National Interest: The deformists

National Interest: The deformists

UPA hammers down a holy consensus: poverty is my birthright and I will ensure you have it

UPA hammers down a holy consensus: poverty is my birthright and I will ensure you have it

Nine years of UPA has had one significant impact on our political economy. Our discourse was always predominantly socialist and welfarist,but under the UPA,it has now become entirely so. There is no voice offering an alternative,except some who might lean even more to the left of the NAC-stricken UPA. The consensus on political economy is now even more total than it has ever been — and even now is — on foreign policy. This is scary. And the Congress is not the only one to blame.


Read more on this debate:

While we were silent: Pratab Bhanu Mehta

Imagining a silence,missing the point: Pawan Khera

Note to UPA-bashers: Shashi Tharoor

A people in despair,a government in wonderland: Madhu Trehan


It started the repudiation of the vanilla growth-is-good idea. As it came to power in the summer of 2004,the Congress did not reject growth and reform out of hand. It merely qualified both terms. So one became inclusive growth,and the other,reform with a human face. These changes were much more than merely editorial or ornamental. They were politically loaded. The implication being that growth,by itself,is iniquitous,and reform is brutal and inhuman. Nobody tried to explain how it was so. Sadly,nobody even questioned this. That is why the BJP is to blame as well. With the decline of Atal Bihari Vajpayee,there was nobody left to speak for his economics. Arun Shourie,who carried out the NDA’s most audacious reform as minister for disinvestment,was soon sidelined. The BJP inevitably echoed the Congress party’s rhetoric.


For a full nine years,therefore,India’s economic reform had no champions in national politics and only a handful within the commentariat. The Congress party’s rented intellectuals,led by the NAC,took over the entire discourse and nobody dared to question them,although some fretted behind the scenes. Inevitably,even some usual suspects,who had been celebrated as reformers in the past,took the cue and changed sides. This was a risk-free bandwagon.

NEVER in India’s history has the economic discourse been so one-sided. In the past,there was at least the unabashedly contrarian Forum of Free Enterprise of Nani Palkhivala,A.D. Shroff and M.R. Pai. Now,we have all the venerable chambers,the CII,FICCI and ASSOCHAM,hold grovelling conferences on “inclusive growth”. Even in the red-hot Sixties,there was the Swatantra Party,which may not have counted for too much in numbers,and was easily reviled as a chamber of decrepit princes,but was represented by formidable stalwarts like Chakravarti Rajagopalachari,K. M. Munshi,V. P. Menon Minoo Masani,Piloo Mody,N. G. Ranga and Gayatri Devi. Their moral and intellectual authority,and parliamentary skills,enabled them to weigh in on the debate even in a decade dominated by great socialists like Nehru,Krishna Menon and Indira Gandhi. In today’s Parliament,there is no one. There isn’t a single member,from any party,not even among any of the intellectuals and creative people nominated to the Rajya Sabha,who would question the establishment view. Povertarianism (I claim trademark on that term),therefore,became a part of our holy national consensus. Reminder: Povertarianism is a unique philosophy invented by the Congress and three generations of its intellectual fellow-travellers. The central postulate of povertarianism is,poverty is my birthright,and I shall do anything possible to make sure you have it. With apologies to Tilak: garibi hamara janmasiddha adhikar hai,aur hum ise aapko dila kar hee dum lenge.

And what about professional economists? Sonia Gandhi was at least straightforward and uncluttered. From day one,she leaned on Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz (who was just emerging and,in the words of his academic critic Jagdish Bhagwati,using his Nobel Prize as a weapon of mass destruction). She did not need to check out any contrary view. She did not need to,because she shared their fundamental worldview,or one’s scepticism of trickle-down and the other’s discontents with globalisation. But what about all the others? There were many who disagreed,but nobody was willing to come out in the open to take on the Sen-Dreze doctrine read with Stiglitz. For Indian economists,whatever their beliefs,the ultimate prize is the embrace of the establishment. The only two reckless enough to be anti-establishment were Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya. Read their latest,India’s Tryst With Destiny (Collins Business,2012).

WHERE was the BJP,meanwhile? Ok,Arun Shourie was out,but what about the party’s reformist finance and commerce ministers of the past: Jaswant Singh,Yashwant Sinha? How would you read their acquiescence? As a meek surrender? Intellectual laziness? Lack of political and philosophical spine? Instead,the party allowed fake old pinkos inherited from the detritus of old socialist parties and the desi ghee-cow’s dung-and-urine crowd from Nagpur to hijack its economic thought. The message was,anything the Congress could do to harm growth and economy,we could do worse. All the bad laws,from NREGA to right to education to increased reservations in institutions of higher education,went like knife through butter,and so will the right to food,in spite of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s opposition. Read the debates on all of these. It would be a travesty to call them debates,in fact,as everybody agrees on the basics. The only difference the BJP usually has is,how it could make these laws even worse. Privately,they would all tell you what blunders were being made,how we were bartering our children’s future away for a few votes ,and yet why nobody could afford to question these.

While the Congress subverted and then totally overwhelmed our political economy,the BJP’s intellectually bankrupt response would raise serious questions on its claims as our second largest party. Unable to come up with one new idea,one alternative agenda,it grabbed any slogan that came its way as long as it embarrassed the Congress. The right to food was to be contested,not because the idea was nutty,but because the BJP “was already doing it better in Chhattisgarh”. In the process,it unthinkingly played along with the UPA’s repudiation of Vajpayee’s reform years. In nine years,nobody from the BJP has mentioned privatisation. This is a disowning of the economic achievements of the NDA’s last three years. It’s been so vacuous as to even jump on to Baba Ramdev’s mythical campaign to bring back trillions of dollars in black money,so much that he would send a cheque of Rs 2.5 crore to each Indian. So what did they put up as an argument against the Sen-Dreze-Stiglitz povertarianism? Ramdev’s Babanomics.

That is why they have looked so lost and isolated in the economic debate,or sounded like the UPA’s B-team. It is also significant (from the BJP’s viewpoint) that they now have to deal with a leader who is willing to speak a different idiom,and question their own establishment view. Narendra Modi’s mocking of the UPA’s rights-based legislations,using the analogy of an unarmed person attacked by a tiger in a jungle trying to scare the beast away by showing him his gun licence instead,is a first. It is also disruptive: for the BJP,more than for the Congress.