History teaches us that minorities can sustain unjust equilibriums for many years. But it also teaches us that discrete events create fertile mental possibilities that combine with one big event and change history. I’d like to make the case that the prosecution of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa in a disproportionate assets case makes 2014, like 1919, a year that marks the end of a joint venture between a political minorities and their chosen constituencies. In 1919, 62 years after the British empire officially began, Indian life expectancy was 27 years and only 11 per cent of men and 1.1 per cent of women could read. This empire was a joint venture with narcissist maharajas; Rajendra Singh of Patiala told a viceroy’s representative that “he worked hard spending an hour and a half every day on state business and at the end of it he was exhausted”. An extract from Bikaner’s annual budget from that period symbolises royal priorities — prince’s wedding, Rs 8.25 lakh, palace repairs, Rs 4.26 lakh, royal family, Rs 2.24 lakh, public works Rs 0.30 lakh and sanitation Rs 0.05 lakh. The turning point for our freedom struggle was Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. But the run-up was important: Gandhiji returned to India in 1915, the rift between reformists and extremists from the 1906 Surat Congress session healed in 1916, and the Bolsheviks got rid of the tsar in 1917. Historians suggest that Jallianwala Bagh happened because Indian soldiers returning from the First World War, having fought with and killed white people, asked deep questions about racial superiority that made independence mentally possible. Similarly, Jayalalithaa’s prosecution combines with recent events to make a new politics possible.
The prosecution of a sitting chief minister in a disproportionate assets case is a decision with long shadows. Accountability for corruption at high levels has been difficult because there are often no fingerprints on the murder weapon. This is not a uniquely Indian problem; even American gangster Al Capone could finally only be convicted for income tax fraud. Lately, Indian politicians have dropped the narrative of frugality and left footprints in their assets and lifestyle that are difficult to erase. Many families in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Sikkim, Telangana and other states must be worried. Over the last two decades, politics has been the Indian business with the highest EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation) margins and returns on invested capital. It is silly when a former Bangalore ward corporator with no previous job and a low salary declares he has more assets than Nancy Pelosi, who received a substantial salary as former head of the US Democratic Party.
Hopefully, this conviction will also make frugality fashionable in public life again. It is a myth that political dynasties are sustained because of brand; the primary weapon for most sexually transmitted political positions is treasure. Finding money to fight elections without corruption is complicated but not impossible, and if we dry the swamp, we make it feasible to fight elections on keeping promises.
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Simplifying things substantially, we have had three phases in Indian politics. Politics 1.0 was the Independence struggle, which created a mass movement along with vibrant inner-party democracy for the Congress. Politics 2.0 began in 1947 and lasted till Indira Gandhi became PM; the idealism of an independent nation glowed brightly, politicians led frugal lives and political legitimacy came from building institutions. Politics 3.0 started in 1968; inner-party democracy vanished in the Congress party, the politics of poverty meant populism, corruption was necessary to sustain your political machinery, frugality became old-fashioned, so ostentatious weddings, houses and cars became common. A series of recent events — the Aam Aadmi Party, corruption investigations in telecom and coal, a massive divergence between real and nominal wages, and agriculture employing 50 per cent of workers but only generating 15 per cent of the GDP — created the churn that crystallised in a 2014 national election that was not won on populism.
Combine that outcome with the prosecution of a sitting chief minister for disproportionate assets and the contours of politics 4.0 start emerging; a politics anchored in execution and keeping promises.
The 2014 election was lost on positioning the state as the solution to poverty and won on the promise of keeping promises. The results were magnificently described by a British columnist as “the day the British finally left India”. Even the populist Rajasthan state government lost the assembly elections badly. Populism matters but only works if it seems sustainable. As the quip goes, you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Populism is about governing in poetry and it isn’t working well because voters now understand that free power means no power. Central government priorities are emerging: Make in India, Skill India, Digital India, and Clean India. And the state government in Rajasthan has initiated labour law and school reform, and is building roads. Policy outcomes in the past have been patchy on the ground because governments are organised vertically but these problems are horizontal. This government’s fewer goals, clearer strategies and stronger leadership show promise.
Of course, populism, corruption as a source of campaign finance and religious manipulation will not go away as political strategies in the next few elections. But I believe serious religious trouble will be avoided because this government knows that its biggest vulnerability, and its best bet, is most Indian Muslims agreeing with what Naseeruddin Shah says in his wonderful recent biography, And then One Day: “My father did not move to Pakistan because he was not a gambler. As it happened, he was not wrong in his assessment of our future chances in India”.
Politicians sabotaging corruption prosecutions and offering populism not only sound like the maharaja of Patiala opposing the 1929 Congress resolution for Purna Swaraj, but will also be left behind by politicians focusing on execution. Like 1919, 2014 is turning out to be a great year for Indian democracy.
The writer is chairman, Teamlease Services