As India approaches a general election, much agitation, tumult and uncertainty have seized the land. Many different apprehensions are casting a shadow on its promise. That India has become apprehensive is itself a surprise. After all, the country had recently experienced a record decade of growth. Millions have been lifted out of poverty and are on the move. Its democracy, for all its rough edges, looked vibrant. Its entrepreneurs were ready to take on the world. Its civil society was teeming with experiments. India had a youthful energy, clamouring to take its place at the world’s high table. Even the millions still not fully participating in this growth story could, for the first time, believe that India can change. And yet how swiftly did that confidence vanish. It was almost as if a climber on a steep rock, having made steady progress on her ascent, suddenly decided to look down, and was struck by a sense of vertigo. In the resulting headiness, she could not decide whether to go up or down. There was a deep sense of confusion, a loss of resolve and direction. She remained frozen, yelling and precariously perched. Anything could happen. The vertigo could grow and result in a free fall. Someone might throw a lifeline and rescue the climber. Or more optimistically, all she needed to do was look up again at her goal, in the right direction and continue the steady march upwards. India seemed similarly perched. For a distant observer, it all looked tense and thrilling. Any outcome was possible. Would India just hang precariously? Would it fall? Would it begin to rise again?
Much ink has been spilled trying to diagnose India’s malaise. After all, the country had a massive challenge to overcome. It had to accomplish four transitions simultaneously, and it appeared to be faltering on all four. The first transition was economic: the creation of a sustainable high-growth economy in which more and more citizens could participate. The second was institutional: the transition from a state based on vertical accountability, secrecy, centralisation and wide discretion to a state based on horizontal accountability, transparency, participation and the exercise of discretion governed by public reason (see Tocsin for an Ancien Regime, Feb 4, 2013). The third transition was political: the movement from a plutocratic, closed, patronage-based system invested in mobilising identities in a debilitating way to a less corrupt, open competition-based system where identity did not disable reason. The fourth was a social transition. In addition to state and market failures, India also needed to focus on social failures. What were the social processes that constantly produced a low-trust society that wrecked its ability to cooperate? As old forms of authority, family and religion dissolve, what will be the sites where new norms are produced? Would modernity manifest itself in the move to a society where we recognise what norms freedom and equality entail? Or would it get manifested in the pathologies of violence?
These transitions are, of course, all linked in subtle ways. The growth project, as India discovered, could come to a grinding halt if institutions lose their legitimacy, ability to mediate social conflict and capacity to take decisions. Politics in turn is more likely to take dangerous turns when the economic dream is faltering. A society rife with mistrust cannot be a liberal one. The mutual hostility between citizens will always empower the state at the expense of the former. Social norms in turn have huge economic consequences. A society that consistently marginalises women will diminish its own prospects. These are platitudes central to any modernisation process. During the last decade, it seemed that India was beginning to make progress on all four transitions. It appeared that something deep was beginning to stir, unsettling old uncertainties, challenging new power structures, even generating new and more productive forms of conflict. But then India’s elites decided to wilfully wreck the story on all our fronts. In each case, there was an underlying social momentum that held promise; in each case, elites decided to go against the flow and squelch emerging possibilities. This election is about dealing with the aftermath.
It’s the Growth, Stupid
Let us take each of these transitions to see how India’s elites squelched the dynamism of their own society. India’s growth story is now at serious risk: the last two years have seen growth dip to alarmingly low levels, inflation remains high and the macro economy fragile. Why did India’s growth story falter? There are, as always, structural explanations; global factors did affect the fortunes of all emerging markets. But somewhere India’s elites got lost in a fog of their own making. It has to be said gracelessly, but the blunt truth is this: India’s elites have never whole-heartedly embraced a commitment to growth out of a variety of contradictory impulses. We should not fetishise GDP numbers: the quality, composition and sustainability of growth are all important. But make no mistake about it: growth is the most revolutionary force in Indian society, which is why elites constantly get skittish about it.
The psychological transformations that growth brings should not be underestimated. There is a world of difference between societies where per capita incomes double every eight years or so, versus ones where per capita incomes double in twice that time. Look at some of the underlying dynamics growth has unleashed. Even as recently as a decade ago, we used to have endless debates about the demand for education. That debate is now over, in part because nothing gives education more of a fillip than actually seeing returns to education. Of course, there are massive quality failures in our system, but the underlying change in demand dynamics is nothing short of a social revolution.
There were other good signs in the offing. Rural wages rose. The shift to non-agricultural occupations in rural India grew. As the increasing number of strikes showed, the bargaining power of labour may be returning. The Indian middle class keeps cribbing about the increasing costs of household labour. This is a good thing. In short, there was some evidence that even marginalised labour has more choices than before. Consumption of the bottom decile rose. But, more importantly, in large parts of the country, people are seeing actual pathways of economic change. One of the great blind spots of social science in India is that it focuses only on an abstract idea of poverty at the bottom, or the depredations of elites at the top. There is almost no documentation of pathways of change in the middle: the driver who comes to the city and becomes the owner of a fleet of several taxis within a decade; the lower-middle-class entrepreneur in education who goes from virtually zero capital to a turnover of hundreds of crores in a decade; the rise of Dalit entrepreneurship; the increasing number of children of domestic servants making it to lower middle class or middle class status within a decade; the increasing dissociation of caste and occupation and so forth. One need not be Panglossian about this social change, but the way in which we are ignoring a silent revolution for formulaic genuflections on poverty is scandalous.
Growth can precipitate a revolution in governance. Eight per cent growth, without increasing tax rates, translates into more than 15-20 per cent growth in government revenue. In short, growth is what allows you to build government. The fact is that the Indian state is now capable of doing a lot more things than it was more than a decade ago; that it does not do half the things as well as it might is a failure of our politics, not the limits of growth. All the things we want from a state will be enabled only by growth. You cannot have a sustainable welfare state without growth. In fact, you cannot build the state without growth.
There is no doubt that the pattern of growth, particularly in five or six sectors, has enabled increased rent-seeking. However, we should not elide the fact that in so many other areas, the state now touches the lives of citizens more deeply than it did a decade ago. If you were thinking dialectically rather than polemically, you could argue that it is precisely this increase in the state’s presence that growth enabled that is now sowing the seeds of an accountability revolution where old principles of governance are no longer tenable.
In an inchoate way, growth mitigated some of India’s worst anxieties. To put matters in historical perspective, Indian nationalism became much less anxious than it was from the 1970s to the ’90s. There was the sense that we could make it. Despite massive problems, with the exception of Maoist violence, the degree to which social peace has been held in the last decade had been impressive. It is largely because people at all levels feel they have something to lose by disruption. In some ways, the deeply disfiguring warts of our society are also becoming more visible, because growth makes it impossible to sequester and segregate. The so-called Indian tolerance was often founded on a social fixity: each community in its place. You will see more discussion around discrimination, gender, because growth has enabled a kind of mobility where people are knocking at closed spaces, clamouring that they be opened up.
There was perhaps one space in which the current pattern of growth did have irretrievable negative consequences. There is a conventional wisdom that the relationship between the environment and growth is a kind of U curve; the environment deteriorates for a while but then improves as growth improves. This assumption for countries like India and China is a mistake. It is turning out that the damage to the environment can be irretrievable. India’s air, rivers and groundwater are perilously close to that point. But finding a growth path that mitigates these risks is not rocket science; indeed, the need for a better environment can be an opportunity rather than a constraint. It was an intellectual failure that growth and environment became such binaries.
The spectre of misery and cruelty in India is still too overwhelming to be complacent. But for the very same reason, it is unconscionable to minimise the importance of the single most important driver of social change in India: growth. A GDP number is the harbinger of a social revolution: a sense of expanded opportunity, rising wages, greater mobility, pathways to social change, an altered sense of the self, a massive change in the scale and scope of government operations. This truth needs to be stated, perhaps even with a degree of exaggeration. If we falter on our commitment to growth, the fall will be steep and possibly fatal. But this simple truth proves more elusive.
Three contradictory forces conspired against growth. The first was a genuine intellectual myopia in the Congress party that refused to recognise the preconditions for its own success. It forgot that the social sector depended on growth; and it forgot that the point of social sector spending should be to enable economic participation in real jobs, not just episodic income support. Its policies became increasingly driven, not by any understanding of the logic of growth and prosperity, but by a singular obsession with its own bad conscience about the poor. Until very recently, the one language Rahul Gandhi refused to speak was the language of aspiration; even in his best moments he could not transcend the language of noblesse oblige. They simply let the ball drop.
The second group was what might be called fatalist economists: a group that came to believe that eight per cent growth was India’s birth-right. This group believed that an irresistible combination of demography and savings would keep India on the growth path. No other radical reforms needed to be undertaken; no questions needed to be asked about what would have to be true for government to enable growth. How else do you explain the fact that a dream team of economists is leaving a macro-economic wreck? The importance of growth was not undermined by its enemies on the Left; it was undermined by the complicit and mendacious silence of the reformers.
The third group was India’s big business. When the history of Indian capital is written, it will be obvious that India’s big business were not a force for creating a pro-business environment. They were a force for protecting their own privileges, which in part meant perpetuating an inhibited environment for genuine competition to flourish. The biggest of them all seceded from India, literally and figuratively; they flourished in a world of negotiated and renegotiated deals, and never became the force for a more rules-based capitalism. They did lasting damage to the social legitimacy of growth.
Will any of the contending parties in this tumult fix this mess? The one lesson from recent Indian history is that we throw up unexpected heroes and devils. Prior to 1999, no one would have expected finance ministers like Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha, given all their limitations, to bring a degree of macro-economic responsibility to decision-making. The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act, 2003, and the restructuring of government finance was an act of self-abnegation that allowed the UPA to coolly reap the benefits. On the other hand, who would have thought that a quartet of Pranab Mukherjee, P. Chidambaram, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would carpet-bomb India’s macro-economic prospects, ruining their own achievements. So the honest answer is: we don’t know.
We are in genuinely uncharted territory as far as the economic imagination goes. For Congress, promises are beside the point; it has just lost credibility. Modi’s comfort zone at the moment seems to be projects rather than policies. To put it somewhat melodramatically, his plan for India, at the moment, seems to have two legs: hoping that a degree of political certainty and administrative clarity will restore confidence. And the second leg seems like a giant construction plan for India with everything from cities to bullet trains. Both have an element of promise in them. But they will not be sufficient to handle the tough choices a new government will have to face on rationalising subsidies to tax reform, on fiscal rectitude to creating more effective regulatory frameworks. We simply don’t know how his team will think about these issues.
The central question of how to create better and meaningful jobs seems to elude all parties. Congress confuses modest income support with job creation; the BJP is pinning its hopes on infrastructure and construction, and the Aam Aadmi Party’s views are still evolving. The only hope is that the new government will learn this one fact. Growth may not be a panacea. But if it falters, all bets are off, including the prospects for re-election.
The Wages of Plutocracy
The second and third transition, reform in administration and politics, are perhaps the most discussed currently. Here again India had begun to make strides. The Right to Information, the supreme legislative achievement of the UPA, was a catalyst in producing a new churning. All parties, at least formally, talk about decentralisation and more participatory governance. In independent branches of the government, from the Supreme Court to the office of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, in civil society and media, there was a new culture of shining the spotlight on corruption. And there is no question that India had become a plutocracy of the most insidious kind. At a similar moment in American history, William Bryan Jennings had put the matter perfectly. “Plutocracy is abhorrent to a republic; it is more despotic than a monarchy, more heartless than an aristocracy, more selfish than a bureaucracy.” Plutocracy had begun to gnaw away at every aspect of the Republic: it subverted law, rendered regulation irrelevant, representation ineffective and even began to corrode basic values like media freedom. There is no question that cumulative anger was building up on this issue. If we had had more open political parties and a more imaginative political class, they would have tried to convert this into India’s progressive moment. But the major political parties, so deeply complicit in the old system, did everything to thwart this bubbling revolution from below. The BJP made a big song and dance about black money, only to forget about its own black sheep. The Congress spoke in forked tongues: pretending to speak a new institutional language, while continuing to give aid and succour to the most corrupt. Just witness the recent fracas over the Medical Council of India (MCI). The response from the entrenched political system was a strange combination of avoidance and brazenness. In the Congress, the game was to run away from responsibility: the prime minister apparently didn’t know anything; Rahul Gandhi was a victim of this Congress system he has nothing to do with. Not one political party did its slightest bit to restore confidence in existing institutions of government, from Parliament to committees, from CBI to handling of government officers.
The transition would have been easy if someone at the top of existing parties had seen the writing on the wall and tried to run with this wave of the future. But by the time they woke up, their credibility had been so eroded that a stench of general destructiveness hung in the air. Such a closed system needed a battering ram from the outside, which is exactly what AAP provided. The fight against a closed plutocracy will stand outside of conventional understanding of institutional frames. Its point is that precisely because all the things we cherish—law procedure, the Constitution, Parliament—have been so corroded by plutocracy, we cannot rely on conventional means for reform. They are now technical niceties that have become weapons against the people; these institutions have become anarchic. Second, the attack on plutocracy will have the appearance of smash and grab. Since the rich stole, some of that must be reappropriated. The argument over pricing, whether of gas or electricity, is not about technically optimal pricing. It is a crystallisation of the politics of reappropriation. It will be a politics of excess. When orderly means of change do not exist, the only strategy available is to polarise the polity by focusing on one evil to an obsessive degree.
This is where there is both promise and danger. The promise of all this mobilisation is that large sections of government are beginning to get the message that in the future their conduct will be under scrutiny, one way or the other. But there are three dangers. The first is that in the short run, this will produce a paralysis. When norms change, the first instinct of decision-makers is to protect themselves from future prosecution. And the simplest way of doing this is by not taking decisions. But this problem is not as difficult to fix as some think. It will require returning to the core principle of democracy: ministerial responsibility. Elected officials will have to, as should automatically be the case in a democracy, both take responsibility for the decision, and the job of defending it by public reason. But the corrosive example of prime ministerial abdication has eaten away at this principle.
The second great danger is that our obsessions become entirely punitive. Sure, a credible punishment for serious perpetrators of corruption will send the right message across the system. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that fixing the corruption problem will be well served by a whole range of top-down institutions like the Lokpal; indeed these may have perverse consequences. It will rather require a patient rebuilding of so many different parts of the state, from public prosecutors’ office to police. This requires a patient institutional imagination. The battering ram can give an initial impetus for reform, but it is not a substitute for intelligent use of institutions. The best revolutions are not ones which reflect excess and frustration; they are ones that do enough to make elites realise that if they do not reform, they will perish. What is making this transition painful is that none of the existing political elites had the good sense to restore confidence in existing institutions. If Parliament or its select committees function, half the job of accountability can be done painlessly. But instead of the competitive mechanism between political parties providing an incentive for accountability, we fell into the third danger: of dramatising it as a contest between ‘conventional politicians’ and ‘outsiders’.
A Mirror onto Society
The fourth transition, the social one, is in some ways the most challenging. It is challenging because it does not lend itself to easy political articulation. It is challenging because there are limits to what politics can do. In fact, in India, there is a real danger that blaming politicians has become an alibi for deep social failure. One reason why the sense of crisis and frustration seems so dispiriting was because no social institution was exempt from the pathology we associate with politics. All our professional institutions, from law to medicine, are mired in structures of corruption that often make politicians look saintly.
We have to understand the role of the professions (law, medicine, accountancy, journalism, management, academics, etc) in providing the enabling conditions for a society to flourish. Beyond the state and market, these professional groups, with their own norms and identities, are absolutely central to the functioning of any modern society. It could be argued without too much exaggeration that these groups are the principal source of a functional and institutionalised morality in modern societies. These groups are not defined by self-sacrifice—far from it. They are, in principle, defined by certain activities. They participate in civic life and contribute to society through their profession. Well-functioning groups will be driven by a respect for the norms and standards of the activity. So, to simplify, lawyers will act as ‘officers of the court’, doctors will be in the business of saving lives, accountants exposing fraud, etc. The existence of professional communities in which norms and standards are maintained is crucial in two respects: both states and markets rely on them, and it is largely professional communities that can create compliance with norms. The biggest crisis we may be facing is perhaps not that of the state or market, but in the idea of professionalism.
But the question of norms can be cut up so many different ways. Just think of another mismatch because of norms. Here is some dramatic good news. Fertility rates are declining. Female participation in higher education has seen a revolutionary rise. In urban India, female enrolment is now slightly higher than male enrolment. In fact, there is a reverse puzzle waiting to be unpacked: a large proportion of the gains in the gross enrolment ratio in higher education has been the rise in female enrolment; male enrolment was stagnant for almost 20 years. Yet, India globally ranks 11th from the bottom in female workforce participation; after hovering around the 30 per cent mark, the rate fell. Part of the problem seems to be, as most papers on the subject suggest, serious measurement errors. As a society, we are finding it hard to measure, and therefore, to measure up to ourselves. But even then, behind these numbers is a welter of social forces whose impact we need to understand. Our norms are falling behind deep changes in social reality.
Politics does come in the articulation of norms in two respects. First, by colonising our imaginations, it simply sucks out energy from things that truly matter. Second, politics can ease the social transition if its leaders have the courage to be exemplary. If politics empowers reactionary social forces, khap panchayats, for example, it will only embolden those who want to fight against an emerging reality.
But there is another set of norms that perhaps call for more political comment. This is a set of norms that are constitutive of the basic framework of democracy: free speech, freedom, equality and tolerance. Given the daily assaults on free speech, this may not be the most convincing thing to say. But there is reason to believe that a small group of elites is actually working against emerging norms. The problem may not be that majorities are getting more intolerant; the problem may be that no one in the political establishment is willing to stand up to small minorities that can hold values hostage. This is true on a range of issues. Identities will matter in India; but Indians are beginning to feel the suffocation that the tyranny of state-sponsored compulsory identities produces. Yet politicians keep reinforcing them through new legislative contrivances. There are no social mass movements behind curbing of speech, just the inability of the law to stand up to miscreants. Indian society is not growing more conservative. But, yes, those affected by changes are being given more protection and mileage by the state.
What of the central normative axis that defines Indian politics—secularism? This is not the occasion to debate the threat Narendra Modi may or may not pose to the fundamental fabric of the Republic. But it is an occasion for self-reflection on four issues. Secularism became more a source of confusion than moral clarity for a number of reasons. Secularism sometimes seems to be reduced to an ineffable quality of the heart. Secularism as a personal virtue is the idea that the individual does not harbour invidious prejudice against particular communities for being who they are. This is an important virtue. But in India this personal virtue has been such an unreliable guide to the institutional practice of secularism. This is what deepens the puzzle. How do people come to be marked as secular in political terms? If people make the transition from being allegedly non-secular to acceptably secular in political terms, like L.K. Advani apparently has but Narendra Modi has not, what are the markers of this transition?
This question is complicated. Religiosity has never been a marker of secularism in India. Some deeply religious people can be good political secularists; many non-religious characters have been perfect charlatans on secularism. Being secular used to be identified with a historical orientation: subscribe to one single Congress-Left narrative of Indian history. This was a paradoxical position. It recognised that avoiding religious strife was an important political task. But it went about this task by disavowing the idea that there could have been genuine religious difference and conflict in the past. It sanitised, almost as if to say that the truth of Indian secularism needed the lie of Indian history. Where secularism lost out was that both secularists and non-secularists were fighting on the terrain of the past. It was something of a liberation when some finally recognised that let history be history, and let it be argued out as such. Crafting a forward-looking community of fate, bound by common values, would be ill-served by the narrow interpretations of the Left or the fanatical ones of the Right.
The third marker might be institutional behaviour. But here the story gets puzzling. Rajiv Gandhi’s regime, in a short span, took more anti-secular decisions than any government had in living memory, achieving the rare feat of making every community feel targeted. You might ask the question: which government has gone by its rajdharma in the face of imminent riots? Even the redoubtable Tarun Gogoi seems to have a difficult time preventing the largest internal displacement of Muslims. Here the record turns out to be mixed. The Congress’s legendary inaction for four days during the Mumbai riots, documented by the Srikrishna Commission, is up there in the abdication of rajdharma. Some organised Hindu groups may pose a threat to free speech. But it is a gratuitous falsification of history to suppose that free expression was safer under Congress rule.
There is a nauseating use of the 1984-2002 pair in public argument. One side says, since 1984 happened, don’t ask questions about 2002. In the end, when the crunch came, Rahul Gandhi managed to look as mendacious on 1984 as Modi does to his detractors. You have to wonder why clamping down on art in Baroda University is communal, but clamping down on free exchange of ideas on the Jamia campus is not. Is it because of a construction of secularism that regards it as a matter of ineffable intent, not one that assesses institutional conduct? Or is it a version of the hilarious line from Ishqiya: tumhara ishq ishq aur hamara ishq sex?
In short, just as capitalism was short-changed by its supporters, secularists destroyed the credibility of secularism. This is at one level a shame because the Congress is not the carrier of an authentic secularism. It frittered away growth and made secularism look opportunistic—that against an opponent like Modi! Its failures do not exonerate Modi’s sins of omissions. But they have given him a political free pass. The challenge will be this. Can we liberate the norms of secularism from the corruptions of partisan politics and give it a more consistent institutional identity?
Winds of change
So this is the question. Does India look more precarious because its underlying dynamics are actually worrying? Or does it look precarious because its elites are slow in recognising the demands of the time? If it is the latter, there is some reason to be cautiously optimistic. Cautiously, because never underestimate the damage elites can produce via a combination of cognitive failures and venal interests.
Perhaps it is a source of some comfort that so far the dominant narratives in this election are the fear of plutocracy and the fear of paralysis. Both suggest India is clamouring for change. Perhaps we are underestimating India’s capacity for change. After all, the two forces that are conceptually dominating the election—AAP and Narendra Modi—are an entirely unprecedented phenomenon. AAP’s influence is not best measured by the numbers it gets; it is measured by how much it is forcing other parties to respond to issues they had colluded to ignore. Modi is politically an unprecedented phenomenon that cannot be understood in terms of conventional analysis. He has created his own legitimacy, against great odds, both inside the party and outside. He is beginning to rewrite the rules of Indian politics, and unless he scores a spectacular own goal, he is likely to succeed. AAP notwithstanding, the momentum is behind BJP. One suspects there will be a continuation of the trend we have seen in so many recent elections, that the eventual frontrunner does even better closer to the election. The Indian electorate will give a verdict more decisive than we are suspecting at the moment.
That verdict will give India a chance to reboot. It will, for a while at least, correct the central weakness of the last few years: the complete decimation of the Office of the Prime Minister. From this decimation the entire structure of government got disfigured. But fixing this, which is essentially what we will be voting for, will be just one step in the vast repair job that needs to be done. So the question will be whether the new government can reboot the Indian conversation in the framework of these four transitions. Will it understand what it takes to run a successful, just and free modern society? The jury is out on that question. But the question for us is going to be: what kinds of pressures and ideas can push the new government in the right direction? There are genuine worries about what a new Modi government is going to be like. We are in uncharted territory on many levels. But if we are now to put pressure on Modi to move in the right direction, we will need new strategies and engagement. Modi did not defeat his opponents; Congress pulled the rug from under their own feet by destroying the credibility of all principles and institutions. Perhaps the challenge for a democracy is not that it will change devils into angels; its peculiar dignity is to get even devils to do the right thing.
If India falters on any of the four transitions—growth, administrative reform, political acuity and the creation of new social norms—the India story will collapse. Many of these are difficult questions. But if we are to tackle them, we will have to change our habits of argument and the deployment of our energies. A democracy’s biggest challenge is the balance between partisanship and principle. Partisanship is necessary for organising power; it is also a principle of accountability. Yet mere partisanship detached from principled and intelligent stands can also bring democracy to a grinding halt. Excessive partisanship can also corrode credibility and reasoned argument. We lost, across the political spectrum, a sense of judgement; bringing the opponent down became more important than the defence of values or the achievement of objectives. Leaders and elites cannot do everything. But the one thing they can do is to make sure you are pointed in the right direction. If they do not block the way, India can rise to the summit.
(Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president and chief executive of Centre for Policy Research, and a visiting professor at Harvard University.)