affidavits. “On 1st November 1984 in the morning at 9am a big mob which was carrying sticks, iron rods and kerosene oil attacked the Gurdwara. The crowd was being led by our area Member Parliament of Congress (I) Jagdish Tytler. He incited the crowd to set the Gurdwara on fire and to kill the Sikhs…Five to six policemen were also with the crowd. On incitement by Jagdish Tytler, they attacked the gurdwara and set it on fire.” (Source: Tehelka).
And while Delhi burnt on those first few days of November 1984, Rajiv Gandhi and his ministers, sat on their bums watching the whole show unfold. Senior leaders approached the government to call out the army on the streets. But nothing happened. As Singh writes “But the new Prime Minister did nothing. Not even when senior political leaders like Chandrashekar and (Mahatma) Gandhiji’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, went to the home minister(P V Narsimha Rao) personally to urge him to call out the army for help was anything done in those first three days of November to stop the violence.”
This is something that Guha also writes in India After Gandhi. “There is a large cantonment in Delhi itself, and several infantry divisions within a radius of fifty miles of the capital. The army was put on standby, despite repeated appeals to the prime minister and his home minster P.V.Narsimha Rao, they were not asked to move into action. A show of military strength in the city on the 1st and 2nd would have quelled the riots – yet the order never came.” Doordarshan, the only television channel in the country at that point of time, added fuel to fire by constantly showing crowds baying for the blood of the Sikhs.
A few week’s later in a public speech Rajiv Gandhi justified the pogrom(basically an organised massacre of a particular ethnic group) against Sikhs when he said “When a big tree falls, the earth trembles!”. Years later Sher Singh Sher, a Chandigarh based Sikh made the quip “Were there only Sikhs sitting under that tree?” (Source: The Tribune) Gandhi in several speeches in the months to come even alleged that the same extremist elements who had killed his mother had also engineered the riots.
Rajiv Gandhi like his mother was assassinated seven years later in 1991. Since then the Congress party has moved on and is now in the hands of his widow Sonia and their son Rahul. In December 2007, Sonia Gandhi, called Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat “maut ka saudagar”.
The irony behind Sonia’s statement was that the Congress party had many maut ke saudagars who had gone unpunished for instigating the riots of 1984. It was a situation of the pot calling the kettle black. But that doesn’t mean that nothing happened in Gujarat.
Sonia’s statement was made in the context of the riots that happened in Gujarat in 2002, where more than 2000 Muslims were killed. The riots happened after bogey number S6 of the Sabarmati Express caught fire on February 27,2002, on the outskirts of the Godhra railway station. Fifty eight people died in the fire. The bogey had kar sevaks returning from a yagna in Ayodhya.
As Guha points out “On their way back home by train , these kar sevaks got into a fight with Muslim vendors at the Godhra railway station…Words of the altercation spread; young men from the Muslim neighbourhood outside the station joined in. The kar sevaks clambered back into the train, which started moving as stones were being thrown. However, the train stopped on the outskirts of the station, when a fire broke out in one of its coaches. Fifty eight people perished in the conflagration…Word that a group of kar sevaks had been burnt to death at Godhra quickly spread through Gujarat. A wave of retributory violence followed.”
In fact the behaviour of Modi in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots was very similar to that of Rajiv Gandhi. He justified the violence, like Rajiv Gandhi had, as a spontaneous reaction. He said that the burning of the railway coach at Godhra had led to a ‘chain of action and reaction’.
(The original statement of Modi was in Hindi and was made to Zee News:
Kriya pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai. Hum chahte hain ki na kriya ho aur na pratikriya…Godhra main jo parson hua, jahan par chalees mahilaon aur bacchon ko zinda jala diya, issey desh main aur videsh main sadma pahunchna swabhavik tha. Godhra ke is ilake ke logon ki criminal tendencies rahi hain. In logon ne pehle mahila tachers ka khoon kiya. Aur ab yeh jaghanya apraadh kiya hai jiski pratikriya ho rahi hai. (A chain of action and reaction is being witnessed now.We feel that there should be no action nor reaction. Day before yesterday in Godhra, the incident in which forty women and children were burnt alive had to naturally evoke a shocking response in the country and abroad. The people in this locality of Godhra have had criminal tendencies. They first killed the women teachers and now this horrifying crime the reaction to which is being witnessed). Source: Narendra Modi – The Man. The Times by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay).
Guha finds man similarities between the two pogroms, the one against the Sikhs of Delhi in 1984, and the one against the Muslims of Gujarat in 2002. Both the cases started with stray acts of violence for which a generalised revenge was taken. “The Sikhs who were butchered were in no way connected to the Sikhs who killed Mrs Gandhi. The Muslims who were killed by the Hindu mobs were completely innocent of the Godhra crime,” writes Guha.
In both the cases there was a clear breakdown of law and order. More than that graceless statements justifying the riots, were made, one by a serving Prime Minister and another by a serving Chief Minister. And in both the cases, serving ministers, aided the rioters.
But its the final similarity between the two different sets of events that is the most telling, feels Guha. “Both parties, and leaders, reaped electoral rewards from the violence that they had legitimised and overseen. Rajiv Gandhi’s party won the 1984 general election by a large margin, and in December 2002, Narendra Modi was re-elected as the chief minister of Gujarat after his party won a two-thirds majority in the assembly polls,” Guha points out. Modi, the first RSS pracharak to become a chief minister, has won two more polls since then.
To conclude, if justice had been quickly delivered in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the Congress leaders who instigated the violence had been jailed, chances are the 1993 Mumbai riots and 2002 Gujarat riots would never have happened. And if they had, they would have happened on a much smaller scale. The original maut ke saudagars of 1984 set the tone for much of what followed.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on April 11, 2003.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)
India badly needs a second generation of economic reforms in the days and months to come. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. “What makes reforms more difficult now is what I call the original sin of 1991. What happened from 1991 and thereon was reform by stealth. There was never an attempt made to sort of articulate to the Indian voter why are we doing this? What is the sort of the intellectual or the real rationale for this? Why is it that we must open up?” says Vivek Dehejia an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa,Canada. He is also a regular economic commentator on India for the New York Times India Ink. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
How do you see overall Indian economy right now?
The way I would put it Vivek is, if I take a long term view, a generational view, I am pretty optimistic. The fundamentals of savings and investments are strong.
What about a more short term view?
If you take a shorter view of between six months to a year or even two years ahead, then everything that we have been reading about in the news is worrisome. The foreign direct investment is drying up. The savings rate seems to have been dropping. The economic growth we know has dropped. The next fiscal year we would lucky if we get 6.5% economic growth.
How do we account for the failure of this particular government to deliver sort of crucially needed second generation economic reforms?
The India story is a glass half empty or a glass half full. If you look at the media’s treatment of the India story, particularly international media they tend to overshoot. So two years ago we were being overhyped. I remember that the Economist had a famous cover where they said that India will overtake China’s growth rate in the next couple of years. They made that bold prediction. And then about a year later they were saying that India is a disaster. What has happened to the India story? The international media tends to overshoot. And then they overdo it in the negative direction as well. A balanced view would say that original hype was excessive. We cannot do nor would we want to do what China is doing. With our democratic system, our pluralistic democracy, the India that we have, we cannot marshal resources like the way the Chinese do, or like the way Singapore did.
Could you discuss that in detail?
If you take a step back, historically, many of the East Asian growth miracles, the Latin American growth miracles, were done under brutal dictatorial regimes. I mean whether it was Pinochet’s Chile, whether it was Taiwan or Singapore or Hong Kong, they all did it under authoritarian regimes. So the India story is unique. We are the only large emerging economy to have emerged as a fully fledged democracy the moment we were born as a post colonial state and that is an incredibly daring thing to do. At the time when the Constituent Assembly was figuring out what are we going to do now post independence a lot of conservative voices were saying don’t go in for full fledged democracy where every person man or a woman gets a vote because you will descend down into pluralism and identity based politics and so on. Of course to some extent it’s true. A country with a large number of poor people which is a fully fledged democracy, the centre of gravity politically is going to be towards redistribution and not towards growth. So any government has to reckon with the fact that where are your votes. In other words the market for votes and the market for economic reform do not always correlate.
You talk about authoritarian regimes and growth going together…
This is one of the oldest debates in social sciences. It is a very unsettled and a very controversial one. For any theory you can give on one side of it there is an equally compelling argument on the other side. So the orthodox view in political science particularly more than economics was put forward by Samuel Huntington. The view was that you need to have some sort of political control, you cannot have a free for all, and get marshalling of resources and savings rate and investment rate, that high growth demands.
So Huntington was supportive of the Chinese model of growth?
Yes. Huntington famously was supportive of the Chinese model and suggested that was what you had to do at an early stage of economic development. But there are equally compelling arguments on the other side as well. The idea is that democracy gives a safety valve for a discontent or unhappiness or for popular expression to disapproval of whatever the government or the regime in power is doing. We read about the growing number of mysterious incidents in China where you can infer that people are rioting. But we are not exactly sure because the Chinese system also does not allow for a free media. Also let’s not forget that China has had growing inequalities of income and growth, and massive corruption scandals. The point being that China too for its much wanted economic efficiency also has kinds of problems which are not much different from the once we face.
That’s an interesting point you make…
Here again another theory or another idea which can help us interpret what is going on. When you have a period of rapid economic growth and structural transformation of an economy, you are almost invariably going to have massive corruption. It is almost impossible to imagine that you have this huge amount of growth taking place in a relatively weak regulatory environment where there isn’t going to be an opportunity for corruption. It doesn’t mean that it is okay or it doesn’t mean that one condones it, but if you look throughout history it’s always been the case that in the first phase of rapid growth and rapid transformation there has been corruption, rising inequalities and so on.
Can you give us an example?
The famous example is the so called American gilded age. In the United States after the end of the Civil War (in the 1860s) came the era of the Robber Barons. These people who are now household names the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Mellons, were basically Robber Barons. They were called that of course because how they operated was pretty shady even according to the rules of that time.
Why are the second generation of reforms not happening?
What makes reforms more difficult now is what I call the original sin of 1991. We had a first phase of the economic reforms in 1991 where we swept away the worst excesses of the license permit raj. We opened up the product markets. But what happened from 1991 and thereon was reform by stealth. Reform by the stroke of the pen reform and reform in a mode of crisis, where there was never an attempt made to sort of articulate to the Indian voter why are we doing this? What is the sort of the intellectual or the real rationale for this? Why is it that we must open up? It wasn’t good enough to say that look we are in a crisis. Our gold reserves have been mortgaged. Our foreign exchange reserves are dwindling. Again India’s is hardly unique on this. Wherever you look whether it is Latin America or Eastern Europe, it generally takes an economic crisis to usher in a period of major economic reform.
So the original sin is still haunting us?
The original sin has come back to haunt us because the intellectual basis of further reform is not even on anyone’s agenda. Discussions and debates on reform are more focused on issues like the FDI is falling, the rupee is falling, the current account deficit is going up etc. Those are all symptoms of a problem. The two bursts of reform that we had first were first under Rao/Manmohan Singh and then under NDA. If a case had been made to build a constituency for economic reform, then I think we would have been in a different political economy than we are now. But the fact that didn’t happen and things were going well, the economy was growing, that led to a situation where everybody said let’s carry on. But now we don’t have that luxury. Now whichever government whoever comes to power in 2014 is going to have to make some tough decisions that their electoral base, isn’t going to like necessarily. So how are they going to make their case?
So are you suggesting that the next generation of reforms in India will happen only if there is an economic crisis?
I don’t want to say that. Again that could be one interpretation from the arguments I am making of the history. It will require a change in the political equilibrium and certainly a crisis is one thing that can do that. But a more benign way the same thing can happen that without a crisis is the realization of the political actors that look I can make economic reform and economic growth electorally a winning policy for me. But India is a land of so many paradoxes. A norm of the democratic political theory in the rich countries i.e. the US, Canada, Great Britain etc, is that other things being equal, the richer you are, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to vote. In India it is the opposite. The urban middle class is the more disengaged politically. They feel cynical. They feel powerless. Until they become more politically engaged that change in the equilibrium cannot happen.
What about the rural voter?
The rural voter at least in the short run might benefit from a NREGA and will say that you are giving me money and I will keep voting for you. We have all heard people say they are uneducated and they are ignorant, no it’s not like that. He is in a very liquidity constrained situation. He is looking to the next crop, the next harvest, the next I got to pay my bills. If someone gave him 100 days of employment and gives him a subsidy, he will take it.
How do explain the dichotomy between Manmohan Singh’s so called reformist credentials and his failure to carry out economic reforms?
One of the misconceptions that crops up when we look at poor economic performance or failure to carry out economic reform is what cognitive psychologists call fundamental attribution bias. Fundamentally attribution bias says that we are more likely to attribute to the other person a subjective basis for their behaviour and tend to neglect the situational factors. Looking at our own actions we look more at the situational factors and less at the idiosyncratic individual subjective factors. So what am I trying to say? What I am saying is that it has become almost a refrain to say that Dr Manmohan Singh should be an economic reformer. He was at least the instrument if not the architect of the 1991 reforms. There are speculations being in made in what you can call the Delhi and Mumbai cocktail party circuit, about whether he is really a reformer? Was it Narsimha Rao who was really the real architect of the reform? Is he a frustrated reformer? What does he really want to do? What’s going on his head? That in my view is a fundamental attribution bias because we are attributing to him or whoever is around him a subjective basis for the inaction and the policy paralysis of the government.
So the government more than the individual at the helm of it is to be blamed?
Traditionally the electoral base of the Congress party has been the rural voter, the minority voters and so on, people who are at the lower end of the economic spectrum. So they are the beneficiaries just roughly speaking of the redistributive policies. Political scientists have a fancy name for it. They call it the median voter theorem. What does it mean? It means that all political parties will tend to gravitate towards the preferred policy of the guy in the middle, the median voter.
Was Narsimha Rao who was really the real architect of the reform?
Narsimha Rao must be given a lot of credit for taking what was then a very bold decision. He was at the top of a very weak government as you know. And he gave the political backing to Manmohan Singh to push this first wave of reforms more than that would have been necessary just to avert a foreign exchange crisis. And then he paid a price for it electorally in the next election. This again the intangible element in the political economy that short of a crisis it often takes someone of stature to really take that long term generation view. IT means that you are not just looking at narrow electoral calculus but you are looking beyond the next election. That’s what seems to be missing right now. Among all the political parties right now, one doesn’t seem to see that vision of look at this is where we want to be in a generation and here is our roadmap of how we are going to get there.
Going back to Manmohan Singh you called him an overachiever recently, after the Time magazine called him an “underachiever”. What was the logic there?
The traditional view and certainly that was widely in the West at least till very recently has been that it was Manmohan Singh who was the architect of the India’s economic reforms. But then how do you explain the inaction in the last five, six, seven years? The revisionist perspective would say no in fact the real reformer was Narsimha Rao to begin with. The real political weight behind the reform was his. And Manmohan Singh that any good technocratic economist should have been able to do which is to implement a series of reforms that we all knew about. My teacher Jagdish Bhagwati had been writing about it for years. In that sense maybe Manmohan Singh was given too much credit in the first instance for implementing a set of reforms. If you look at his career since then he has never really been a politically savvy actor. We have this peculiar situation in India since 2004 where the Prime Minister sits in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. That kind of thing is not barred by our constitution but I don’t think that the framers of the constitution envisaged this would be a long term situation. It is a little like the British prime minister sitting in the House of Lords. I mean that practice disappeared in the nineteenth century. He has not shown from the evidence that we can see any ability to get a political base of his own to be a counterweight to the more redistributive tendencies of the Nehru Gandhi dynasty. And that’s the sense that in somewhat cheeky way I was using the term overachiever.
Do you think he is just keeping the seat warm for Rahul Gandhi?
It increasingly appears to be that way. If that is true then it suggests that we shouldn’t really expect much to happen in the next two years.
Does the fiscal deficit of India worry you?
If you look at some shorter to medium term challenges, then things like fiscal deficit and the current account deficit are things to worry about. Again other things like the weak rupee, the weak FDI data, things that people tend to fixate at, but those at best are symptoms of a deeper structural problem. The deeper concern is the kind of reform that will require a major legislative agenda such as labour law reform for example to unlock our manufacturing sector. And managing the huge demographic dividend that we are going to get in the form of 300-400 million young people. They will have to be educated.
But is there a demographic dividend?
That’s the question. Will it become a demographic nightmare? Can you imagine the social chaos if you have all these kids just wandering around, not educated enough to get a job, what are they going to do? It’s a recipe for social disaster. That according to me is going to be real litmus test. If we are able to navigate that then I don’t see why we won’t be on track to again go back to 8- 9% economic growth. I want to remain optimistic at the end of the day.
(The interview originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on August 6,2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_reform-by-stealth-the-originalsin-of-1991-has-come-back-to-haunt-us_1724348)
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])