Naya politics in South Asia

As an English medium Indian, for a while, I was taken in by the ‘corrupt politicians’ are the problem narrative. I thought that any news about them getting taught a lesson, losing power or even getting incarcerated was good news. For some other members of my class, it went much further. I remember reading news about a Bihar politician dying. But what I recall most is the frustration of the few commentators who actually knew about the politician’s work and were trying to pay homage to him, but getting overwhelmed by the ‘good riddance’ type comments most Indians of my type were expressing.

This narrative remains predominant in the English medium class in India even today. With a preponderance of STEM graduates, who are not accustomed to critical thinking and subjective analysis, the ‘great man’ narrative is easy to fall for when it comes to explaining (and solving) social problems. Every achievement is the result of a ‘stern’, ‘uncorrupt’ leader, while every shortcoming is because of ‘corrupt’ or ‘weak’ politicians.

The politics of newly politicized, upper middle class South Asian youth thus revolve around a ‘great man’. The manifestations of this are of course, Narendra Modi in India, and Imran Khan in Pakistan.

In India, with its deep levels of politicization, the influence of the upper middle class is not that great, but played no small part in getting Narendra Modi elected. Modi has moved things since he came to power, demonetisation, GST, RERA, insolvency act, ease of doing business and so on. But a Congress government with the same kind of mandate (a full majority) would have done exactly the same things, with the exception of demonetisation. More importantly, there isnt a single program or policy of the Congress that Modi has substantially altered, be it NREGA (hated by economic conservatives) or RTE (hated by extreme Hindutva folks).

Modi, like any smart politician knows that politics in a feudal and agrarian society like India revolves around patronage. And the key to this patronage is massive state spending on rural development, agrarian subsidies and government salaries. In every budget that the Modi government has presented, the proportion of spending on these patronage enabling items has remained unchanged from previous administrations. Corruption is simply the informal channel that actually makes this money trickle down.

In Pakistan, even though the proclivities of the English class are similar to their Indian counterparts, the situation is different. The scope for patronage spending is already constrained by the high budget demands of the army, its control of key economic sectors and the need to service existing debts. From this perspective, one can speculate that the conflict between Sharif and the army was a structural consequence of the demands of South Asian patronage politics on the one hand, and the vested interests of a small, but powerful group of people (the military). It is not clear what will enable Imran Khan to sidestep this reality. His party is filled with turncoats from other parties who know for sure that without patronage power, they dont stand a chance at getting reelected. But he does not seem to have the will or even the inclination to constrain the military.

Only an industrialized economy in which workers are less dependent on local strong men for employment and crisis-support can really alter things. Can kaptaan take Pakistan there faster than India ?

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16 Replies to “Naya politics in South Asia”

  1. “massive state spending on rural development, agrarian subsidies and government salaries. ” is patronage! Wow! I would go so far as to say electoral compulsion in a one-man-one-vote democratic system where a good percentage are poor.But you call them patronage! My take is one-man-one-vote poor country will always be a socialist country until it get rich!Period!Middle-class can whine and bitch about their “honesty” in paying taxes unlike say Ambani! LoL!

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    1. Jay, maybe I didnt phrase things properly. What I mean to say is that massive state spending enables patronage. I completely understand that this spending is eventually the consequence of genuine demands from rural areas and from the poor.

      “My take is one-man-one-vote poor country will always be a socialist country until it get rich!”

      I agree that this is how it should be. The introduction of industrial technology makes a lot of farm labour redundant, but this labour needs time to acquire the skills and the network to transition to a formal, industrial job. Most of the countries that have industrialized did not pay attention to this, with devastating political and social consequences (Germany, Russia and China).

      India does, and this augurs well for our long term future. For example, we are a large agricultural exporter despite a huge population and industrializing economy. No catastrophic political violence. However, at this point there is a lot of workforce ready to move out of agrarian or petty service jobs, but thwarted because of the low levels of industrialization.

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  2. Corruption is simply the informal channel that actually makes this money trickle down.

    This argument was made by Ashis Nandi a few years ago. It didn’t appeal to me then and it doesn’t appeal to me now.

    Corruption in the political sphere is the “art” of selling public/government services to the highest bidder in violation of existing rules. How exactly can it help the truly unfortunate, the truly deserving poor? What is the mechanism by which wealth trickles down exactly? And is it broad-based, or does this phenomenon only create more vested interests?

    In a corrupt system, it’s the most unscrupulous people who are able to take advantage and enrich themselves. The proclivity to be unscrupulous cuts across class, caste, religion, and what have you. Therefore, our system has seen some people of formerly (and perhaps even presently) disadvantaged groups do better in life. Perhaps that’s what these people who are praising corruption are referring to?

    My take is that the above phenomenon is real, but it simply perpetuates the clientistic feudal relationships that have plagued Indian politics since Independence, and will continue to keep India down. The people who rise have no intention of working for better conditions for others of their background, but rather want to install themselves as lords and patrons of their more unfortunate brethren.

    On the whole, I do agree with you that the anti-corruption mania of the past decade was overblown. Though I think corruption is a serious problem, I think it’s part and parcel of democratic politics, and is a symptom of the wider culture rather than a cause. There are other problems we need to solve before corruption levels can reduce. I wasn’t a big fan of the Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal movement, or of the LokPal Bill.

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      1. Yes. Also, I think societies do best when the “proles” actively try to emulate the elite in an effort to get ahead in life, and the elite put no restrictions on others trying to get ahead. Unfortunately, the elite in South Asia have not set good examples for others to follow, and exhibit rent-seeking behavior to boot.

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    1. “our system has seen some people of formerly (and perhaps even presently) disadvantaged groups do better in life. Perhaps that’s what these people who are praising corruption are referring to?”

      I regard deep politicization of the society (various groups organized and ready to ‘do’ democratic politics) as a more important variable for the long term success of a society than government efficiency. This is because such politicization ensures that the laws are fair (even if followed sparingly in the beginning) and the fruits of economic growth are somewhat evenly shared.

      “it simply perpetuates the clientistic feudal relationships that have plagued Indian politics since Independence”

      But whats really perpetuating the clientilism is the nature of the economy. A scholar who works on the political economy of rural Maharashtra told the reason Maratha farmers hate the NREGA (despite it pumping urban tax revenue into rural areas) is that it drastically weakens their hold on Dalits and other farm laboring castes. This is in turns reduces their political power and ability to control the spending of money coming in from the top.

      The states with the lowest levels of agrarian work force also show the lowest levels of corruption.

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      1. This is because such politicization ensures that the laws are fair (even if followed sparingly in the beginning) and the fruits of economic growth are somewhat evenly shared.

        I probably would come round to your opinions if I believed the above, but I just don’t buy this. I don’t see the fruits of growth getting shared in any way (thanks to political corruption) that’s more even than what it used to be.

        (A personal anecdote from the 90s: I grew up in Bihar, where Lalu Yadav had recently become the Chief Minister. One day, we asked our milkman, also a Yadav, if he was happy that a Yadav was CM. He said with a sigh: ham tab bhi doodh bechte the, ab bhi doodh bechte hain. Needless to say, as the events have borne out since, Lalu had no intention of doing right by anyone other than his extended family.)

        I hate to go all economic liberal on you, but I think that’s by far the best and most sustainable way we can allow our depressed classes to lift themselves up. As a society, we’ll just have to give up our deep-seated suspicion of capitalism and free enterprise and let people have at it without imposing onerous regulations. One of the most heart-warming things I have seen in the past 3 decades is the Dalit Chamber of Commerce (of course, one day I hope we’ll just need a common CoC.) We need to create conditions whereby people feel free to break their ancestral shackles rather than keep prostrating themselves before a mai-baap sarkar.

        There’s also affirmative action, which I don’t have an objection to in principle, but the way it’s been wielded (as a blunt instrument, with rigid quotas) has completely discredited it in the minds of most people. Yet, it has given Dalits and others a foothold in the job market, so there’s a silver lining.

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        1. Numinous, I am in full agreement with you on the need for more capitalism and more entrepreneurship. But the real obstacle to that in India is the psychology of the elites, who are accustomed to depending on the British->Indian government->US tech industry for employment. We lack the spirit of entrepreneurship possessed by the Taiwanese and Americans for example.

          It is only when the proportion of workforce working in agriculture decreases from the 50% level to around 30% willthe agrarian elites lose their hold on the political system. Then, the attitude of the government towards entrepreneurs will change even more, its not really all that bad right now IMO.

          But I do disagree with you about what democratization has achieved in India. Take the case of Bihar itself. In India, the presence of a metro city makes a huge difference in the perception of a state. Bihar has no metros, mainly because it wasnt important for the British and the Mughals before them. This is critical, because upto three quarters of state revenues come from metro cities in states that do have them.

          But the real impact of democracy is in the country side and here Bihar ranks only after WB, J&K and Kerala in terms of land ownership inequality. Bihar’s land Gini index improved from 0.511 in 1971 to 0.376 in 2012. This would not have happened had power not passed on from the minority upper castes Bhumihars and Thakurs to the Yadavs (mostly) and Dalits (a little bit) in an overall peaceable manner.

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        2. Numinous, this dissertation on the impact of land reform on the lives of Bihari Dalits might interest you. It also emphasizes the need for more Dalit representation in the bureaucracy.

          “First, the ownership of redistributed land has allowed for the emergence of a “politics of becoming” that actively opposes practices that perpetuate the social exclusion of Dalits. Through the actual control (kabza) over state owned land, previously under the control of the landed castes/elites, Dalits are effectively undermining the century old practices of kamiauti or servitude in the region and questioning old forms of caste mediated and gender relationships. Second, despite the mainstreaming of gender and land rights issues, the state bureaucracy continues to act as ‘machines for the social production of indifference’ toward the Dalit community. The ‘bureaucratic phase’ of the land struggle is characterized by prolonged inaction that has worked to not only intensify Dalit social suffering, but also has jeopardized the viability of peaceful forms of mobilization and resistance.”

          repositoriesDOTlibDOTutexasDOTedu/handle/2152/38723

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    2. Generally I agree with this. Politician/bureaucrat nexus selling outside the rules, for their personal benefit , in no way benefits anyone – the services so provided will be poor quality at high price which only the hapless consumers have to bear . It drains the economy a lot of capital since it is spirited away to offshore destinations , and the govt loses tax revenue. Corruption must go , there is no question about that.

      BJP before coming power made much of 2G scandal with numbers like Rs 170,000 Crores being the corruption amount , thrown around. Few months back , the case was thrown out by the court since the prosecution did not furnish any proofs or witnesses. Even the judge was unpleasantly surprised about it. . 2G case collapse casts a shadow on Modi govt’s will to cleanse corruption . So also Mallya, Nirav Modi scandals .

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    3. Generally I agree with this. Politician/bureaucrat nexus selling outside the rules, for their personal benefit , in no way benefits anyone – the services so provided will be poor quality at high price which only the hapless consumers have to bear . It drains the economy a lot of capital since it is spirited away to offshore destinations , and the govt loses tax revenue. Corruption must go , there is no question about that.

      BJP before coming power made much of 2G scandal with numbers like Rs 170,000 Crores being the corruption amount , thrown around. Few months back , the case was thrown out by the court since the prosecution did not furnish any proofs or witnesses. Even the judge was annoyed about it. . 2G case collapse casts a shadow on Modi govt’s will to cleanse corruption . So also Mallya, Nirav Modi scandals .

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      1. VijayVan, no one can disagree with the ill effects of corruption. But to decrease corruption our economy has to change for a patronage inducing agrarian setup to an industrial setup with formal employment.

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      2. If you are from a science/engineering background, perhaps this Taylor series analogy would make sense.

        If you remember, in a Taylor series, one expresses the value of a function at a given point in terms of its value and the value of its derivatives at a nearby point:
        f(1/2) ~ f(0) + f'(0) (1/2) + f”(0) (1/2)^2 + f”'(0) (1/2)^3 + … (leaving the factorial scalings for clarity)

        If f(x) are developed countries, f(o) is a secular democratic Constitution, f'(o) (x)^2 is a modern, capitalist economy, f”'(0) (x)^3 is governance (corruption, efficiency etc) and so on.

        Not only that, just like we cant evaluate the third derivative without properly evaluating the second one, and so on. We cant completely fix corruption is governance before we build a modern, capitalist economy.

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  3. “demonetisation, GST, RERA, insolvency act, ease of doing business and so on. But a Congress government with the same kind of mandate (a full majority) would have done exactly the same things, with the exception of demonetisation. More importantly, there isnt a single program or policy of the Congress that Modi has substantially altered, be it NREGA (hated by economic conservatives) or RTE (hated by extreme Hindutva folks).”

    Congress would not some and not others. For example Congress would not have/wouldn’t be able to do GST or insolvency act. We know that because the states which mattered were congress(allies) ruled (Maharashtra) , Tamil Nadu(DMK), Haryana (congress),Delhi (Congress) , add to it major consuming states Kerala (Congress), Bengal(Mamta). Only outlier was Gujarat.
    On the insolvency act too Congress didn’t do anything, even though majority of bad loans existed/started during their tenure. You seem to suggest there was something holding back the congress due to lack of majority. That wasn’t the case.

    Nothing which is once put in the Constitution (RTE) will be ever taken out, just like nothing which is once given out as a “dole”(MNREGA) will be ever taken back. Why would any party for that matter tempt fate of suffering a electoral backlash for trying that? All Indians like goodies , only not for “other” Indians.

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    1. I dont think there is a really big difference between the Congress and the BJP when its comes to governance and economic policy. We really dont have much choice in these regards as a society because of how economically poor and energy constrained we are.

      What these parties differ in are the compositions of their vote banks. Congress has Muslims, BJP has upper caste Hindus. They then try to reach out to other groups via tickets or alliances.

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      1. “Congress has Muslims”– Is this really a fair characterization?

        It is my understanding that Congress is a big-tent center-left party. They appeal to all minorities and to those Hindus who don’t believe in a strident right-wing Hindu nationalism.

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