Even as campaigning for the general elections gets more and more hectic, prime ministerial candidates say less and less about policy specifics. This is, perhaps, good politics. No sense in upsetting people by saying something sharp on any issue in terms of policies meant to be pursued once in office when latitude in policy-making can be preserved by keeping the electorate riveted by attacks on the opposition.
With sledgehammer criticism becoming the message, informing the voters about the contents of promised policies is rarely attempted. The premium for parties is rather in homogenising their message, on reducing public statements to reassuring slogans, ambiguous catchwords, and invocation of iconic leaders (Atal Bihari Vajpayee by the BJP, Ram Manohar Lohia by a slew of paper socialists—Mulayam Singh, Lalu Yadav—and the trimurti of Jawaharlal Nehru-Indira Gandhi-Rajiv Gandhi by the Congress) to legitimise their standing.
Thus, even though there are very deep differences between the economic thinking of the Narendra Modi-led BJP and the Gandhi Family’s Congress party, there is no detailed articulation of Modi’s economic philosophy other than mention of the “Gujarat model” of growth. But such “Modinomics” as is bandied about seems only another version of a policy-set subscribed to by finance minister P Chidambaram. One knows instinctively that this is not the case because Modi trusts the private sector to produce growth that makes possible more resources for better delivery of social goods, including development, at the grassroots level. It is an approach that is anathema to the Congress stuck on Sonia Gandhi’s outdated entitlement economics stressing populist schemes of dole and freebies overseen by a creaky nanny state and predicated on perpetuating poverty for the masses the more easily to project the party as the messiah of the poor.
Sixty years of cretinous misgovernance has, however, not prevented liberal economists, such as Amartya Sen, who are safely offshore and do not have to put up with the daily aggravations of dealing with government from municipality all the way up to the central level, from singing its praises. But for Modi to aggressively push his “government has no business to be in business” philosophy may be to court disaffection. After all, the bulk of the aspiring sections of society are voters from the lower and lower-middle classes who may have benefitted just enough from the populist programmes to believe they are worth retaining as safety net but are increasingly mindful of its limitations, and convinced that Modi’s policy of unhindered economic growth offers greater opportunity and the next big step up. In this context, for the Gujarat chief minister to publicly espouse self-help as economic mantra would be to put voters in a quandary, the almost six decades of Gandhi Family rule having habituated the Indian people to the mai-baap sarkar. It has forced Modi to pussyfoot around the themes emphasising individual effort and enterprise, and the work ethic.
Modi’s reluctance to plainly articulate his basic economic beliefs frees Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) to misrepresent him as a tool of a cabal of crony capitalists—the Ambanis, Adanis, and the Tatas. Crony capitalism is at once a stage all open economies pass through and a constant with excesses by the fat cats leading to the system’s correction and the obtaining of a more even economic playing field by legislative and regulatory means. Indeed, courtesy Kejriwal’s public skewering, Modi will be more careful than ever to avoid giving the impression he’s a puppet of the plutocrats. The truth is that the government has always played sugar daddy. The Congress in Mahatma Gandhi’s days had special relations with the G D Birlas and the Jamnalal Bajajs which, post-Independence, were parlayed by these businessmen into licences, government permits, and burgeoning empires. It was this essential aspect of operating in a state-dominated economic milieu that Dhirubhai Ambani and his ilk learned only too well. Thus the Ambani aircraft ferries both Sonia Gandhi and Modi. That’s the way it is; this is the nature of the beast.
The larger point is that in all democracies there is a tendency of plutocrats to shape state policy beneficial to their interests. In the United States the US Senate Majority leader from President Barack Obama’s Democratic party, Harry Reid, recently charged the phenomenally rich Koch Brothers of funding extreme right-wing parties and politicians, and undermining the country. In Britain, Conservative party prime minister David Cameron is accused of entertaining wealthy entrepreneurs “to line Tory pockets”. But in the more mature democracies the power of the plutocrats is balanced by the political awareness of the people and norms of accountability, which restricts the extent to which elected rulers can profit the moneyed sections.
The difference between the US and the UK on the one hand and India on the other hand is that the menace conjured up by a Reid has nothing like the negative impact on the bulk of the population in America, which is generally well off and socially and politically conscious, that the spectre of an Ambani or Adani can potentially have on most of the Indian people living in subsistence mode who now have villains to blame for their own misery and misfortune. And that’s the problem confronting Modi and the BJP should Kejriwal persist in his line of attack and succeed in creating a popular demonology.
The irony is that parties with socialist pretence —the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh, Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Yadav, Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayawati, et al, like the Congress party of the Gandhis they are modelled on, are family enterprises dressed up as political organisations, and even more compromised in terms of corruption and being in hock to corporate interests than the cadre-based BJP. Think Subrata Roy’s Sahara and Mulayam springs to mind, Jaypee cannot be dissociated from Mayawati, ponder the biggest scams in the history of the republic and the Gandhis emerge front and centre. Yet, Modi, a clean and strong leader and able administrator to boot, can more easily be painted as threat to the commonweal!
The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com