Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reasons to Bother

If Karnataka is a success story (and this is a debatable point), it is despite, not because of, political leadership. Since Ramakrishna Hegde chose the pursuit of power at the Centre over improving his state, more than two decades ago, the state of Nijalingappa and Urs has been ruled by an uninterrupted series of kleptocrats (from Congress, BJP, united Janata Dal and JDS), each utterly apathetic towards development policy. Infrastructure projects that take months in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu- two states where politicians and bureaucrats can best be described as "corrupt but relatively efficient and effective"- can take the best part of a decade. The state's growth has been fuelled by migrant labour. Under the British, the migrants came from Tamil Nadu. Today, they come from Rajasthan, Punjab and Bihar, as well as Bangladesh and the North-East. Kannadigas themselves are acquiring a reputation for unparalleled laziness. This may or may not be fair but certainly Kannadiga politicians exemplify sloth in a manner that today is visible in few other states.

In the early 2000s Karnataka, then a Congress-ruled state, was seen as the poster child of India Shining. The present Union Minister of External Affairs, while criticized in his own state for empty talk and an apathy towards rural Karnataka, was described by the Delhi prints as a model, modernizing Chief Minister. The accolades were entirely undeserved. The one thing that can be said in SM Krishna's defence is that while no one would accuse his administration of honesty, corruption on the scale being practised today did not begin until his successor, N Dharam Singh, a corpulent nonentity, took over in May 2004. Six years later, Karnataka may well be the most corrupt state in the country. Other states might have a single hegemonic kleptocrat (Mayawati or Sharad Pawar) or a multibillionaire first family (the Karunanidhi clan), but in Karnataka the entire system has corroded.

As in any other state, corruption in Karnataka affects every citizen on a daily basis. Its impact goes well beyond the payment of bribes. Why is public transport in Karnataka more expensive than in the rest of the country? Higher fuel taxes play some role, but so does the egregious practice of flying ministers and their families on foreign junkets, the funds coming from the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) and other state transport bodies. In other words, the common man is funding these junkets through the purchase of ludicrously priced bus tickets.

No party is blameless in this situation; all three main parties in Karnataka are beholden to money power in the form of such men as the Reddy brothers (BJP), Anil Lad and RV Deshpande (Congress). Yet the BJP's act in brazenly obstructing the Lok Ayukta, N Santosh Hegde- surely one of the most upright and dignified public servants in the country- in the conduct of his work, its utter contempt for Hegde's recommendations and its mendacity in the face of his resignation give the lie to any claim made on the party's behalf, that it is less corrupt than any other party. Whether this was ever true is doubtful. Now, any profession of honesty on the part of the BJP cannot be taken seriously by any neutral observer.

The circumstances of Hegde's departure are so depressing that one must fear for the future of my home state (by residence if not by blood), no matter how vigorous its private sector and strong its economy. Hegde has a long list of grievances and it is a testament to his forbearance that has stuck with the job so long. Like his father, the late Supreme Court Justice and Janata Party Speaker of the Lok Sabha KS Hegde (the only man to be Speaker of the House as a first-time member), perhaps the most distinguished MP in the history of Karnataka, Santosh Hegde only knows one way of operating in public life: with unwavering courage and honesty. He has used his office to expose politicians of all parties, to investigate illegal mining on the Andhra border as well as thousands of bureaucrats. Yet virtually every single official that the Lok Ayukta has proven corruption charges against has been reinstated by the BJP government, and his report on the activities of the Reddy brothers has been predictably hushed up. Yeddyurappa might well cry crocodile tears on television and feign ignorance, but the truth of the charge cannot be contested. The immediate cause of his resignation was the suspension of an upright Deputy Conservator of Forests, on the pretext that he had a missed a meeting with his Minister in Bangalore. In truth, the forest officer had collaborated with the Lok Ayukta in seizing several hundred crores' worth of iron ore that was about to be illegally shipped, on behalf of the Reddy brothers, from the port of Belikeri. As Hegde pointed out, the officer was both performing his legal obligation as well as saving the state's exchequer hundreds of croses in tax. His reward was suspension, and Hegde's resignation has not been enough to save the officer in question.

Replacing Santosh Hegde will be extraordinarily difficult, both because men of his ilk are rare in public life these days, and because no one will want to take up the Lok Ayukta's job after the BJP has rendered it toothless. Even if a quality replacement could be find, the government is likely spit in his face over and over again, just as they have done to Hegde.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..

Further to my last post, Nitish Kumar has begun to set out his terms for a continuation of his alliance with the BJP: Narendra Modi and the incendiary Varun Gandhi have to be barred from any role in the campaign for the Assembly elections. The BJP's response to this "non-negotiable" demand will indicate whether they have the political courage to prioritize this vitally important coalition partner over hubris. If Kumar's demand is accepted, it will also be a uniquely potent blow to Modi's own ambitions.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bowling alone

It appears to be an almost inexorable law of modern politics that, following electoral defeat, a right-wing party turns initially to its far-right "core", analyzing the defeat as a rejection of moderation and centrism. This was the reaction of the British Conservatives from 1997-2005, when they chose three hardline Thatcherite Eurosceptics in succession to replace the relatively moderate, and defeated John Major; the US Republican Party is doing much the same by allowing its primaries to be hijacked by the extremist, anti-government Tea Party movement and by providing a dogmatic, uncooperative Congressional opposition. Since 2004, our own right-wing party, the BJP (a party much closer in spirit to the Republicans than the Conservatives), has been in steady decline in every state bar Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Unlike the aforementioned parties, the BJP's shift to the right was not unified or coherent. This is partly because of the nature of Indian politics, where individual state leaders have a fairly substantial amount of leeway on policy issues. In general, however, the BJP has looked rightwards, to its "moral authority", the RSS.

The revival of RSS influence was most evident in late 2009/early 2010, when Lal Krishna Advani- one of the greatest ironies of Indian politics today is the fact that Advani has become representative of the "moderate" side of the BJP- retired from all party posts, and Rajnath Singh was replaced as party president by Nitin Gadkari, every bit the RSS' choice.

Since then, we have seen the RSS is clearly not in control of the BJP- but neither is anybody else. Most recently, there appear to be two main factions. Modi and Advani, incredibly, have a loose anti-RSS alliance. Yes, this is one of the most absurd developments in the history of Indian politics, but it is true. Two politicians who most of us believed RSS men for life are now committed to limiting the older organization's influence on the political party. In Modi's case, this is evidently because he sees the RSS as a threat to his own future leadership, inasmuch as it acts to prevent any one figure having total control of the party.

The dispute between the two factions, and Modi and Advani's upper hand is visible in the nomination of Ram Jethmalani, no friend of the RSS, to the Rajya Sabha on a BJP ticket. Only six years ago the octogenarian Jethmalani, with the support of the Congress, fought a Lok Sabha election against no less an RSS and BJP icon than Atal Behari Vajpayee (surely earning himself some brownie points with Advani in the process). Today, however, Jethmalani is Modi's lawyer, and his nomination over the objections of the RSS is a considerable victory for Modi. The failure of Gadkari to inspire, and Modi's consolidation of his own position seems to indicate only one likely path for the BJP: Modi as national leader. His one serious rival for this post will be neither Gadkari nor the Delhi-based parliamentary leadership (Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, neither of whom are or will ever be true mass leaders), but the Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the only other enduringly popular BJP CM (contrary to what the pro-BJP blogs will tell you, Karnataka CM BS Yeddyurappa is not widely popular, with good reason).

Those of us who long for a viable (and palatable) opposition to the corrupt and increasingly complacent Congres should hope that it is Chauhan, and not Modi, who rises to national leadership, however unlikely this prospect may currently appear. Recent events have confirmed what I already suspected: that Modi, whatever his other flaws, is utterly ill-equipped to handle the dynamics of coalition politics. "Coalition dharma" has become a cliché associated in the public eye with Vajpayee, but this particular cliché is only part-imaginary. Vajpayee replaced Advani as party leader in part because of the latter's connection to the Jain hawala scandal, but also, with the reality that as a party limited to certain parts of the country, the BJP was inevitably reliant on alliances with smaller parties. Vajpayee was always the only BJP leader entirely agreeable to such formal and informal allies as Naveen Patnaik, Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar. He had a lifelong ability to make friendships across the political spectrum (in stark contrast to the crudely partisan Modi), but also an understanding of the fact that the BJP's allies needed to be treated with respect and discretion. "Coalition dharma" is not only about ideological compromise: something that Modi might be surprisingly capable of achieving, as his desire for power certainly exceeds his attachment to any particular policy principle. It entails a relationship between parties that should never be paternalistic or condescending. The BJP may have had well over 60% of the MPs in the NDA government of 1998-2004, but its allies were generally accorded a remarkable degree of respect. In retrospect, Chandrababu Naidu has argued that his party was irrevocably tainted by its support of the BJP. But for those six years, the vast majority of BJP allies were more than satisfied with the arrangement. The one prominent ally to defect, the DMK, did so for purely instrumental reasons.

The history of the NDA since 2004 shows us that, in the absence of Vajpayee's leadership, the only reliable ally that the BJP has left is the Shiv Sena, a party in terminal decline following the establishment of Raj Thackeray's MNS. The Trinamool Congress and Biju Janata Dal have both proved emphatically that they can thrive without the BJP; both parties, along with the TDP, are probably lost to the BJP forever, if there is such a thing in Indian politics. The BJP's failure to retain Om Prakash Chautala can be put down to its non-application of "coalition dharma".

Narendra Modi has never had to stoop to a coalition: favourable circumstances, an ineffectual opposition and his own political skill have ensured BJP dominance in Gujarat for the last decade. Vajpayee, by contrast, had first-hand experience of coalition government from his time as Minister of External Affairs in the ramshackle Janata government. Modi, on the other hand, is equipped neither with the experience nor with the temperament for coalition government. He has always embodied a stye of leadership that is based on strong personal direction, not consensus. There is only one prominent BJP leader in Gujarat, and that is Modi (contrast Karnataka, where Ananth Kumar and the Reddy brothers are often as powerful and as visible as the CM).

But there is no need to extrapolate from Modi's style and psyche the conclusion that he would be unable to sustain a coalition. One merely has to examine his record in this regard. Through arrogance and intransigence, Modi is singlehandedly wrecking the once-harmonious but now fragile, yet immensely important alliance with Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United). This blog has argued in the past that Nitish is India's best Chief Minister, and he presents the kind of development-oriented alternative to Congress populism that the BJP ought to emulate. The travesty that is Bihar's polity, where even a record of governance as outstanding as Nitish' is not necessarily sufficient to ensure re-election, means that Nitish may even lose to some combination of Laloo and Paswan this winter. But if the BJP loses him they will be shut out of Bihar altogether: the party will have been reduced to a virtual non-factor in five of India's six largest states. Only the truly deluded can believe that Modi's "charismatic" leadership is capable of reversing this. If the BJP is to survive, it needs to both unite internally as well as carefully preserve and reconstruct its state-based alliances. If the party turns to Narendra Modi as its saviour, this latter task will prove impossible: and isolation will be the first step on the path to oblivion.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The path to Race Course Road

If Manmohan Singh sees out the current Parliament, he will be the first person to serve consecutive, uninterrupted terms as Prime Minister since Indira Gandhi. It would be a considerable achievement, even if one has to add the obvious qualifier that Singh has not simultaneously been the leader of his party or of the governing coalition. Yet it is by no means obvious that the Congress/UPA would be more successful, electorally or legislatively, with Sonia Gandhi as PM.

Manmohan Singh is a mild man who, in India at least (the Western media usually depicts him as a wise scholar-statesman), tends to inspire mild opinions ranging from cautious approval to moderate scepticism. Whatever you think of him- and I lean narrowly to the sceptical side- it is evident that he has no viable political future beyond 2014. After that year's election, if not sooner, Singh will retire as PM, for the simple reason of age (he will turn 82 that year; Morarji Desai at 80 is the oldest incoming PM of all time). One of the most fascinating processes of the next few years, then, will be the rat race to succeed him within the Congress (more on this soon, in another post). Thinking of the many prime ministerial hopefuls, however- of whom the present Home Minister is certainly the most openly ambitious- led me to think about the path to the top job that Singh and his predecessors have followed. If one is not a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is it necessary to have been a senior cabinet minister (for instance, in the key portfolios of Finance, Home or External Affairs)? To what extent does India have the notion of a political "career" with incremental promotion?

Let us examine, briefly, the path that each previous Prime Minister took:

1) Jawaharlal Nehru: As the first PM, of course, Nehru did not get to the top on the basis of previous ministerial service. Instead, his rise was based on two main factors: closeness to Gandhi and personal charisma. Clearly, this was not a path future leaders could really hope to emulate.
2) Lal Bahadur Shastri: Shastri, on the other hand, was an exemplar of a successful political "career": a consistent rise through the ranks, culminating in his appointment as Home Minister in 1961. It is worth noting that Shastri's main rival for the top job was Finance Minister Morarji Desai: showing that at the time, a void in leadership was resolved between senior members of the Cabinet, rather than by bringing in someone from outside.
3) Indira Gandhi: Like Shastri, the original Mrs. Gandhi came to power by defeating Desai, although this time in a formal rather than informal contest. It would be easy but misguided to see this as the introduction of dynastic politics to India: if Nehru had truly wanted his daughter to succeed him, he would have installed her as his successor before his death. Indira had never served in a senior Cabinet job, although she had been Congress President and Minister of Information & Broadcasting. Her appointment was a political (mis)calculation by the Congress Syndicate: exploit the personal popularity of Nehru while retaining control of the party. Mrs Gandhi's electoral victories in 1971 and 1980 can be attributed in part to her political skill, but her initial appointment was little more than a historical fluke.
4) Morarji Desai- Desai emerged as the leader of the Janata Party both as a consequence of seniority as well as his symbol as one of the two most prominent opponents of Indira Gandhi (the other being Jayaprakash Narayan). It is inconceivable, however, for Morarji to become PM without his long term as Finance Minister, where he established his reputation.
5) Charan Singh- Charan Singh was Home Minister under Desai- until he brought down Desai's government in late 1979- thus establishing a trend whereby, in a situation where the PM did not have the full command of his party/alliance, the Home Ministry was given to his biggest rival/guarantor (think Devi Lal or LK Advani. Rather than seeing the Home Ministry as Charan Singh's path to the top, it is better to see his position as Home Minister (and Deputy Prime Minister) as a reflection of the power that he already held. The source of his power: his status as India's first mass-successful agrarian politician.
6) Rajiv Gandhi- Till date, Rajiv Gandhi is the only case of a purely dynastic rise to the position of Prime Minister. He entered politics and Parliament less than four years before he took office as PM, and held no posts of any consequence (his only official post was Youth Congress President). Indeed, his most visible political achievement was piddling at best- the organization of the 1982 Asian Games. Unlike in 1966, his appointment was no political calculation, nor was it ever in question. It was merely proof that under Indira Gandhi the dynastic principle had become the Congress' governing one (Indira Gandhi remains the last member of the family to face an electoral challenge to her leadership from within the party).
7) VP Singh- VP Singh, in terms of his path to the top, was Morarji Desai Mark II: a well-known Finance Minister who was forced out of his post, first to the Ministry of Defence and then, as a result of his suspicion of the Bofors scandal, out of the Congress altogether. Like Desai, Singh triumphantly returned to office as the leader of an unwieldy coalition with little in common beyond opposition to the Gandhis and the desire for power. Like Desai, he installed his political guarantor- Devi Lal- as Home Minister and Deputy PM, although Tauji, unlike Charan Singh, had little desire for the top job. Like Desai, Singh lost his majority in less than half a term.
8) Chandra Shekhar- But while Charan Singh stabbed Desai in the back, VP Singh was stabbed in the front- by Chandra Shekhar, surely a competitor for the biggest nonentity ever to become PM (his competition is No. 11 on this list). The "Young Turk" intrigued his way to his life's ambition of becoming Prime Minister: something that was only possible in the Indian political climate of 1990, when all major parties were essentially buying time.
9) PV Narasimha Rao- But for their remarkably different characters (especially in terms of integrity) Rao could be seen as the Andhra Shastri. He had served in three of the four most important Cabinet positions (Home, Defence, External Affairs) and had never sought to challenge Gandhi family leadership. With Sonia Gandhi, like Indira Gandhi in 1964, refusing to challenge for the top job, Rao's long record of service made him the best candidate for promotion.
10) While best-known as the "acceptable" half of the BJP leadership in the 1980s and 1990s, Vajpayee had served Cabinet time as Minister of External Affairs in the first Janata government, which meant that by 1996 he had already been in the frontline of national politics for two decades. Yet Vajpayee's path is distinct from any other PM in that (in partnership with Advani) he came to power by leading a coherent, unified and viable single-party opposition to the Congress: even if the actual government was a coalition, the big three cabinet portfolios were retained by the BJP throughout Vajpayee's six years as PM. A more challenging and impressive path, then, than perhaps any other.
11) HD Deve Gowda- These days it is increasingly common to hear Deve Gowda lament that the fact that he is "not accorded the respect due to a former Prime Minister of the country." This has a lot to do with the fact that the rest of us are still confused as to how Deve Gowda became Prime Minister in the first place. Bigger and more distinguished names- such as Jyoti Basu- did the rounds for United Front PM before the little-known Vokkaliga engineered his way from Hassan to Delhi. Deve Gowda benefited from being the only sitting Janata Dal Chief Minister; experienced observers in Karnataka were shocked that the brazenly corrupt and provincial Gowda was elevated above, for instance, his long-time rival Ramakrishna Hegde. Hegde himself was devastated and never recovered, politically or personally.
12) IK Gujral- Once Information & Broadcasting minister under Mrs Gandhi, the widely respected- in some circles at least- Gujral left the Congress in the 1980s and was Minister of External Affairs in both Janata Dal governments. When Deve Gowda's government was brought down by the capricious Sitaram Kesri, Gujral was installed essentially at Kesri's mercy and brought down less than a year later.
13) Manmohan Singh- If Rajiv Gandhi was the first pure dynast, Manmohan Singh is the first pure loyalist to be appointed PM. To be sure, he has other qualifications- a long career of government service, from the RBI to Finance Secretary to the Planning Commission to, most famously, his excessively lionized, but undoubtedly solid stint as Finance Minister under Narasimha Rao (who himself doesn't usually receive enough credit for economic reforms). When Singh was chosen in 2004, however, it was clearly his loyalty to family and party (which come to the same thing) that was his greatest asset. Because Manmohan had never been a politician per se before 2004, he was reliable and unthreatening. That said, it is likely that without his time as Finance Minister he would not have been a prominent or credible enough figure for the job.

13 prime ministers, then, in just over sixty years. What lessons can we draw from their diverse careers, for the various aspirants of 2014? Here are some general conclusions

1) Unless you are a Gandhi or a "fluke" PM (Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda), you are likely to need experience in the key positions of Finance, External Affairs or Home. Every single PM that did not fit one of the above two categories served in one of these cabinet posts.
2) The Congress is a good place to start. Vajpayee is the only Prime Minister to have never been a member of the Indian National Congress, and Deve Gowda the only other to not contest an election on a Congress ticket. With the Congress once again in the ascendancy, it is the only safe place to be for a PM aspirant. If things change: never fear, there is a great tradition of Congress-rebel PMs, comprising Desai, Charan Singh, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Gujral.
3) Unless you are a dynast or the leader of a major party, avoid signalling your intentions years ahead. Desai failed in 1964 and 1966 partly because of his overweening ambition, a quality that later felled Ramakrishna Hegde, Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav, all of whom could have been PMs had they shown more discretion. Conversely, the "accidental" PMs Gowda and Gujral benefited from being seen as non-threatening. The present Home Minister would do well to keep this in mind.

Indian politics changes in such quick and unexpected ways that it is often foolish to make predictions on the basis of past events, no matter how accurate the historical analysis (and getting this right is hard enough). If anything, I will be curious to see the extent to which the process by which the next Prime Minister emerges fits in to past patterns.

Welcome back

With this post, Functioning Anarchy returns on a regular basis. Except posts from both of us at least each week and hopefully more often than that. As previously, the topics will include Indian politics, foreign policy, culture and sport- a new addition will be posts on historical themes.