A medieval mindset infects your party and government
Madam President of the Congress,I recognise that it is presumptuous to write to you like this. Your health has been a matter of great public concern. We hope that you have emerged from that battle triumphant,and that your reservoirs of strength have stood you in good stead. But many citizens are deeply worried about the direction in which the Congress party is taking the country. Admittedly,the opposition does not have much to show for itself either. But that makes the determination with which the Congress is putting Indias prospects at risk even more disconcerting. The contagion of small-mindedness that is sweeping our politics,and for which the Congress leadership must share the blame,is prompting this graceless letter.
Since your time is valuable,may I come straight to the point? India is,at the moment,at the threshold of momentous change. In part,the reforms unleashed in the early 1990s,deserve credit for these changes. But now the Congress is throttling the dynamism of Indian society. It is putting Indias growth story,a necessary,if not sufficient,precondition for change,at risk. It is presiding over an appalling administrative deterioration,where institutions are unravelling. It has not understood the demands of inclusive governance and federalism. It spends a lot in the name of the poor,without understanding the changing challenges of poverty. Economic policies are exhibiting a degree of arbitrariness and whimsicality unprecedented since the 1970s. Indian investors are voting with their feet. Even ordinary Indians,whose struggle and enterprise keeps the country going despite its rulers,are turning to the security of gold. Our ambitious social sector schemes are more a series of missed opportunities than an investment in Indias future. Its record on civil liberties gives cause for concern. Our ability to exercise our strategic options has diminished because other governments know we do not have an authoritative government at home.
Why is this happening? It is because you as Congress president are presiding over a party and government that are medieval in their workings. Your authority at the top is unquestioned. You must therefore shoulder the blame for the dismal farce this government has become. First,look at your party. It looks more like a series of ageing courtiers,more adept at palace intrigue,than winning the hearts of the voters. Like a courtly culture,loyalty seems to matter more than competence,envy more than collective action,unmeaning words more than genuine ideas. At least in vibrant courtly cultures,people ingratiate themselves by honour; in yours they seem to do so by god knows what. No one can understand why the Congress Working Committee continues to be dominated by people for whom only one phrase suffices: political liability. It is a collection of people not only far distant from the concerns of the country; they dont even have an intelligent concern for themselves and the party. They are individually able,but it is a hallmark of a courtly culture to reduce the brightest to blathering hangers on.
Unfortunately,the medieval mindset has infected government as well. Most of your cabinet brings neither grassroots political capital,nor administrative competence. You have the unique advantage,or perhaps disadvantage,that there is almost no one left in the Congress who is electorally indispensable to the party. There is,therefore,no excuse why you persist with people who seem to be interested in running the country into the ground. But the governments functioning is so damagingly medieval. The office of the prime minister has been reduced to that of a diwan; it is a political office,not a bureaucratic post office. Except for some honourable exceptions,no one in government seems to feel the need to clearly record decisions or convincingly justify them. They are more interested in ensuring they are not held responsible. Examine every single case where your government has rightly been hauled up: whether it is the 2G scam,or the recent order by the Green Tribunal in the Posco case. You will find a common pattern: an arbitrary government,whose paper work is shoddy; a government not attuned to modern governance; a government that acted as if it would not have to justify itself to anyone. Like courtly politics,there is very little distinction between the personal and the political. Ministers from finance downwards seem to promulgate policies as if they were matters of personal fiefdom rather than an exercise in public reason. One cannot remember a time in the last decade,when there was so much arbitrariness and uncertainty. Some good initiatives are taking place,but they are overshadowed by the general rot and lack of articulation.
One hallmark of arrogance is that when the world does not conform to the Congresss expectations,it blames the world rather than reform itself. Your governments sole political strategy is to use the machinery of the state to impugn critics rather than learn from them. It is to dismiss any political loss as a contingent aberration. UP should have been a wake-up call for you. But your explanation,that everything else was fine,except organisational weakness,misses the point. Organisations do not exist in a vacuum. How can a government riddled with corruption,evasion and denial inspire organisational energy? How can you elicit allegiance,when there does not seem to be the minimal ability to convey any evidence that the party has grasped the importance of this historical moment? Instead of empowering people and removing barriers to their progress and enterprise,the partys message seems to be an endless tale of woe for much of which it is itself responsible. Victory and defeat are part of politics. But if the party draws the wrong lesson from defeat,it will be catastrophic.
Your party will point out your personal virtues and those of the prime minister. They will protect you and say that you,like the prime minister,have written letters pointing out malfunctions in government. But this is to enact the very medievalism we are complaining about: it assumes that the supposed personal virtues of the prime minister or Congress president should exempt them from accountability for their actions and omissions. The privilege of getting away by writing letters belongs to lesser mortals like us. In the position of power that you have,you will be held responsible for the rot you are presiding over. I would not presume to prejudge whether the Congress can transform itself into an open,dynamic,forward-looking party,rather than remaining a closed,tired,reactionary party. But if the last two years are anything to go by,the prospects look dim.
The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi