The Great Leap Backward (2)

From a crisis of selection to a national crisis

The events in Punjab, where a stand-off between a heterodox Sikh sect and the orthodox clergy has led to violence and tension, and in Rajasthan, where a stand-off between two communities has led to a violence and a political crisis should provide a wake-up call for everyone—not least the BJP and the Congress—that the seduction provided by appeals to the darkest emotions of Indian society cause them, and the nation, immense harm.

It’s useful to be blunt about it. The rhetoric of ‘social justice’, ‘reforms with a social face’ and ‘inclusive growth‘ is largely about doling out entitlements based on group identities. The prize—the status of ‘backwardness’, with its attendent benefits in terms of reservations in educational institutions, government jobs, and if the UPA government were to have its way, in the private sector too. The designation of backwardness was subject to electoral promises, not hard-data or economic rationale. Do this long enough and you run into the Gurjjar-Meena clashes in Rajasthan and the Dera Sacha Sauda tensions in Punjab. Continue to persist along this path, and such incidents will be repeated in hundreds of places.

But by taking the initial steps towards polluting the private sector with the politics of entitlement, the UPA government has risked setting in motion an unstoppable political juggernaut that would only result in the evisceration of the Indian economy. [The Acorn, 1st Sep 2004]

That’s the bad news. But if the BJP learns the right lessons from its current predicament, there would still be a silver lining to the current crises. The Congress, at this point, appears to be beyond redemption. For the UPA government cannot escape responsibility for breathing new life into the twin beasts: of competitive intolerance and the culture of entitlement. It might have thought that it could ride these beasts; but as the elections in Uttar Pradesh show, these beasts might well consume the Congress party.

But it’s not a question of the survival of political parties alone. Taken together competitive intolerance and an economy based on entitlements presents the gravest threat to India’s future.

India is facing a crisis of selection. It is clear that the culture of entitlement is pervasive in society and a vote-winner for the political class. But it is also a course that is certain to cause India, yet again, to lose the ticket to prosperity and development that every generation feels is within its grasp yet somehow slips out of its hand. In reality, it’s not slipping out at all. It’s being snatched out of their hands by a self-serving political class. Written constitutions are designed to help prevent such perversion. In the next few months, India’s will face one of the stiffest challenges yet. [The Acorn, 3rd Jan 2006]

It will be extremely challenging—but not too late—to pull back from the brink. The BJP has a chance to redraw a new national agenda based on a sensible centre-right national agenda. It should know that failure to do so can mean a precipitous collapse on a scale as spectacular as its rise in the 1980s.

Tailpiece: The deployment of the Indian Army to prevent two communities from resorting to violence should be disturbing. While it has once again prevented the crisis from turning violent, situations where the Army is called upon to confront its own countrymen imposes invisible costs. Indeed, its reassuring presence makes politicians reckless about saying and doing things that might cause violent unrest.

16 thoughts on “The Great Leap Backward (2)”

  1. Nitin,
    You have expressed many of my exact thoughts here. The recent disturbances in various parts of India is troubling and if this continues then we can stop all that talk of being the 2nd or 3rd biggest economy.

    For BJP to be a center-right party then it will have to come out of the Sangh Parivar and be an all inclusive party that BSP currently is. Moreover, the benefits of votebank politics of the majority kind wont allow that. For some reason it didnt work in UP for BJP.

    Btw, I am thinking of changing the tagline of my blog. 🙁

  2. RS,

    Don’t change it yet.

    The people are not stupid. They’ve seen through the UPA’s dubious policies. (see this one, for instance) They’re just looking for a viable alternative. The BJP has about a year to get transform itself from a confused creature to one that offers a difference. It only needs to demonstrate centre-right credentials, and the rest of the political class will follow. They all know that the Emperor is naked…but just can’t call the bluff. (Else, there’s the neo-BSP)

  3. Nitin,

    Many BJP sympathisers have started asking BJP how long they will be anti-Muslim. They have no option but to change for India’s sake.

    As for BSP, reservation policy will continue because thats the shortcut way to fullfill Dalit aspirations. It remains to be seen whether Mayawati will change caste-based to economic condition based to include the upper-castes and minorities too.

  4. Unfortunately, the BJP hasn’t shown itself to be all that different, especially since being out of power. Does anyone have a clue who their Prime Ministerial candidate is? Seems like they aren’t even trying at this point 🙂

  5. There are times when it feels like my generation has no hope of seeing a strong and prosperous India. There seem to be too many divisions in our society, may be it’s not unique to India and I’m being naive.

  6. From news reports, looks like Delhi was literally seized and cut-off from the rest of the country. And I wonder why the center is remaining silent, except for the cursory “stay calm” rhetoric. Now there is a report that an accord has been reached between Gujjars and Rajasthan CM. I think the government will now begin to stonewall the movement hoping that it will fizzle out and die a natural death.

  7. Nanda Kishore,

    There are too many divisions, but not insurmountable. What we are seeing—since the VP Singh period—is the cynical political exploitation of those divisions. Yet it is not impossible to see how a simple policy of treating all Indians as equal (not practising inequality in the name of equality) can help tide over the divisions.

    I’m not pessimistic about the future in general—the big question is how soon will the political class pull back from the brink. Patience, a uniquely Indian (middle class) virtue, has been overrated. There’s no moral basis for patience, especially when it is possible to make a difference to peoples’ lives within a generation.

  8. RS: I would definitely not change your tagline. We’ve been through much worse (think Emergency) when we had much less. Our greatness as a nation comes from overcoming challenges. The BJP has the opportunity to shine. It’s not clear that this danger is existential, but it is insidious. The collective genius of 1.1 billion represented people should be able to sort this out.

  9. Libertarian,
    Yes you are right. We saw that in 2004 and now in UP. Our biggest strenght is our democracy. The people always know how to use it decisively.

  10. Libertarian,

    “The collective genius of 1.1 billion represented people should be able to sort this out.”

    I am sure you meant collective stupidity

  11. I am amused by your Tailpiece. In the past you have aired the sentiment that the presence of the military in Kashmir, however regrettable, is justified by the situation. Maybe the politicians see some justification for calling out the army in Rajasthan that you don’t.

    Btw, the Dera is a heterodox sect, not a heterodox Sikh sect.

  12. EM,

    I wrote that the use of the army is ‘disturbing’. That’s not the same as saying that calling the army was not justified. Presented with a choice between bad and worse, it is reasonable to choose the bad option.

    Btw, this blog has consistently argued against the use of the army for internal security operations of various kinds.

  13. I am sceptical of the Dera Saccha Sauda.. it seems like to innumerable Islamic cults operating in the guise of Sufism (as if Sufism was very moderate or something)..

    Its founder was some Parwana or Mastana, and the current head is some Ram Rahim. Typical makings of some pseudo-secular outfit with interests in socialism, isnt it?

    Do you think so many Sikhs would be crazy to be offended by such a simple act? And that too, after years of turmoil, which have ended not too many years ago?

  14. Shadows,

    Do you think so many Sikhs would be crazy to be offended by such a simple act?

    I don’t think so. But ‘offence’ is a mere trigger for those who want to reap political-economic dividends by mobilising along ethnic-sectarian lines. Thanks to competitive intolerance and attempts to install an entitlement economy, even an unconnected event can spark off a crisis.

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