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Nationalism is so 2000

As economics transforms our politics,will we see a smarter idea of India?

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
January 1, 2010 2:01:54 am

History often has an extraordinary way of humbling our interpretive conceits. What seem like deep trends,turn out to be flashes in the pan. On the other hand,the surface drama of historical events often disguises the really deep undercurrents. The Owl of Minerva indeed spreads it wings at the falling of dusk. And knowledge more often than not gets us to fight battles already past. The two big political stories of the decade just past were this. At the start of the decade the rise of the BJP and the decline of the Congress seemed,almost irrevocable. Yet the momentum for the BJP turned out be much more fragile and the turnaround of the Congress quite dramatic. In fact,the fortune of these two parties is an object lesson that political fortunes depend upon an intangible mix of circumstance,leadership,organisational inventiveness,credibility and good judgment. Any political party that falls prey to the hubris that its ideology,or own sense of virtue gives it an entitlement to rule,will duly suffer. Congress nearly paid this price in the nineties and the BJP has done so even more dramatically. But the fundamental truth that politics requires judgment,not a mechanical application of ideological templates will remain as true in the coming decade as it has ever been.

But at least four current trends suggest an advantage for Congress. First,after decades of neglect it is slowly but surely revamping the organisation from bottom up. Second,Rahul Gandhi has shown judgment in three respects: staying out of office as long as possible in a way that neutralises many critics of dynasty politics; recognising that Congress needs to go it alone for it to be a vibrant national party; and focussing time on the party itself. Third,the BJP’s serious structural problem is not just its links with the RSS and leadership issues. It is that it is competitive only in 200 seats at a generous estimate,and it has to peak in all those simultaneously for it to be a serious contender. The Congress is competitive in more than 400 and is likely to retain an advantage. This may change if there is an unforeseen national calamity,or if changes in the representative system such as women’s reservations upset political alignments as electoral rejigging often tends to do. But the blunt truth is that India’s political future is likely to be determined by how many own goals the Congress will score.

But this is at the surface of politics. The real underlying story will continue to remain how economics is subtly transforming Indian politics. India’s integration into the world economy,contrary to most fears,has lessened not increased a politics of anxiety. Politics is often shaped by subtle changes of mood. India’s self-image has changed considerably. It is now beginning to have a sense of being able to change its own destiny for the first time in modern history. Some of this sense of self-importance is exaggerated. But there is a palpable sense in which we are less anxious and more hopeful as a nation. And nations in such a frame of mind are less likely to be hostages to a politics of resentment,a fact the BJP failed to understand. At one level,India being a repeated target of terrorism is still a grim reminder of how incompetent its state can sometimes be. But the fact that despite all that,there was no significant internal backlash or politics of reprisal is a sign,not of apathy,but of quiet self-confidence which makes for more equanimity in politics. Again,this is an area where,politicians,out of desperation may try to score own goals; but the undercurrent is towards the creation of a more sophisticated Indian nationalism,not one swayed by momentary frenzies.

The second subtle way in which economics has transformed politics is this. The untold story of growth is what it has done to Indian democracy and the state. The Indian state is still often corrupt,venial,incompetent and fragile. But under the surface a quiet transformation is taking place. First,we forget that Indian growth has been made possible by a high savings rate which is now touching East Asian and Chinese levels. But 40 per cent of the increase in our savings rate has come from enhanced government savings; the last decade was the first in which government went from being a net drain in narrow financial terms to a net contributor. The recent profligacy of spending,and irrational subsidies,and avoidance of the FRBM Act notwithstanding,the state is becoming more responsible in its fiscal approach: always a good sign. Indian reform has not followed a first principles template,and it never will; but in unexpected ways the general direction of keeping growth growing will prevail.

Identity politics will not disappear. But there is a beginning of a shift from identity as a default template to performance. Economics has brought about this shift. The scale of government spending is altering the incentives for politicians. Till the late nineties,even the best performing government could not make much of a difference in the lives of the poor. A scheme worth a thousand crores used to be considered a big scheme. So the default position of both voters and politicians was that the marginal impact of the state was actually low; it did not really make a difference who came and who went. Now schemes are of an order of magnitude bigger; in some cases over hundred thousand crores. This is leading some politicians to the conclusion that if they perform well they will be rewarded by the voters; they have enough resources to send credible signals to large sections of the population. There is an old argument in political science that,with the exception of India,you had to be a middle income country for serious democracy to take root. Political scientists often interpreted this to mean that you needed a middle class. An alternative interpretation would be that a politics of accountability kicks in only when the state is of a sufficient size.

And for voters as well,paradoxically the stakes of politics are becoming higher not lower. We bemoan political apathy. But we must also recognise the fact that voters,particularly at the state level,are for the most part becoming more discriminating,and the vicious cycles of knee-jerk anti-incumbency are over. This will set up a healthier politics of accountability. The scale of government spending is making possible a shift away from the politics of identity to the politics of development. We have a long way to go,but this change has been made possible by growth. Second,our infrastructure is woefully inadequate. But again,compared to a decade ago the quality of our roads,ports,airports is improving. There is a real revolution in rural roads,though the energy scenario remains bleak. It is not that corruption will come down. But politicians have found innovative ways of extracting rents,through innovative euphemisms like PPPs,at the same time ensuring that the quality of construction improves. Third,the main source of corruption in services to the poor was that the state simply did not have instruments to identify who the poor are. For the first time in India’s history,if the universal ID scheme is successful,the states will have the means to identify the poor. This will enable better delivery of social services and subsidy. I don’t want to minimise the challenge of corruption. But now all the elements are being put in place that can help mitigate its ill effects. So the coming decade is likely to see higher growth,higher government spending (particularly if GST is put in place and India’s tax over GDP ratio increases),creation of more elements of a welfare state,and therefore a greater interest in accountability. There will be ups and downs,but there is good reason to think that in 2020 we will think of our current despair over accountability,the way we think of our despair over India’s prospects: all relics of the past.

The last phase of the deepening of India’s democracy centred on greater representation for marginalised groups in politics. India will now need a different kind of deepening as a result of its success. India remains amongst the most centralised societies in the world. The lines of our governance challenges pass through decentralisation. Decentralisation is important for a number of reasons. First,it is a much more effective mechanism of accountability. Our experience with decentralisation has been mixed primarily because we have not properly decentralised. Proper decentralisation requires devolution of powers,finances and building capacity. Despite the 73rd Amendment we have not done any of these things properly. Second,decentralisation is a better way of accommodating identity aspirations. Third,the biggest challenge we will face is coping with rapid urbanisation. Global experience tell us that unless there is clarity over what functions of government should be performed at which level,it is very hard for societies to manage rapid urbanisation.

The elements of a virtuous cycle between politics and economics are now coming into place. They are often not the product of conscious design,but a consequence of the cunning of unreason,intelligently exploited. India’s growing inequalities may lock us into a growth trap. This can happen through several mechanisms. Growing class inequality can produce new forms of social conflict; the legitimacy of growth may begin to be questioned. These are genuine and serious worries,though they represent opportunities as well. Some degree of enhanced class conflict is not only desirable but is necessary to produce a politics of accountability. You cannot have a healthy capitalism without an intelligent Left critique and this will,despite the governance perfidies of the Left parties,emerge in due course.

For the first time in modern Indian history,Indians,including the very marginalised,have a sense that change is possible: our destinies are ours to shape. But as the material and political circumstances of our existence improve,our biggest challenges may ultimately remain the oldest ones: what are our values? Right now,in order to break the shackles of the past,we are in the grip of a great wave of instrumentalism. But what the new moral order will be will come to be the more and not less pressing question.

What set our national movement apart was its hope that India would be the site of an alternative universality. Its conduct and politics would be marked,not just by nationalism,but a consciousness of the higher values to which nations ought to be subordinate. Almost every nationalist leader of note harboured that ambition. These values were not just to be a check on the dangers of collective narcissism; they would give the idea of India certain legitimacy. Many of these high ideals floundered for a variety of reasons: their sheer impracticality,the triumph of political necessity,and the occasional lack of courage to live up to them. But as India rises as a great power,the question will beckon it again. How is India going to be different from great powers of the past? Power is necessary in world affairs. But will India,like the great powers around us,escape the temptation to convert a means into an end? Anxious nationalism will diminish,but a debate over the content of the idea of India will not.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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