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 ?