Why It Won’t Happen in India

on Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ashutosh Varshney

On January 20, when Barack Obama is formally inaugurated as president, the US will have a tryst with destiny. As famously defined by Jawaharlal Nehru, a national tryst with destiny is “a moment...when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance”.
Scholars of nationalism agree that the US was founded upon an ideology, not ethnicity or race. The ideology was contained in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, it said, “that all men are created equal”. Europe, the Old World, was horribly tied up in feudal hierarchies.The New World would have political and social equality at its core. As a corollary, rising from below became the socalled American dream. In reality, however, the US has not fully lived up to this ideal. Indeed, the creed of political equality came entwined with a founding ambiguity. The founders did not abolish slavery, an institution diametrically opposed to equality.
This original ambiguity has haunted the US. The election of Obama as president liberates America from its basic contradiction. It is a shining moment in the historical journey of American nationhood and a landmark moment for world history. No society has yet elected someone from its deepest subaltern trenches to the highest office of the nation. Obama is not a slave’s descendant, but he is African-American. It should be no surprise that an international debate about whether other nations can produce an Obama has begun. The debate in India, too, has been vigorous. Can Mayawati become India’s Obama? Can a Muslim be elected India’s prime minister?
A Muslim PM would, indeed, be a celebratory landmark for Indian secularism, but that is not an exact comparison. No community of India has suffered more than the nation’s Dalits. Muslims have historically had a dualistic structure: a ruling class and an aristocracy on one side and a vast mass of poor on the other side. In significant ways, that dualism continues to this day: the Azim Premjis and Shah Rukh Khans on the one hand, and the teeming millions on the other. In contrast, no film and sports stars or business leaders have come from the Dalit community. Though not enslaved, at least in modern times, Dalits, much like the African-Americans, have been segregated, stamped upon, and treated shabbily. India also has a founding ambiguity. Our Constitution abolished untouchability, but it is still widely practised. A Dalit PM would constitute a true parallel to the election of Obama.
Can India produce an Obama? Three great differences between India and the US make it unlikely. First, party establishments cannot easily be challenged until there are open
intra-party elections for the leadership of political parties. American elections start with the primaries, allowing anyone in a political party to stake a claim to leadership. Lacking internal elections, India’s parties today are on the whole family properties. The partial exceptions are the BJP and CPM. But the BJP cannot easily have a leader not approved by the RSS. And the CPM is ruled by an unelected politburo.
The Congress was historically based on internal elections, but with the exception of a feeble attempt in the 1990s, internal elections, suspended by Indira Gandhi in 1973, have not been restored. The institutional decay of India’s political parties means that rank outsiders, like Mayawati, tend to create new political parties, but it is well known that it is much harder to create a new nationwide political organisation than use an existing one. The competition between political parties in India is remarkably vigorous, but competition inside is its exact opposite.
Second, the US has a presidential system, India a parliamentary one. Since a US president is elected by the whole nation, a presidential system creates a national political arena. Every presidential candidate has to think of how to lead the nation. In a parliamentary system, the electorate votes for an MP, but there is no national election for the PM. Only when a parliamentary system has two (or three) nationwide parties, as in the UK, do political leaders tend to compete the way American presidential candidates do. India does not have a two-party system.
Third, to mobilise citizens for vote, one has to speak in a language that the citizens can understand. Political campaigns take place in a linguistic register. Until India becomes more or less fully literate and also bilingual, India’s primary political arenas will be linguistically diverse provincial units. As a result, state-level Obamas will emerge, but national-level Obamas will be extremely hard to come by. Mayawati is at best a provincial Obama, with one major difference. Obama never ran a campaign of bitterness and anger; he subscribed to post-racial politics. In contrast, before the current Brahmin-Dalit brotherhood phase began, Mayawati conflated the politics of dignity with the politics of revenge.
Only movement politics, aimed at putting the various communities together, can tear down India’s institutional constraints. The freedom movement was the last great movement that built unity in India. It produced impressive national political leaders. The JP movement in the 1970s presented an alternative version of national unity, but it could not really take off. The Advani-led rath yatra was also one of the biggest movements of 20th century India. But it did not unite; it only divided. Until such time as India’s political parties become more internally democratic, a national level two-party system emerges, or strong movements of national unity come to the scene, India’s national leaders will continue to come from party establishments, not from the lower reaches of society.
The writer, a professor of political science, will shortly join Brown University.

Desperately seeking our own Obama

on Friday, November 14, 2008

With the White House set to receive its first black president, the temptation to seek parallels at home is alluring. There is, for one, the question of when India will get its“Obama moment”: A Dalit assuming the country’s highest political office. But there is also the broader theme of whether India will get a young leader who can communicate with the felicity Obama has displayed.
A truth about the US elections is that Obama is a change not only from GOP poli- cies and leaders, but also from senior Democrats who seem just as jaded. Yet, it is remarkable that Obama came from nowhere in a matter of two years or so.
Placing charisma, change and new leadership in the Indian context can be a case of overreach. There are, however, strands common to most democracies and India is no stranger to charismatic leaders. The Gandhis have provided their share, with Rajiv’s stupendous win in 1984 standing out. His youth and ‘Mr Clean’ image took the nation by storm.
A few years later, Congress outcaste V P Singh mesmerised the middle classes and the Hindi belt as he swept Rajiv out of office. Around the same time, L K Advani, in a very different manner, held audiences spellbound by his advocacy of the Ram temple. In 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the “man India awaits” as his charisma delivered a winning edge to the BJP.
In all cases, charisma did not obliterate caste calculations, but provided the X factor. It is equally true that charisma is not
permanent and even though leaders have embodied change, their spell does wear off. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are a case in point. As general elections approach, possibly as early as February, the principal combatants are in their late 70s and early 80s. Most major political figures are battle-hardened and youth is at a premium. Does a fresh face and ideas require the prop of dynasty or does the system offer a break to one less blessed?
There are MPs, some from political families as well as others, who do reflect a certain dedication to their chosen profession. BJP’s Kiran Maheshwari, a first-time MP from Udaipur has demonstrated both perseverance and grit, while her colleague Kharabela Swain, a third-term MP from Balasore, has shown he has the smarts when taking on leading figures in the government such as finance minister P Chidambaram.
Shiv Sena’s Suresh Prabhu is not in his party’s core group, but despite his four terms, he is refreshingly uncynical in his approach to politics. He is not clueless when it comes to issues such as climate change, finance and security. Among other MPs who stand out are Asauddin Owaissi, who commands a one-seat party but can draw on his oratorial gifts and a foreign education.
Though she has a limited ouevre, PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti is both articulate and brimming with confidence — although being a woman politician from Kashmir can itself be a daunting task. Her rival, NC’s Omar Abdullah, has drawn both praise and flak for his speech during the July 22 trust vote. Though he must keep an eye on regional imperatives, he seems to have the leadership gene.
In the Congress, Rahul Gandhi has the obvious advantage of dynasty. But that’s not the only thing on his CV. He manfully withstood jeering and ribbing over his
“Kalavati” speech. Sachin Pilot hails from a political family, but doesn’t take this advantage for granted. He does his homework and gives thought to issues before taking a stand. Similarly, Selja, who is on her second stint as a junior minister, combines both the urban and rural experience like Pilot.
Though there is talent in the current Lok Sabha, the question whether it will fulfil its promise is not easy to answer. The structure of India’s political system and the nature of parties — dynasty often rules in both national and regional outfits — makes progress to the top unpredictable. Merit often requires an accident. In parties where dynasty does not rule, such as the BJP, running the factional maze can test the hardiest of nerves.
But politics defies predictions. No one gave Obama a fig of a chance. But when the opportunity arose he grasped it with both hands. India may yet surprise the world.

The celebration and the hangover


The US has al ways had two very different faces, one inte rnal and one ex ternal. Inter nally, it has be en a global be acon of dem ocracy, empowerment, and equal rights for the powerful and pow erless. Externally, it has used its military and economic power to bully others into submission sometimes gently and sometimes bloodily. Its internal face is ad mired across the globe, while its external face is widely disliked.
Barack Obama’s victory bur nishes the US internal face as nev er before, and has rightly been cel ebrated across the world. How fan tastic that a country that enslaved black people for centuries, that did not even permit them to vote freely till 1964, should now elect a black president! The US has triumphed over its own history, making race and colour irrelevant in ways unimaginable even four years ago It is a triumph not only for Oba ma but for all Americans, and for the very idea of America.
Having celebrated the internal US triumph, we must now ask what Obama’s victory means for the external face of the US. The answers are sobering. Indeed, one cannot rule out a hangover.
Indian politicians and busi nessmen have hailed Obama’s vic tory, yet plainly have reservations Obama’s campaign slogan for change, chanted endlessly by his followers, was ‘‘Yes, we can’’ What exactly does that portend on specific issues?
Now that the US is slumping into the worst recession since 1979 can Obama take measures to re duce the outsourcing of software and business services to India, and reduce visas to Indian software engineers? Yes, he can.
Can he take measures to reduce the flow of direct and portfolio in vestment to India? Yes he can. He wants to raise the capital gains tax from 15% to 20%. That worsens the risk-reward ratio for US in vestors, and will make them more reluctant to invest in emerging markets like India, which are con sidered riskier than the US.
Can Obama devise tax and oth er measures that will penalise US companies that invest abroad, in countries like India, rather than in the US? Yes, he can.
Can Obama come out with pro tectionist measures to shift jobs from poor countries to the US? He not only can, he has promised to do so.
Can he increase subsidies for and compulsory use of corn-based ethanol, measures that have caused a big spike in world food and fertiliser crisis? Yes, he can.
Can he kill the Doha Round of the World Trade Organisation by taking a much tougher line than Bush on keeping US farm subsi dies high? Yes, he can.
Can he act against India for building up its forex reserves, and hence keeping the rupee weaker than it would otherwise have been? Yes, he can. He has in the past voted to penalise China for doing just this. In the current fi nancial crisis it is wise for Third World countries to keep high forex reserves, but this is not recognised by protectionists in the US.
Now, we must not exaggerate the risks. Politicians are typical ly more populist during an elec tion campaign than when they as sume office. Obama’s most pro tectionist rhetoric has been aimed against China and NAFTA rather than India. But a major recession has begun, and US unemployment could rise to 8-9%. There is talk of Obama engineering another New Deal. Warning: the New Deal was the most disastrously protection ist era in US history.
What about foreign policy? There are some positives here Obama voted against the invasion of Iraq. Bravo! He has pledged to bring US troops back from Iraq quickly, and favours negotiations with Iran. Yet, the Bush adminis tration has already moved in these directions in the last 12 months reversing its earlier muscularity Obama plans to bring some Re publicans into his cabinet, in search of political unity. This sug gests that foreign policy may not change all that much.
To the extent it does, it may not be comfortable for India. Can Obama put pressure on India on Kashmir? Yes, he can. He has said that if only the Kashmir issue is settled, Pakistan can bet ter concentrate on al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The Indo-US nuclear deal is through. But can Obama come up with hurdles on details, like licences for dual-purpose technology? We hope not, but yes, he can. His sup porters include non-proliferators who still want to punish India.
Can he insist that India should enact a law limiting the liability of US nuclear suppliers in the event of an accident at an Indian nuclear power plant? Can he urge India to sign an international con vention shifting liability from equipment suppliers to the com pany running a nuclear plant? Yes, he can.
Here again, we must not exag gerate the risks. In practice, US policy may not change much. But history shows that Indo-US rela tions have usually been better un der Republican than Democratic presidents. Democrats are more protectionist, and tougher on nu clear non-proliferation.
Bill Clinton was personally popular in India, but never did anything for us except impose sanctions after Pokharan II. Bush was personally unpopular in In dia, yet did us yeoman service by pushing through the nuclear deal Can Obama do anything to match that? Yes, he can, but i rather doubt that he will.

Wisdom of Nehru's middle path

November 14, 2008
Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.'

This is how Nehru, the builder of modern India addressed the nation on the eve of Independence in 1947. Six decades later it is good to look back and see whether these dreams have been on the right track.

One cannot help remembering these prophetic words when Chandrayaan I took off on October 22. It is a tribute to Nehru on his birth anniversary today that we pay homage to this great Indian.

After centuries of invasions and internal turmoil, the last occupation of undivided India was by the British. It lasted for nearly a century before the non violent struggle of Gandhi brought it to an end, though with great pain of the partition of the country.

However the British left a legacy in terms of a well connected railway system, the English language in a country of 17 different languages and encouraged the study of science, however limited it was.

It is notable that the country's only Nobel Prize winner in Science (Physics) was C V Raman in 1930 for his work in light scattering which forms the basis of lasers; and Rabindranath Tagore in Literature in 1913 -- both in pre-independent India.

In post independent India, Amartya Sen was awarded for Economics in 1998.

Jawaharlal Nehru trained in Oxford but was influenced by the then Soviet model of industrial development. He was an active participant in the freedom struggle. Prior to achieving Independence, he already had formed a vision for the country's development and passionately believed that science was the only way to eliminate poverty in India.

Thus soon after the now famous 'Tryst with Destiny' speech in 1947, he embarked on an economic policy which many economists now believe laid the firm foundation for liberalisation in the 1990s.

It was socialistic in name but left enough space for the private sector. The commanding heights of the economy like the railways, steel and heavy machine building industry, and the power industry were all in the public sector with meaningful technical collaborations with the West and also the then Soviet Union.

The conditions of collaboration were that there must be a transfer of technology and not just turn key operations as were implemented in some other developing countries. The latter model would have left the country in a big mess since the country did not have the requisite science and technology manpower at that time.

It is important to keep this in mind as we conduct our science and technology ventures after the nuclear deal.

The planned investments in science and technology that the country made through the establishment of a chain of research laboratories as well as the starting of IITs with foreign help including the US took nearly two, three decades to have some effect in generating scientific and technical manpower of a critical size.

Thus, when IBM and Coca-Cola had to leave the country in the late 1970s, the Indian management and technical skill set quickly filled the gap. The country adopted a pro- business approach to development in 1980 under Indira Gandhi and then Rajiv Gandhi.

This is an essential prerequisite for any country to prosper as an economic power. Visionaries like Homi Bhabha and his successors helped shape the atomic energy programme and laid the seeds of the electronic revolution. Vikram Sarabhai laid the foundation of the space industry.

In education, the influence of President John F Kennedy and Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith left a lasting legacy in terms of unleashing the computer revolution in India through the then advanced IBM 1620 at IIT Kanpur in 1963.

The IT manpower generated through this had a large multiplier effect which is now there for all to see.

Much as she is criticised for other things, Indira Gandhi in the late 1960s and 1970s left her own imprint on modern India. The nationalisation of banks and the insurance sector resulted in making those services available in rural India.

In the context of the current global crisis and the choices before the US, one can see the wisdom of a Nehru who chose the middle path in 1947. The fruits of the Green, Milk and Telecom revolution are there for all to see.

If properly harnessed, the fruits of both the Internet and space revolution can change the rural landscape. These activities would not have happened if the country had embarked on liberalisation in the first four decades after Independence. Computerisation in all sectors of the economy had fierce opposition from the labour unions and being a democracy it took time for it to be accepted by all.

The 21st century saw the maturing of India in terms of developing world class managerial skill set through the schools of management which paved the way for a smooth transition to globalisation.

A sustained 7 to 9 per cent growth was now possible and for many, a college education with exposure to IT is now a passport for a good job. This has never happened in India since 1947.

India now has a great demographic advantage in having half the population in the 25+ age bracket. The so-called brain drain of the 1960s and 1970s is now reversing. The economic fundamentals that were laid out in the first four decades which many dub as the period of 'Hindu' rate of growth paid off ultimately and the country is now well poised to being an economic power in its own right.

Hence, it is easy to understand why there is a 300 million strong middle class with disposable income. The almost exponential growth in cell phones and mobile technology is set to change the face of rural India. IT is now poised for the next phase of growth in terms of innovation, thus climbing the value chain. The country needs to move beyond IT in the realm of mathematics and computer science and nurture future Ramanujans.

In some sense India offers a text book case of development for a poor country. India had the good fortune of a secular and democratic Constitution similar to the US and with those attributes progress at times, seems slow. In the long run it is worth the effort. Gender equality as well as inclusiveness of low income people is aggressively pursued.

There are, however, many sectors particularly the infrastructure like water, health, electricity, roads and education which are in a sorry state of affairs.

These are the areas where the country needs committed leadership and vision to implement. The private sector must be involved in a major way. For example in the power sector it is time to examine whether the state electricity boards in spite of the reforms are doing an adequate job.

It is time to privatise the government-managed power sector. Institutions like the Bharat Heavy Electricals [Get Quote] etc have proved equal to the task. For a country which is one third the size of US and has 1 billion people, there is no place to grow except vertically for which we need reliable electric power to operate elevators, pumps etc.

Renewable technologies have a place, but not to the exclusion of grid power with efficient power plants with a minimum of theft and electrical losses. The nuclear deal is not a solution for the next 10 to 15 years.

The state of education is in disarray. At the primary level privately managed schools with a secular outlook must be encouraged and perhaps supported by the government. At the higher education level the quota crisis has distorted the picture greatly. The poorer sections of the society are still left out.

The whole range of infrastructure issues needs attention by competent people as in the days after Independence. There in lies the challenge of today and tomorrow.

M A Pai is Professor Emeritus, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Is it the epilogue or the prologue.

on Monday, November 3, 2008

LIKE MANY OF THE recent ones that have gone before it, 2008 has been a year of fearfully ugly conversations. Sixty years on, as the pieties of a hardwon freedom have faded from view, the idea of India has come to be fought over in increasingly violent terms. Majority versus minority. Hindutva versus Soft Hindutva. Right versus Left. Left versus Far Left. Caste versus Scheduled Caste. Shining India versus Simmering India. Liberals versus Neo-liberals. State versus State. The Centre versus the Rest. And Jihad against it all. Right action has long been forfeited in India. Now, in an increasingly fractured polity, as power becomes ever more difficult to come by, most public figures have dropped even the fig-leaf of temperate speech. Shoot them, burn them, pay them back in the same coin, our leaders urge us. And maddened by their calling, maddened by the absence of the rational voice, like insane flocks behind insane shepherds, we rush to bloody our meadows.
What is this sense of rage and hate and injury driving us all? Are there embryonic seeds of genuine grouse beneath all the aggravated rhetoric? Are there real issues to be picked out of the violence swirling around us and examined in calmer, more neutral light? Fixed positions and an unbending sense of righteousness make one dangerously opaque. What makes extreme
views most dangerous is that they are only the amplified face of a vast middle ground that thinks it feels the same injuries. It is a suicidal vanity, then, to label others and stop listening. Provocations, a series of interviews with stakeholders in the ideas of India, speaks to people across trench-lines. Airing our prejudice, triggering conversation. And, with luck, introspection.