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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Jay,Kerala
Jay,Kerala
5 years ago

“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!

Numinous
Numinous
5 years ago

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.

Xerxes the Magian
5 years ago
Reply to  Numinous

I think good leadership is so important – look at Singapore or even Dubai.

Numinous
Numinous
5 years ago

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.

Numinous
Numinous
5 years ago
Reply to  Vikram

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.

VijayVan
VijayVan
5 years ago
Reply to  Numinous

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 .

VijayVan
5 years ago
Reply to  Numinous

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 .

Saurav
Saurav
5 years ago

“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.

Kabir
5 years ago
Reply to  Vikram

“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.

Brown Pundits