Some years ago, a film called “Nayak” made its appearance on the silver screen. The well-known star, Anil Kapoor, essayed the role of an intrepid journalist who was made the Chief Minister of the state for a day. Through his hands-on approach to the job, Anil Kapoor not only endeared himself to one and all, but also brought all the baddies in society, the administrative and political hierarchies to book for the various misdemeanours committed by them.
This film comes to mind today at a time when the Indian public appears to be obsessed with a vigilante approach to solving its problems. The popular feeling seems to be that an all-powerful Jan Lokpal with sweeping powers will solve all the ills associated with corruption and usher in an era of Ram Rajya. On top of this, a tendency has developed to look to the top person for solutions to every issue. When quick fixes to longstanding problems are not forthcoming, the public (including the media) is more than ready to heap calumny on the top leadership.
It is no one’s case that the political elite is not responsible for many of the evils associated with the ubiquitous existence of corruption in Indian society. But it also needs to be recognised that a mere change of guard at the top is not going to improve matters. And yet, whenever there is a change in government at the state or central level, one would think that utopia has been achieved, the way the media and popular opinion immediately repose touching faith in the new occupant of the top post. This honeymoon usually lasts for six months to a year till the acts of omission and commission of the new incumbent occasion deep disillusionment in the same sections that were so enthusiastic some months earlier.
It would help to remember that leaders in India are just as human as the rest of us and as much a prisoner of circumstances as the Aam Aadmi. Leaders come to power bowed down by the weight of expectations. The acquisition of power, often after many years in the political battlefield, opens up vistas of opportunities for those who are tied to them by blood or association. The selection of competent, reasonably honest ministers is often the first casualty in the jostling for pelf and power. There is the issue of meeting sectarian demands, promises for which have been made in the heat and dust of the electoral battle. There is also the unwieldy, considerably compromised administrative machinery handed down to them by their predecessors. The politician always lives with the uneasy knowledge that she has only a five year claim on his job, in contrast to the guaranteed tenure of the permanent bureaucracy. The attitudes and the functioning of this gigantic government machine are reflective of the larger social milieu in which they operate, an environment which has steadily worsened in terms of ethical values over the past forty years. And finally, there are the purely external factors, which our leader cannot even anticipate – these can range from terrorist attacks and natural calamities to unexpected local flare-ups.
Allied to these external factors are the aspects internal to the leader. Every individual has her own worldview and her prejudices, built up over the years through the environment she has been exposed to, her understanding of economic and social issues and her own insecurities and private fears. Politicians, and especially their Indian variety, display certain traits without which they would probably not be in that field. An analysis of these would be instructive and interesting:
a) A lack of understanding of basic economics and a refusal to apply basic commercial sense to matters in the public sphere. Indian politicians remain mired in an antiquated socialist mind-set, inherited from the Nehru era. They have convinced themselves that that is what their voters want. In part, this reflects their obsession with public opinion, largely a product of the intelligentsia chatterati and the media. The latter are part of the upper middle class which is more often concerned with its own well-being and is often as ignorant (or even more) of economics and commerce than the average politician. This explains the half-baked reforms of 1991 and the failure of parties of almost every ideology over the past twenty years to deepen reforms at the national and the state level.
b) An obsession with state participation in every activity. This springs out of two motivations. The charitable explanation is that the politician has convinced herself that the private sector cannot be trusted with the non-exploitative, efficient delivery of goods and services, which in a deeper sense reflects a “socialist” unease with the operation of markets. Rather than look at creating the conditions for the effective functioning of markets, creating unwieldy state organisations for service and product delivery is the favourite pastime of Indian politicians (and bureaucrats). The rather more uncharitable reason for this state proliferation is the patronage powers it bestows on the politician. In the pre-1991 era, it was largely centred around employment (in the public sector) and awarding contracts for public sector procurements. In the post-1991 era, it has expanded to allocation of scarce natural resources and favourable financial treatment to segments of the private sector, with growing allegations of crony capitalism.
c) The failure to reform public service delivery mechanisms. Even if the Indian politician wanted to use the state machinery to deliver essential public goods and services to the citizen, she ought to have been aware of its major failings and sought to rectify these to ensure greater consumer satisfaction. What we see instead is a steadfast stonewalling of all reports on administrative, judicial and police reforms over the past twenty years, with cosmetic changes being made instead of deep-rooted institutional reforms.
d) A deliberate refusal to understand the consequences of the “business as usual” approach. It is here that the Indian politician is most culpable. Enough ink has been shed and words wasted in trying to educate them on the factors inhibiting equitable growth and improvement in the life of the Aam Aadmi. And yet, approaches to macro-policy continue on the same time-worn lines. Employment creation is sought to be tackled through a rural job guarantee rather than through innovative labour market reforms that will lead to growth in manufacturing jobs. Food security is mooted without tackling a corrupt, outdated food distribution mechanism. A right to education slogan is promoted which does not go into the causes for the dismal state of public education and the measures needed to ensure that all children complete education at least upto the secondary level and acquire the skills and competencies needed to function in a globalised economy. Agricultural market reforms are deliberately stalled when these could act as engines of rapid agricultural growth. The less said about FDI in retail, the better! No politician has been bold enough to call a spade a spade. Either she is still caught up in the dreams of socialism or (more likely) is cynically aware that thorough-going reforms in the economic, political and administrative domains will spell the end of her monopoly over resource distribution. It is even more disheartening when politicians one would normally associate with common sense and a vision for the future peddle the same obsolete shibboleths of their respective parties.
It is hardly surprising, then, to observe the repeated disenchantment of the voter with every political formation that comes to power at the national and state level riding the elephant of grand promises. But as has been presciently said “A people get the government they deserve.” The Indian intelligentsia, including but not limited to its media, academia, bureaucracy and civil society, has displayed the same myopic tendencies listed above about Indian politicians. Until the middle class sheds its illusions about a painless transformation to Utopia and is willing to support hard but unsettling decisions, foregoing short-term benefits, the current tamasha will continue. As George Santayana has remarked “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”