This Sunday we will know whether ‘five crore Gujaratis’ will opt for another five years of Narendra Modi. If Gujarat decides to keep Modi in office, I am guessing around five columnists will argue this, or variations of it: market economics has finally found a marketable face in political India. They will have a point. But there’s a larger point, one that must be asked by those whose intellectual commitment to liberal economics is not so intriguingly malleable as to happily include disturbingly energetic practitioners of illiberal politics. Who helped Modi’s emergence as an economic liberal? The Congress did, by leaving the field clear for him.
The Congress’s comical rhetorical swings in Gujarat between “riot victims, who?” and “merchant of death” are not the issue here. Let us, in fact, grant the Congress the comfort of the argument that in Gujarat’s politics, such apparent confusion is actually proof that the party was allowing realpolitik to inform its strategy. Modi as the Hindu leader — maybe the Congress couldn’t do much about that. But Modi as a leader who isn’t shy of trumpeting the creative possibilities of entrepreneurship — couldn’t the Congress have taken that on? It could have, had the party not spent all its time since the May 2004 general elections disowning something that had started under its watch, and putting the man who had started it through a most peculiar process of a political emasculation. But hold your unqualified sympathies for the man. The Prime Minister himself is at fault, too. Before we get into that, a few preliminaries need to be taken care of.
First, the 2004 general election results continue to be interpreted by the Congress and a majority of the commentariat as a revenge of the aam aadmi against the delusory fantasies of the khaas aadmi. To quickly make a few points: the Congress did well in the major cities; in poor states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan it did badly; it didn’t get that many seats more than the BJP; had the DMK stayed on in the NDA, the final result would have looked different; every incumbent in national elections since 1977, when Indira Gandhi lost power, has lost; the only two exceptions are in 1984, when Indira Gandhi’s assassination helped the Congress retain power, and in 1999, when the Kargil war helped the BJP retain power. So, reforms were not a vote loser.
Second, and following from the first set of observations, are reforms a vote winner? Liberal economic principles are not something voters automatically appreciate. A politician can scarcely tell a voter that freer trade that hits his current employer and, therefore, may affect his current job is good for him because ultimately there will be better job opportunities for him via economic growth. The proposition is true, but the truth is hard to sell, and from the point of view of the individual concerned it is easy to see why. That is why radical market-friendly economic changes — the best guarantor for sustainable general prosperity — are often started by stealth or in response to financial/economic emergencies. India’s reforms were in response to a financial emergency and, subsequently, many of them were carried out in a fashion and in sectors that didn’t register on the popular radar.
Politics is about evolution, though. When policy changes produce clear and continuous evidence that things are getting better, politics can start adopting the language of market economics for its purposes. The adoption will necessarily be convenient, tactical, not always be intellectually consistent and involve marrying liberal economics with some other political mantra, a variant of nationalism or regionalism, for example. That’s how politics is, and should be. Otherwise, academic economists would have ruled democracies.
But hang on, one academic-economist, a very good one at that, does have the most important job in this country.
Sadly for himself, and more important, for India, Manmohan Singh has remained an academic-economist. Yes, there was an ‘arrangement’ of power sharing between him and Sonia Gandhi when he came to power. No, that didn’t mean he had to keep on seeing politics as something only Arjun Singh does. There’s one telling demonstration of Singh keeping away from politics: when his Rajya Sabha term expired earlier this year, he opted again to be a ‘much-loved son of Assam’, and got into Parliament without meeting people on the way.
Three years into his term, why didn’t Dr Singh want to fight a Lok Sabha by-election? Did the Congress not want him to? Did he not want the gloss of political legitimacy? Did Congress strategists reckon there wasn’t a safe seat for the PM? Did Sonia Gandhi not think that her PM and, therefore, his and her government needed that sheen of popular approbation? I have no idea what the answers are. But the fact that these questions can be asked are damning. And they explain why the PM has more or less lost his chance to give market economics a saleable political spin; in politics, you have to mess around with the people.
So most Congress politicians, whose political DNA is mostly ‘old socialism’, didn’t have to reckon with a political PMO that could counter their rhetoric. Therefore the political message was that the party in power and its leader in government aren’t keen on selling the idea of an economically liberal India. This, when the world has been fairly gushing about India’s transformation. This is extraordinary politics, extraordinarily silly politics, and it created a huge vacuum for any of the Congress’s political opponents to exploit.
The Congress was lucky that the BJP in opposition lost its policy marbles. But Modi, a BJP leader the BJP is apprehensive about, didn’t. So if he wins this Sunday, in the next weeks and months he may emerge as India’s most effective political spokesperson of liberal economics. And the man who could and should have been that will let his party dress up political unimaginativeness as strategy.
L.K. Advani recently said Manmohan Singh doesn’t understand politics. Advani got it wrong. Politics doesn’t understand Manmohan Singh.
Saubhik Chakrabarti is Deputy Editor, News X