James Manor is a distinguished political scientist, who has been studying Indian politics since 1972. Currently a professor at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, he has held positions at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale, University of Leicester, Australian National University and SOAS. Manor has written extensively on India’s Prime Minister’s Office, Karnataka politics, evolution of political parties including Congress and BJP, democratic decentralisation, federalism, India’s chief ministers, ethnicity and politics, and a range of issues. He spoke to HT about current trends in Indian politics. Excerpts:
Q. You wrote in a recent piece that big verdicts in India – be it in 1971, 77 or 84 – have generated huge expectations which governments were unable to meet. And none of those who won – be it Indira Gandhi or Janata or Rajiv Gandhi - got re-elected. You meant this as a warning to Narendra Modi. Do you think the Delhi poll results is a vindication of that position?
A. It may be too early to say that. Delhi elections were probably decided by a combination of other things. It is too early for those with very high expectations to be disappointed but if they are disappointed over a longer period, then we may see this tendency. We may see it in Bihar at the end of the year, or UP later. But the time we would expect to see it is five years from now, when things like massive number of jobs being created prove impossible. We may see that later but not yet.
Q. Modi aims to generate those jobs through his Make in India campaign. You see him being able to transform India into a manufacturing economy, with the kind of jobs China was able to generate?
A. It will be very difficult because the Indian system is clogged with excessive regulation which has not been swept away. Manufacturing in India is also competing with lots of other low wage economies in Asia. Much will depend on the budget. If they stress on fiscal discipline rather than public investment in infrastructure and various other things which will enable manufacturing, then this will contribute to problems. By stressing too much on fiscal discipline, they hold back investments which could help industry. They may rely on good credit ratings internationally, bringing in foreign direct investment, which would then accelerate manufacturing. But that is a very long process and it is a bit of a gamble. And either way, I don’t see how massive number of jobs can be created by any government.
Q. One way in which the government is seeking to bolster investment sentiment is rolling back partly on some of the legislation that the UPA had brought, like land acquisition act. Do you think the government runs the risk of being seen as anti-poor?
A. There is that risk. Many poor groups – for instance, forest dwellers and poor people who live near forests who would otherwise benefit from forest rights act and other such acts –will feel government is anti poor. If they voted for the government in 2014, they may change their mind. In other areas beyond the land acquisition ordinance, if the government follows a consistent line, as it is likely to do, there is this risk. The government will need to counterbalance that impression by keeping funds flowing into programmes for poor people, and by perhaps polarizing population along identity lines. That may not work to compensate for the anti poor image.
Q. In a recent piece, you cited data to show how rural income as well as income of marginalised social groups increased during the UPA rule. Yet, the Congress lost. You think it was because of what many commentators call identity-based consolidation?
A. I don’t think it was identity. Mr Modi did not stress identity issues in his campaign. He stressed forceful leadership that will get government moving, which will break paralysis within government. And that appealed to many people who felt that the government had stagnated since 2010 when the 2G scam burst and other things followed. It should be stressed that many poor people did vote for Congress and its allies but not enough of them to win lots of seats. It should be stressed that under UPA – and the evidence I cited that was collected by a strong team of NCAER and University of Maryland is clear - redistribution of wealth did occur to poor people under UPA and growth was inclusive as UPA intended. That was not enough to win an election but it was a reality. If the present government changes that pattern, there may be a political reaction. We do not know.
Q. The paralysis is perceived to have broken because the PMO has centralised authority, which may quicken decision making. How do you think it will pan out?
A. The centralization of power in PMO may improve things on that front. But it will also damage things on other fronts because too much will depend on the judgment of people in the PMO. So far the PMO has not been able to build a very strong staff to help make those judgments.
The second issue is that the paralysis was not a result of lack of centralization of power in UPA government. It was a result of fear of ministers and bureaucrats to take decisions; to put anything on paper because they may be caught in some kind of media expose. There was a fear that honest bureaucrats may be jailed because of police investigations, IT investigations because they took bold actions which were needed but they may not have the research or reports to justify those decisions. So there was an assumption in some cases that they were bribed. There are honest officers in jail now awaiting trial. Other civil servants see this, and feel it may be better not to take action. The problem of paralysis is a very complicated problem that runs deep in the system. That persists.
Future of Congress
Q. An advantage for the government is the weak opposition. Why do you think Congress is in a mess?
A. The Congress party organisation is extremely weak; it is extremely factionalised, and chaotic in some cases in most Indian states. There are some exceptions. Congress party organisation in Kerala and Karnataka, in one or two other states, is comparatively strong. When you have a weak organisation - and Congress has had a weak organisation ever since Indira Gandhi destroyed her own party to dominate - then you need a strong and coherent leadership at the top. That leadership has been sometimes constructive, but often not. It is erratic. Rahul Gandhi appears to be actively involved in constructive action only some of the time; sometimes only for short periods and then he gives up a campaign he begins. It is very erratic and intermittent and these two things mean that the leadership has not compensated for the terrible condition of the organisation. There are good people in Congress but they cannot make the kind of impact they would like to make because of the chaotic organisation and the wayward leadership.
Q. One of the advantages BJP has that Congress doesn’t is the RSS cadre base, which is mobilised during the elections. A suggestion heard in Congress circles is it is time for the party to transform from being a mass based outfit to a cadre based one. Can you foresee that at all at this moment?
A. First of all, BJP’s organisation – apart from the RSS – is actually not as strong as people think. It doesn’t penetrate outside urban areas and below the district level very effectively in most Indian states. That is a little bit of a myth. But the idea that Congress should go over to a cadre based system is such a huge change from the mess that is Congress today that it is almost impossible to achieve even if they want to. And it is not clear if that is that the leadership wants. The leadership lacks clarity on many issues, and this is one way it lacks clarity. That is completely out of question.
Q. There is a view that the party needs to rethink the leadership question. Do you agree?
A. I don’t think a change in leadership with other members of the family will make much difference. And if the Congress seeks to go beyond the family among senior leaders, some of whom are very good, I don’t think it will work either because the party’s chaotic, factionalised condition means that there is an institutionalised need within the party for an unquestioned final decision-maker at the top – who can only come from the family. If you put a non family member at the top, and he or she makes decisions, many people in Congress will refuse to accept it because it does not come from the family. The Congress needs the family, but the family may not be adequate to providing strong leadership. This is a huge dilemma for Congress.
South India, caste and regional parties
Q. You have worked extensively in south India. BJP is seeking to expand southwards, including Tamil Nadu. Are conditions ripe for it?
A. No. The BJP is hoping to make modest gains in Tamil Nadu but the two main Dravidian parties have been dominant for so long, since 1967, that any other party – be it Congress or BJP or a minor party – don’t have much of an opportunity. BJP may make a few gains there but conditions are unpromising.
Karnataka is the one state where BJP has some popularity but the party is weighed down by the autocratic and not very intelligent leadership of Yeddyurappa; they are embarrassed by his court cases which are not going to disappear; BJP’s main hope in Karnataka is that Congress would do very badly and alienate many people so that BJP would become the alternative. But even then, there is another alternative there – JD (S). It has enough support in certain sections there to prevent BJP from making huge gains. The only time BJP made huge gains - when Yedyurappa came to power - was after it used illicit mining money to buy 24 district level leaders of Congress either to join BJP or remain inactive at the elections. The only way they have won anything on a big scale is buying the opposition. That won’t happen again. The mining money is not available anymore. BJP’s outlook in South India is not at all promising.
Q. A major narrative that emerged post 2014 was that we are looking at a post Mandal moment in terms of post identity politics. Do you see regional parties based on backward caste assertion having a future?
A. There is a problem in many states for such parties. The main problem is that the OBC bloc, cluster of castes, is not very tightly knit; it is not homogeneous; it suffers from internal rivalries and can fragment very easily. What was once Lalu Prasad’s bloc in Bihar tended to fragment and that happened in UP, and that is the fundamental problem for the Mandal type parties. But I get very impatient with two sets of extreme comments. One is that caste explains everything in elections. It is not true. It is important but a lot of other things are also important. We have enough CSDS data to demonstrate that. At the same time, I get impatient with people who say caste doesn’t matter and we are in a post identity phase because that is also misleading. Caste does count, so does religion, and other identities people have. We need to pay attention to ambiguities and complications.
Q. Modi has broadened BJP’s base and moved it from being seen as a Brahman-Bania party to representing other social groups. You think it is a significant shift and can be sustained?
A. Yes. But whether it can be sustained is another matter. What matters now is not so much what social groups are willing to vote for BJP in one election, 2014, but how BJP governments at the centre and in many states perform. People in India are sophisticated voters who are impatient with poor performance. And if poor performance continues under governments led by the BJP, then people will react against it, no matter what the social base of BJP was in May of 2014.