Modi Should Beware Of Status Quoists
Modi has spent only a few weeks in office, so it is impossible to say whether or not he has succeeded. However, we can examine the measures his government has taken or intends to take, and see if emphasis is on change or continuity—that is, how strong is the desire to bury the past and embark on a new journey
The success of Narendra Modi, so far, has lain in his perspicacity to comprehend that the people of India were fed up with the Nehruvian Consensus. In his election campaign, he expressed his, and the country’s exasperation with the theology, practices, inadequacies, and failings of the established order. He promised to change the system; the voter believed him and gave him a clear mandate to do that. Modi has spent only a few weeks in office, so it is impossible to say whether or not he has succeeded. However, we can examine the measures his government has taken or intends to take, and see if emphasis is on change or continuity—that is, how strong is the desire to bury the past and embark on a new journey.
The journey has begun. Finance and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley has given a fillip to defence production by, among other things, hiking the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) cap from 26 per cent to 49 per cent. Work is also on to introduce reforms in labor laws—something that has not happened since 1991 when the economy was liberalised. There are also many measures to boost manufacturing, upgrade infrastructure, and improve agriculture.
In matters related to internal security, too, the Modi government has given up the confused, timid approach to the Naxal problem. Emphasising a tough, realistic approach that focuses on the modernisation of security forces, Home Minister Rajnath Singh has ruled out any negotiations with the vicious extremists: “There is no question of any talks now…the forces will give a befitting reply if the Naxals launch attacks.”
Enriching public discourse
The BJP has made it clear that it is no mood to give up the so-called contentious issues such as Article 370 and the uniform civil code. In fact, it is after years that the saffron party’s core issues have resurfaced in the domain of public discourse.
Women & Child Welfare Minister Maneka Gandhi’s endeavor to amend the Juvenile Justice Act is also welcomed. She wants juvenile rapists to be tried as adults. “We are changing the law and I am personally working on it to bring 16-year-olds into the purview. According to the police, 50 per cent of the crimes are committed by 16-year-olds who know the Juvenile Justice Act,” she said. “But now for premeditated murder, rape, if we bring them into the purview of the adult world, then it will scare them.”
It is interesting to note that her predecessor, Krishna Tirath, had also proposed a similar amendment, but was vetoed by loud activists and their patrons in the ruling establishment. Maneka Gandhi’s initiative will surely mean a breach from the past.
The Modi government has adopted a forceful approach that asserts national interest in the international arena. National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, reportedly flew to Baghdad and Intelligence Bureau Director, Asif Ibrahim to Riyadh in June, to bring home 46 nurses and help thousands of other Indians in violence-hit Iraq.
Pakistan and China have also been conveyed the message that New Delhi will not take anti-India actions lying down. While Modi wants closer ties with China, he invited Tibetan PM-in-exile Lobsang Sangay at the swearing-in ceremony.
Ghost of Nehru
The desire to usher in meaningful change is indeed there, but there is also a propensity to persist with continuity, to abide by the dogmas and shibboleths of the past. It needs to be highlighted here that Nehru has got the habit of resurrecting himself by finding new admirers, even in the most unusual places. A couple of days before presenting the Budget, Jaitley made a statement in Parliament that stunned everybody and shocked his party members. He refused to declassify the Henderson Brooks Report into India’s military debacle against China in 1962, a document that shows Jawaharlal Nehru in a bad light. “This [Henderson Brooks Report] is a top-secret document and has not been declassified so far. Release of this report, fully or partially, or disclosure of any information related to this report, would not be in national interest,” Jaitley said in a written reply to a question in Rajya Sabha.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been demanding the release of the report, portions of which were already disclosed by an Australian journalist. Not long ago, Jaitely himself had argued for the release of the report. “Any society is entitled to learn from the past mistakes and take remedial action. With the wisdom of hindsight, I am of the opinion that the report’s content could have been made public some decades ago… Was the Himalayan blunder of 1962, in fact, a Nehruvian blunder?”
While politicians are notorious for their somersaults, Jaitley’s U-turn is conspicuous because of both his stature in Parliament and the gravity of the issue; it hints at a propensity to accommodate some of the Nehruvian imperatives in the new dispensation. Unfortunately, this propensity is perceptible in many areas.
To begin with, the BJP government, despite Modi’s reservations towards populism, has not given any indication of doing away with the entitlement-oriented policies like the rural employment scheme (NREGA) and the food security law. Such abominations are predicated upon the belief that the poor are worthless creatures who want food and livelihood which can only be provided by the state. One has to be an intellectual or a Congress leader to accept this fiction, but there are many who do that. Even in the BJP.
The BJP government is also following the disinvestment policy of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, that is, selling minority stakes (5-10 per cent) in public sector undertakings (PSUs) with the objective of shoring up the exchequer. This is surprising because the BJP government had chalked out an excellent privatisation policy under Arun Shourie, which is also in tune with Modi’s political philosophy. Surprisingly, that policy has been dumped by the BJP government. Similarly, the BJP government is continuing price controls that the UPA imposed on various sectors. The decisions to bring down vegetable prices are reminiscent of the statist, highhanded measures of the 1970s. Inflation is, of course, a big problem but the solution lies in opening up the economy and removing supply-side constraints rather than behaving like a tough cop.
Modi: Antithesis of Nehru
The preference for continuity over change militates against the spirit of Narendra Modi’s vision. For Modi is the antithesis of Nehru: while the first prime minister had faith in socialism and big government, suspicion for private enterprise, disdain for armed forces, and penchant for quixotic foreign policy, the current incumbent believes in small government (Minimum Government, Maximum Governance), relies on the private sector, respects the armed forces, and favors a realistic foreign policy.
In short, Nehru and Modi are irreconcilable. But, it may be asked, why should we be worried about the Nehruvian past in the first place? (See box: Poverty of Nehruvian Consensus) After all, Nehru died over a half a century ago; a lot of sewage flown down the Yamuna since then; the country and the world have changed; communism is dead; and one can go on and on. But then, as they say, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
It took almost a quarter of a century for the Nehruvian Consensus to face the first serious challenge—in 1991, when Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao liberalised the economy. But Rao’s attack against socialism was expedient rather than philosophical or ideological.
His then Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh (who later became Prime Minister), made the reforms appear as an improved version, and certainly not a denunciation, of the Nehruvian project. In his historic 1991-92 Budget speech, Singh said, “Thanks to the efforts of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi, we have developed a well diversified industrial structure. This constitutes a great asset as we begin to implement various structural reforms. However, barriers to entry and limits on growth in the size of firms, have often led to a proliferation of licensing and an increase in the degree of monopoly. This has put shackles on segments of Indian industry…” Nothing was wrong with Nehruvian socialism; there were just a few glitches that needed attention. Or so we were told. In nutshell, while Rao dumped some of the worst features of Nehruvian socialism, he did not discard it. Nehru was wounded, but not mortally.
Do’s and don’t’s for Modi
- Doubt anything that Leftists, intellectuals, and activists promote
- Examine everything that they oppose: there must be some merit in it
- Don’t be afraid of condemnation from intellectuals
- Don’t appease them, as they will always hate you
- Don’t try to change your views and policies to please the Left, intellectuals, and activists
- Weed out the influence of the Left from textbooks
- Don’t ignore the key constituency—the middle class
Vajpayee: Last Nehruvian
In 1998, when Bharatiya Janata Party leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee began his six-year tenure, many expected that it would be a change of regime and not just of government. After all, Vajpayee came from a party ideologically opposed to Nehru. Yet, he did little to accomplish a radical breach from the past. In a recent article, Mani Shankar Aiyar rightly called Vajpayee “the last Nehruvian”.
The Nehruvian Consensus, however, was exposed to the vulnerabilities arising out of the economic, political, and social changes between the late 1980s and 2004. The reforms continued unabated even after Rao demitted office in 1996. Later regimes continued with liberalisation; this was despite the fact that the Communist Party of India was part of two governments during 1996-98. The BJP, which ruled for six years (1998-2004), carried forward the reforms agenda, notwithstanding its Swadeshi rhetoric.
Such tumultuous events had left the Indian communists and their fellow travelers ideologically shattered and psychologically battered. The fall of the Berlin Wall and later of the Soviet Union, unraveling of Moscow’s client states in the Eastern Bloc, China’s embrace of capitalism in all but name—these events disoriented pinkish intellectuals. They could not pose a big challenge to Narasimha Rao when he opened up the economy. Not that they did not try, but they were too demoralised and badly discredited in the public eye to check the economic reforms Rao authored.
Economic reforms brought unprecedented prosperity, and it was not confined to the rich and middle class; the poor were also benefited, though the figures of poverty reduction are religiously challenged by Leftwing experts. All the Leftist predictions about the ill-effects of economic reforms proved to be wrong. They said that Indian companies will be eliminated or gobbled up by multinational corporations (MNCs); we were told that MNCs are the descendants of East India Company. In reality, many domestic corporations themselves became MNCs!
Professional revolutionaries said that ‘cut-throat competition’ will spell doom for the micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs); but the MSME sector grew very fast after liberalisation; its growth rate was usually more than the index of industrial production. It was claimed that the rich would become richer and the poor, poorer; the rich did become richer but the poor also gained from all-around growth and development, as evident from the fact that most people use mobile phones. The Left’s apocalyptic assertions and weird theories consistently proved to be wrong, but there was no let-up in the creation of outlandishness.
Complacent India Inc
The Left’s tenacity was matched only by the complacency of big business and the political class. In the early 2000s, it was frequently said at business conferences and other public forums that ‘reforms have become irreversible’. The rants of the Left were tolerated as the fulminations of outdated radicals. Unlike their counterparts in the US, domestic businessmen are impervious to the idea of enlightened self-interest. Our tycoons do not set up think-tanks and institutions to influence public discourse; they let lal salam-type intellectuals and jholawallahs to set the agenda.
It was assumed that many relics of the past, like Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), would follow in the footsteps of dinosaurs. Administration, the law and order situation, judicial processes, police functioning, national security, etc, would improve gradually. Or so the productive sections of society, the middle class, and the responsible politicians thought.
But 2004 witnessed Lutyen’s Delhi transform into Jurassic Park, with red and pink tyrannosauruses trampling economic reforms, creating mechanisms to strangulate business, devising ways to augment public (read wasteful) expenditure, weakening fight against Maoist and jihadist terror, and playing havoc with diplomacy.
Like the Jurassic intellectuals, Congress leaders also came back with a vengeance, something which is obvious from the scale and shamelessness of the scams that they occasioned. For the first time since Independence, they had been out of power for eight years (1996-2004). Congress president Sonia Gandhi created an alliance of the idealist and the practitioner of realpolitik, sort of politician-intellectual complex. The idealist keeps crying for expanding the role of the state; the politician is the beneficiary.
Owing to the 13 years of reforms, however, the economy had acquired certain resilience which not only withstood the depredations of the communists (who supported the UPA regime from outside during 2004-08) and the National Advisory Council (NAC) but grew at a fast pace for the first four years. It needs to be mentioned that the NAC, headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, comprised professional radicals, green lobbyists, bleeding hearts, and some downright Luddites. What made them really dangerous was the fact that they were Sonia’s handpicked advisers to shape public policy; and she was the de facto ruler of India.
Poverty Of Nehruvian Consensus
Socialism, secularism, and non-alignment are the three pillars of the Nehruvian system. Nehru began intervening in the economy, set up public sector undertakings, tangled entrepreneurs in a maze of regulation, and generally discouraged private enterprise. He infamously told J.R.D. Tata, “Never talk to me about the word profit; it is a dirty word.”
The evil of socialism has become evident by the mid-1960s. According to the Planning Commission document for the Fourth Five Year Plan (1967-72), “Per capita real income in 1965-66 was about the same as it was in 1960-61.” Further, “the slow rate of growth in agricultural production not only depressed the rate of growth of the economy but also led to an alarming increase in the dependence on imports of food-grains and other agricultural commodities. During the Third Plan [1962-67] the country imported 25 million tonnes of food grains, 3.9 million bales of cotton and 1.5 million bales of jute.”
During the subsequent three years, too, the imports continued to be heavy. Despite increased imports of food grains, per capita availability was lower than the 1961 level, and there was severe pressure on prices. After 1962-63, the rise in wholesale prices was sharp, as per the Planning Commission. “A growing trade deficit and mounting debt obligations characterised the situation.” In short, Nehruvian socialism had ruined the economy. Other consequences included rampant corruption and the total neglect of administration and, law and order, and internal security. Secularism has degenerated in vote-bank politics and Muslim appeasement. Nehruvian foreign and defence policies were no less calamitous for the nation, the denouement being 1962.
Landmines in the economy
Most of the time during UPA I, the communists and NAC fanatics planted landmines in the economy. Over the years, many have tripped on the landmines. The food security law is one such landmine that has the potential to play havoc with the economy in the next few years. Sonia Gandhi’s rights and entitlements-based ideology also meant total neglect of governance, fiscal prudence, investment climate, internal security, and national defence. Murphy’s Law was at work: everything that could have gone wrong did.
Narendra Modi’s impressive rise should be viewed against this backdrop. Contrasting this with the rise of Ronald Reagan would be instructive. While the Rightwing revolution embodied in the popular American President was preceded by an intellectual revolution of at least two decades preceding it, there was no comparable intellectual groundswell in favour of Modi. In fact, he was hauled over the coals by academics, editors, political commentators, and other experts over one issue or another. It was the complete breakdown of the Nehruvian Consensus, rather than any intellectual efflorescence, that helped Modi emerge as the undisputed leader of the nation. In the ultimate analysis, the UPA proved to be, hopefully, the swan song of the Nehruvian Consensus, the last cry of a discredited system.
Modi is the first non-Nehruvian Prime Minister. He is the only politician who has passionately castigated the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty for all that it stood for. In the run-up to the Assembly elections in five states last year, Modi said at an election rally, “I request political pundits to get the speeches of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi and also of Sonia and Rahul and I bet that you will find that 80 out of 100 things they speak about poverty have remained the same.”
He went on to flay the policies of the Dynasty by saying that they “have talked about poverty all the time and even today, they are doing the same thing, which proves that they are unsuccessful and won’t be able to run the country”. But they ran the country despite their manifest failure. This happened because they emerged as the bearer of Nehru’s legacy.
So, Nehru survived for half a century after his death. The Dynasty and the Congress were not without a support system; this came from the treacherous intellectual class that was, and is, wedded to his discredited ideology. Conan the Barbarian in the eponymous movie, fighting the monster in the room of mirrors, realises that what hurt the monster was not attacks on him but the breaking of mirrors. Modi, who has stormed the Nehruvian Bastille, also has to recognise the fact that his victory lies in smashing the smoke-and-mirrors world of intellectuals—and starting a conservative revolution in the domain of public discourse.
Mischief of intellectuals
Intellectuals, however, have not given up. They are working hard to explode the landmines they have planted in the economic arena. The activists who campaigned for the fiscally and economically food security law have started castigating the Modi government for “doublespeak” on the issue. They recently cited a letter that Modi wrote on August 7, 2013, to former prime minister Manmohan Singh warning against the legislation.
“The Budget is silent on food security and there is no monetary allocation for maternity entitlements,” said activist Kavita Srivastav.
Meanwhile, the Congress leaders have also expressed satisfaction that the Modi government is continuing some of their policies. Former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram actually gloated over “the imprint of the UPA government’s policies” over Budget 2014-15. Almost taunting his successor, he said, “Welcome to the real world… BJP sought a mandate for Congress-mukt Bharat. My friend, Arun Jaitley, would have realised that it is not possible to have even a Congress-mukt Budget.”
Similarly, Congress leaders have been saying that the Modi government is following them in foreign policy. They point out his invitation to the Pakistani Prime Minister for the oath ceremony on May 26. Ditto with defence matters, the case in point being the Modi government’s refusal to declassify the Henderson Brooks Report.
Any attempt to detoxify the curricula and textbooks of the pernicious Leftist influence will be slammed as ‘saffronisation’. Reforms in the education system and elsewhere will be generally maligned as a ‘communal’, ‘elitist’, etc, attempt. Emphasis would on the maintenance of status quo. Intellectuals as well as Congress leaders would like Modi to emphasise continuity rather than change; this is the best way to keep Nehru relevant.
In contradistinction to them, Modi’s biggest challenge is to ensure that Nehru doesn’t resurrect once again. His ghost has to be exorcised. Only this will make India Congress-mukt.
By Ravi Shanker Kapoor