Thursday, July 02, 2009

CURRENT DOMESTIC POLITICAL TRENDS IN INDIA


Introduction

By common reckoning, India has made it. The triumphalism of ‘India Inc.’, effectively promoted abroad, and a steady growth rate, triggered by successive waves of liberalisation since the early 1990s and nearing the double digit, have won over earlier sceptics, who always held forth that India will never make it out of the shadow of her East Asian neighbour(s) economically. In addition, political leaders, businessmen and investors alike are now never tiring in lauding the country’s democratic set-up as being an ‘advantage India’ over its old economic Asian rival China.
In political terms as well, India has witnessed an enormous ego-booster internationally, as a nuclear power on the brink of getting integrated into the international nuclear regime despite being non-party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), as a ‘player to deal with’ and increasingly also as a spokesperson in all kinds of international regimes, from the WTO to the UN.

The current hype about India as the ‘Asian (great) power to be’ is also reflected in its popular culture, its arts and cultural traditions, becoming ever more prominent all over the world. Part of this recent ‘success story’ is justified. India, long entrenched in the confines of its rather protectionist mixed-economy approach and the rigid boundaries of the ‘licence-permit-raj’, coupled with an inward-looking policy perspective and a general thrust of its foreign policy maintaining that its better not to meddle in international issues and concerns and not to give in to often even bilateral alignments, is on its way to conquer the global market and has eventually come out of its ‘splendid isolation’.

It has developed a solid economic base in the service sector and since long commands over a buoying IT-industry. It multiplies trade relations and attracts investors from all over the world with its seemingly unlimited market opportunities. It strives for a new, bigger role in a (multi-polar) world order, takes position – sometimes also takes over responsibility - in international affairs and seeks greater influence in the region - all this while harping constantly on the (sanctifying) fact that it is the world’s largest democracy and one of the most resilient in the post-colonial world, which it is, formally at least, and that therefore, it deserves a privileged spot in international relations and the global market.

Along goes a sense of growing national pride and ‘the world belongs to us’ attitude – always there, but never as pronounced as these days. One can sense it in such minor incidents as the rejection of bilateral financial assistance after the Tsunami had devastated bigger parts of the country’s southern shores as well as in the general confinement of bilateral development cooperation to a circle of (strategically) selected countries, in the way the nouveau riches and middle class in the metros display their newly acquired wealth, or in the country’s general reluctance to accept any kind of criticism of or interference in its internal affairs. In that sense, India is ‘shining’ - to use the former governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral campaign slogan - for some at least and more so in the imagination of the West.

This view of course does not reflect the full picture. It is not only the obvious insight that there are ‘two (quite disparate) Indias’, one rich, one poor, one urban, one rural, one secular, one (religiously) deeply divided etc., or the rising concerns regarding the sustainability of economic growth and prosperity in the face of existing social discrepancies or uneven growth, ecological challenges, a looming energy crisis, lacking infrastructure and social security nets that should inform any depiction of this emerging power of the South.

Above all, the overoptimistic portrait of India lacks a thorough look into the patterns of the country’s rather distinct domestic politics - lesser known to the policy-makers and the general public in the West or, for that matter, Europe.

While it is hard to detect trends, since by nature they are ephemeral - either becoming reality or being based on misperception - the following attempts to track some of the current undercurrents of the country’s domestic politics, which I consider to be of relevance for any proper assessment of where India will stand 15 years from now. These are underlying developments, seen from a personal perspective, and do not represent an in-depth and analytical account of recent events, the institutional set-up or the country’s socio-cultural and socio-political givens. Since a lot of information on specifics of India’s body politic, (civil) society, party system, the economy etc. is already given in detail in the other contributions to this volume, the following deals with what I think are important and – in part – neglected patterns and aspects of India’s political ‘inner-life’ and discourse that will determine the future course of an emerging India, which is still on the brink of an elusive dawn. In addition, the rather general political trends mentioned below are far from being exhaustive. Finally, they should also not be conceived of as only depicting what is ‘wrong’ with the Western perception of a booming, shining, rising India, thus somehow ‘spoiling’ the current hype about the next ‘Asian superpower’, which is necessary to deepen the interest and engagement with the subcontinent. If only the latter would be informed by what is really going on in the country and not only by the latest Sensex all-time-high, the economic growth rates, the self-confident appearances at Western security conferences or the glitzy presentations in Davos or Hanover.


In political terms as well, India has witnessed an enormous ego-booster internationally, as a nuclear power on the brink of getting integrated into the international nuclear regime despite being non-party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), as a ‘player to deal with’ and increasingly also as a spokesperson in all kinds of international regimes, from the WTO to the UN.

The current hype about India as the ‘Asian (great) power to be’ is also reflected in its popular culture, its arts and cultural traditions, becoming ever more prominent all over the world. Part of this recent ‘success story’ is justified. India, long entrenched in the confines of its rather protectionist mixed-economy approach and the rigid boundaries of the ‘licence-permit-raj’, coupled with an inward-looking policy perspective and a general thrust of its foreign policy maintaining that its better not to meddle in international issues and concerns and not to give in to often even bilateral alignments, is on its way to conquer the global market and has eventually come out of its ‘splendid isolation’.

It has developed a solid economic base in the service sector and since long commands over a buoying IT-industry. It multiplies trade relations and attracts investors from all over the world with its seemingly unlimited market opportunities. It strives for a new, bigger role in a (multi-polar) world order, takes position – sometimes also takes over responsibility - in international affairs and seeks greater influence in the region - all this while harping constantly on the (sanctifying) fact that it is the world’s largest democracy and one of the most resilient in the post-colonial world, which it is, formally at least, and that therefore, it deserves a privileged spot in international relations and the global market.

Along goes a sense of growing national pride and ‘the world belongs to us’ attitude – always there, but never as pronounced as these days. One can sense it in such minor incidents as the rejection of bilateral financial assistance after the Tsunami had devastated bigger parts of the country’s southern shores as well as in the general confinement of bilateral development cooperation to a circle of (strategically) selected countries, in the way the nouveau riches and middle class in the metros display their newly acquired wealth, or in the country’s general reluctance to accept any kind of criticism of or interference in its internal affairs. In that sense, India is ‘shining’ - to use the former governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral campaign slogan - for some at least and more so in the imagination of the West.

This view of course does not reflect the full picture. It is not only the obvious insight that there are ‘two (quite disparate) Indias’, one rich, one poor, one urban, one rural, one secular, one (religiously) deeply divided etc., or the rising concerns regarding the sustainability of economic growth and prosperity in the face of existing social discrepancies or uneven growth, ecological challenges, a looming energy crisis, lacking infrastructure and social security nets that should inform any depiction of this emerging power of the South.

Above all, the overoptimistic portrait of India lacks a thorough look into the patterns of the country’s rather distinct domestic politics - lesser known to the policy-makers and the general public in the West or, for that matter, Europe.

While it is hard to detect trends, since by nature they are ephemeral - either becoming reality or being based on misperception - the following attempts to track some of the current undercurrents of the country’s domestic politics, which I consider to be of relevance for any proper assessment of where India will stand 15 years from now. These are underlying developments, seen from a personal perspective, and do not represent an in-depth and analytical account of recent events, the institutional set-up or the country’s socio-cultural and socio-political givens. Since a lot of information on specifics of India’s body politic, (civil) society, party system, the economy etc. is already given in detail in the other contributions to this volume, the following deals with what I think are important and – in part – neglected patterns and aspects of India’s political ‘inner-life’ and discourse that will determine the future course of an emerging India, which is still on the brink of an elusive dawn. In addition, the rather general political trends mentioned below are far from being exhaustive. Finally, they should also not be conceived of as only depicting what is ‘wrong’ with the Western perception of a booming, shining, rising India, thus somehow ‘spoiling’ the current hype about the next ‘Asian superpower’, which is necessary to deepen the interest and engagement with the subcontinent. If only the latter would be informed by what is really going on in the country and not only by the latest Sensex all-time-high, the economic growth rates, the self-confident appearances at Western security conferences or the glitzy presentations in Davos or Hanover.


Domestic (Party) Politics - flaws of democratic representation in the face of democratic resilience

Ever since the Nehruvian times and the subsequent demise of the Congress-governed system of one-party-dominance there was constant talk among political observers of Indian democracy about the ‘de-institutionalisation’ of the country’s political institutions, especially the party system. Even though competitive and rather ‘free and fair’ throughout India’s post-colonial democratic career - except for the brief authoritarian interlude of the Emergency – the state and process of democratic representation was seen as increasingly getting distorted through personalism, favouritism, the lack of political parties able to function as integrative institutions between state and society and a declining capacity to promote development and to accommodate diverse interests simultaneously, resulting in a general decline in governability.

This view became rather unpopular in recent years against the background of India’s formidable economic performance and new image as a rising power of the South and given the fact that the country’s democratic resilience, despite mass poverty, extreme socio-cultural heterogeneity and complexity of developmental problems, persistently defied scholarly assumptions about the sustainability of democracy in such a context.

And indeed, the country’s democratic resilience in itself is a remarkable feature. But as Amartya Sen has put it succinctly in his recent and much-appraised ‘The Argumentative Indian’, ‘since democracy is not only a blessing in itself, but can also be the most important means to pursue public ends, it is not enough to make sure that Indian democracy survives. While we must give credit where it is due, Indian democracy has to be judged also by the strength and reach of public reasoning and its actual accomplishments’. (1) His assessment of how ‘democratic’ India fared with regard to overall improvement in the areas of social equity and economic progress, attests a measurable degree of underperformance, which he traces back to a lack of democratic participation or the use of ‘political voice’.

At the same time, a couple of recent trends in democratic representation should at least allow raising some doubt as to whether the abovementioned process of ‚deinstitutionalisation’ does not in fact continue.


‘You don’t get what you vote for’ - lack of party-political professionalism and ideological confusion

Firstly, and contrary to all parties’ display of ‘people-oriented’ electoral campaigning rhetoric, there is a growing tendency of political parties being less and less able to take the lead in actually formulating and debating reform-oriented policies, which determine and reflect people’s aspirations and the societal mood. The same goes for their capacity to initiate as well as implement reforms instead of merely preserving the status quo for the sake of not endangering the current economic boom and, consequently, basically attending to the demands and anxieties of a vociferous middle class with its newly acquired power.

In this regard, the coming to power of the Congress-led and Communist-backed United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2004, in itself ample proof of a people’s mandate for reform and of a denial of the belief in the old ‘trickle-down’ story’ (significant redistribution and employment is relegated to second- or, more realistically, third-round effects), promised a lot in terms of breaking the cycle of providing full-bodied assurances of people-centered policies and reforms at election times and, once in power, falling back into a ‘paralysed state’ of fighting for political survival and rarely/barely questioning or touching the status quo. So far, the bold promises of the UPA have either been watered down or got lost in some sort of a ‘committee culture’, where a committee is established for every initiative and question of societal importance, but no actual output becomes visible. And where there are new initiatives, as in the case of the current controversy over the planned 27% reservation/quota for Other Backward Castes (OBC) in institutions of higher education, the debate gets hijacked by civil society groups, the highly educated beneficiaries of the current economic boom and the ever more assertive (electronic) media. The parties largely remained silent on the issue. It has to be seen, as to whether the core social policy initiative of the UPA, the National Rural Employment Scheme, which guarantees employment at the minimum wage for 100 days for one member of each rural household, will eventually be effectively implemented? Or, whether it will also fall prey to the usual ‘policy and implementation paralysis’ and reduced role as ‘opinion-makers’, which Indian political parties currently display. This is not to take position on the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of the heated debate on these policy initiatives or the general discussion on state versus market, that is fought over so prominently these days, but simply to state that political parties have lost momentum in determining the political discourse.

Partly, this ‘flaw’ of democratic representation in the general sense that ‘you don’t get what you vote for’, is due to the fact that whereas the formula for winning elections – as was again shown in the five States’ Assembly election in April and May 2006 – is making bold welfare- and ‘people’-oriented promises, the formula for staying in power is to bow down to the most powerful and articulate vested interests. Secondly, it is due to the meanwhile all-pervasive coalition logic and arithmetic of Indian party politics, and, finally, to the lack of (programmatic) professionalism and experienced and capable cadres and to the leader-centric attitudes among the political parties.

As a result, utter policy contradictions and ideological confusion characterise not only the party system as a whole, but also prevail within almost all of the major political parties. Thus, the Congress is divided between the largely pro-status quo (continuation of the prevailing, basically neo-liberal macro-economic management and adherence to fiscal austerity policies) triumvirate of Harvard- or Oxford-trained economists, namely Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister Chindambaran and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia on the one hand and a ‘pro-people’, or, for that matter, more populist group headed by party president Sonia Gandhi and her entourage of old Congress stalwarts like the pro-Mandal/reservation crusader and current Minister for Human Resources and Development Arjun Singh on the other hand. The latter group is keeping in mind potential electoral gains and more mundane but necessary ‘pork and barrel politics’.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI (M), is torn between the energetic, liberal, pro-capital, FDI-attracting and industry-friendly Chief Minister of West Bengal, Bhuddadeb Bhattacharjee, who, in the first half of 2006, led the party to its seventh electoral victory in a row, a rare occurrence in a country where normally the ‘antiincumbency’ factor dictates electoral outcomes, and the ideologically more orthodox, anti-liberalisation and -privatisation national leadership around General Secretary Prakash Karat, elected last year. Meanwhile, the BJP as the third political force of national prominence and erstwhile governing party seems to be at free fall since it lost power in 2004. It is not knowing how to position itself between the poles of ardent Hindu nationalism as promoted by its organisational backbone, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and a more moderate, inclusionary position, is unable to come up with a new and younger leadership capable of discarding the shadow of former party president Advani and former prime minister Vajpayee and is entangled in various intra-party feuds, bickering and infighting.

In sum, there seems to be a complete lack of ideological or programmatic coherence, cadre-based professionalism and strategic vision on behalf of the country’s main political parties. Or, as Harish Khare recently commented, ‘the point is that the political parties are losing their capacity and the skills to join the battle of ideas, values and sentiments in the polity (…) Unless the political leaders find the willingness and the imagination to reclaim their traditional role as moulders of collective ideals and aspirations, the polity will gradually be taken over by anti-democratic voices and forces’. (2)


Popular accountability and transparency - politics as ‘dirty business’

The second trend is rather a continuing tendency of Indian party politics and will therefore only be briefly touched upon here. This trend or, for that matter, aspect of Indian party politics has to do with the still moribund or again deteriorating state of popular accountability and transparency of democratic representation and elected representatives.

It is linked to what had once been termed the ‘criminalisation’ of Indian politics and basically involves the widespread and resilient mindset among politicians, especially those representing regional parties, whose inclusion into national politics is a requirement of coalition politics, that getting elected means having access to state resources, very often for personal benefit.

Of course, new assets of Indian democracy, which are evolving in the course of a gradual, civil-society backed expansion of democracy’s participatory ethos, such as the ‘Right to Information Act’ introduced last year, and an ever more assertive, well-fortified and watchdog-like media, with its notorious ‘sting operations’, make it more difficult for perpetrators to get away with their lapses. They have left behind many a ‘tainted’ minister, who often finds his or her way back to the political arena nonetheless. But the overall image of (party) politics as a somehow ‘dirty business’ still prevails and this is not to deny that ‘old-fashioned’ corruption or ‘modern forms of lobbying’ permeate other sectors, especially the bureaucracy, as well.

The latest manifestations of this second tendency were the scandal involving parliamentarians from various parties taking bribes for asking (fake) questions in Parliament in late 2005, and the ‘office of profit’ controversy over politicians holding additional offices as chairman, board members etc. of foundations, committees, state institutions etc., thus profiting from their stand and reputation as elected representatives, erupting in early 2006. It led to the resignation of some high-ranking parliamentarians, including Sonia Gandhi, who nonetheless benefited from her resignation by once again turning it into an opportunity to claim the moral high ground, as in 2004, when she stepped down from her claim to the prime ministership. It came as no surprise when soon afterwards she was re-elected to parliament by a massive margin in the following byelections in the Rae Bareli constituency, which is some sort of an ‘electoral fiefdom’ of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The ‘dirty business’ image of party politics also extends to the way, in which the struggle for political power and survival is carried out, often including the manipulation and instrumentalisation of political institutions. While definitely no foreign word under the previous BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime, the Congress/UPA as well had its fair share of resorting to dubious political manoeuvres in its attempt to consolidate power, including the use of politically appointed governors to topple non- Congress governments, as in Goa in early 2005, or to prevent elected non-Congress governments from coming into power, as in Bihar and Jharkhand last year. And since long, the CPI (M) in West Bengal is known for following a practice, popularly known as ‘scientific rigging’ of elections, a practice stalled during this year’s assembly elections in West Bengal, thanks to the vigorous check-ups and inspections by a reinforced independent Election Commission.


Public space vacated by the state – the need for state- society synergy

Finally, the third trend, closely related to the first one, is the phenomenon of non-party, non-governmental actors taking over roles and responsibilities formerly occupied and assumed by parties and the state as well as (decision-making) space vacated by parties and the state, as to be found, for example, in growing civil society assertiveness or judicial activism in all kinds of public affairs.

Be it the controversy over the Narmada valley dam(s), which erupted again this year after famous social activist Medha Patkar had gone on a hunger strike to protest against the concerned States’ non-compliance with a Supreme Court order directing the respective States’ governments to guarantee a proper rehabilitation of the evicted families before raising the Sardar Sarovar dam’s height and flooding a vast area, and, subsequently, the Supreme Court telling the Prime Minister to come forward with a decision on the issue. Or be it this spring’s Delhi High Court ruling - a reaction to complaints and petitions from the powerful Residents Welfare Associations - on taking action against the many illegal constructions and businesses running from residential areas in the city, a hopeless task of course, given the scale of these constructions and businesses and the lack of commercial space available, but clearly disclosing what went wrong with regard to urban planning in Delhi since a couple of decades. Or, on a smaller scale, the many NGOs providing services to the poor and marginalised, predominantly a state prerogative, and taking on Public Interest Litigation against pollution, slum evictions etc., often on behalf of those and covering issues neglected by the state - all these examples, and there are many more, are evidence that a formidable retreat of the state from public affairs has taken and is taking place, be it necessary political decision-making, fulfilling its public monitoring function or providing delivery of public goods. In a sense, even the Naxalite menace of impoverished, marginalised and radicalised social groups, especially in the States of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, who are taking the law into their own hands, can be seen as a result of this retreat of the state.

It seems that the abrupt ending of what had once been termed by the American scholars Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph as the ‘omnipresence of the state’ in all public, and often also private, affairs in the wake of liberalisation, has created confusion as to who is to fill the gap. Now, one could argue that judicial activism or increased civil society assertiveness are good and healthy signs for a constitutional organ fulfilling its watchdogrole or for the gradual development of a more participatory democracy. And, indeed, they are. But it is not the task of civil society or the judiciary to fill the space the state has vacated. Nor is it a good sign, if the state and the political class abandon crucial and necessary roles and responsibilities.

In fact, a transformative compromise on the question of ‘how much state and how much market’ is needed, an agreement on clearly defined roles for every stakeholder in the governance process, and, finally, what American sociologist Peter Evans termed a ‘strategy of state-society synergy’, designed to engage the energy and imagination of citizens and communities in the co-production of services as a way of enhancing the state’s ability to deliver services without having to demand more scarce material resources from society.

notes
(1) Sen, Amartya, The Argumentative Indian, 2005: 194-195
(2) ‘Why the political parties are losing it’, The Hindu, May 25, 2006.

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