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Sunday, December 07, 2003

Political entrepreneurship - is India ready for it?

I sense a feeling amongst many of us today that our only political options are either the BJP or the Congress (with the myriad other parties throwing their weight behind one or the other), and that we have to put up with all their negatives in the hope that the negatives of either of them (or even both) will somehow disappear over time.

If this were a market scenario, I'm sure there would be at least a handful of punters willing to seize the opportunity and bet that starting a new outfit afresh (free from the past baggage, the vested interests and the geriatric leadership) would stand a very fair chance of success over time. There are enough instances of successful late entrants in the business world for us to take heart. Why, there's even an example in politics right here at home - the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) started out quite late to provide an alternative to the Congress and has quite successfully established itself.

I think there's much more than a fighting chance for a new and well organised party, starting from scratch, to gain a substantial mindshare and influence the political agenda of the nation. The initiative towards starting a new party - the Liberal Party of India, is one such step in that direction. Of course, it will be a long haul and will take a lot of doing - but are the majority of us aborting action on this front even before contemplating it, overcome by the enormity of the challenge?

We need political entrepreneurs today just as much business entrepreneurs, may be more so. Can (or will or should) some of the successful business entrepreneurs look to turning political entrepreneurs? In many other countries, successful business entrepreneurs have gravitated to politics in their later years - a trend that has been on the ascent in recent years. Narayana Murthy (NM) of Infosys is a name that comes to mind as an possible example of someone who could do the same in the Indian context. NM has built up a very successful organisation from scratch and commands a phenomenal amount of goodwill and equity from the middle classes to be able to ignite the hope that a newly launched political entity can be successful and actually go on to mobilise people towards turning that hope into action. I think he can do it if he chooses to.

If NM were to think about this, he might ask himself if he should focus on business (Infosys) or politics (the nation), going ahead? Are the two options largely mutually exclusive or can he do both simultaneously? One could argue that serving Infosys and continuing to help it grow is itself the best way for him to serve the nation, but is that how he can add the most value, being who he is and given his experience and stature?. Going back over a hundred years, many leading successful (wealthy) lawyers of the day (among them Patel, Rajagopalachari, (Motilal) Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and others) thought it necessary to also be politically active alongside pursuing their professions to make a living, and eventually managed to help the nation become free. Is it the turn of successful businessmen to do something similar now to catalyse and hasten progress?

In addition to successful entrepreneurs, can salaried professionals from all fields also get involved in politics part-time, in addition to their normal professional activities or does politics absolutely require full-time commitment which is possible only for either the very wealthy who have no need for any other means to make a living or the opportunistic folks who get into politics to make a "living". I think involvement in politics outside of work time is very much possible and quite necessary. A political entrepreneur can count on this huge constituency of professionals if he or she is able to paint an attractive vision for the future along with a plan to get there and convince this large constituency to buy into it.

Why I can't vote for the BJP

I thought I'll carry the discussion further here. So the reasons I can't vote for the BJP are:

1. Amitav Ghosh is absolutely right. The BJP's reading of history, indeed their construction of it, is a huge problem. The sheer ethnocentrism is such a put off.

Their reading of history and current ideology, finds no place for the plurality of Indian life--languages, cultures, religions, festivals. I enjoy the plurality so much, that I find it impossible to think of lending support to anyone, any party, or any philosophy that opposes it.

This is a very big debate and I dunno if Indian Economy Watch is the right place for it.

2. There have been a lot of comments about the possible emergence of the BJP as a respectable center-right (conservative) party. Rueben looked forward to their becoming something like the New York Republicans. I also think its a good idea. In any democracy, as in any blog, its helpful and fun to have disagreements. A centre right BJP and a centre left Congress would be useful.

But I think this argument ignores the metamorphosis of the word "conservative" that is taking place right in front of our eyes. I use the term "conservative" as most Americans use it denoting a free market ideology, small government, perhaps a hardy culture of self-reliance. Conservatives are the sort of people who more or less look to Milton Friedman as their guiding light. And even though I disagree with conservatives on most issues, I respect them. I think India would greatly benifit from more people of the sort. We tend to look to the government for, frankly, too much.

But the BJP is not such a party. Nor for that matter are the Republicans, or the Le Pen right in France. They are increasingly, er, National Socialist. I am not just saying that. The working class is increasingly voting right and all the three parties I mentioned have very strong Nationalist rhetoric.

The BJP actually was never a free market party, all they believed and still believe is in transfering government sops from the poor to the relatively better off.

Can you imagine the followers of Milton Friedman demonstrate against the scrapping of the rent control act?

3. Mob rule. Ghosh makes this point better than I do. But I tried to write about in an article in the Business Standard, "Tea with Mussolini". It's archived here. Having read Hannah Arendt, Samantha Power's account of the genocide in Rawada, and lately Kaushik's reply to Brad Delong, in which he wrote:

I guess it touched me in the raw because the BJP is indeed a nasty piece of work. Its leadership is full of terrible, Neanderthal men whom the Vajpayees think that they are exploiting to stay in power. And India will pay a price one day. It would have taken generations to have really gotten over partition. And now we have Godh[r]a.

I am scared about banality of evil. The mob the BJP excites will get out control and dictate policy. Already Togadia feels no obligation to be civil to his parivar members. This is too dangerous a game to play and Advani for all his TV composure has played it too long.

4. The human element of the Hindutva. Hindutva is all about taunting the minorities, its about making them blast crackers when Sachin hits a century, its about making them prove their fealty to "India", its about degrading them for who they are (and have no choice about) and its about excluding them from national consciousness.

Why would I support such a party?

Obligations of governance

This post is a little off topic. In a comment responding to Vivek's remarks on the recent state elections in India, I expressed my distaste for pretty much the entire line up of national parties. Let me first reproduce here the key points that I made:

"I am NOT a fan of Sonia Gandhi's leadership. My support of Congress is grudging and lukewarm - for lack of anything better. This is largely because, post Gujarat riots, with BJP, we would always run the risk of something really terrible happening.

I like the communist parties even less. I am familiar with the impact of the destruction of the public school system, the flight of industry and the utter, utter hopelessness that forces the rural youth to join the communist parties in Bengal today. I would have to be dragged by a mad elephant to support them.

So; Sonia Gandhi. It is much more fundamental than your or my like or dislike of Sonia Gandhi. With her on the masthead, The Congress will always lose a huge chunk of the electorate unless of course BJP screws up really gigantically.

I also think that caste based politics has the potential to destroy whatever little social fabric is left to non-Metro India. Congress needs to find a soul and a leader who really actually believes in that tired cliche''when you reach for the stars, you dont settle for the trees' Unless it gains that, it is gonna remain business as usual ...."

With so many caveats, you may wonder why am I rooting for the Congress anyway; since the economy has started responding under BJP's stewardship. It is actually quite simple. A year back, one of my favourite writers, Amitav Ghosh wrote a column on the subject. He said it much better than I could. So let me simply reproduce part of it:

"There are certain obligations of governance that admit of no dilution for ideological purposes: they are binding and absolute. The first of these is the obligation to maintain the rule of law..... But in choosing instead, to encourage retribution through mob violence, the government has permanently endangered all its citizens, including those whose interests it endeavoured to advance. .....

Secondly, a modern State is by definition under an obligation to establish a monopoly of sanctioned violence within the territory under its control. Any State which attempts to dodge this obligation, for no matter what purpose, does so at its own peril. There is no better illustration of this principle than the fate of our neighbour, Pakistan. Zia ul-Haq attempted to tighten his grip on power by creating extra-governmental militias: in the end this policy undermined the very foundations of the Pakistani state ....

Finally, one of the least remarked but most important foundations of government lies in the ethical authority that is vested in it. Citizens look to their government not only to maintain order and deliver goods and services, but also to serve as a forum for the conduct of a collective ethical life: it was in this sense that Hegel called the modern state a ‘conscious ethical institution’. This unacknowledged duty is in fact one of the invisible pillars of legitimate government: it was precisely on ethical grounds that Mahatma Gandhi challenged, and eventually toppled, the British Raj. In publicly endorsing the actions of a mob, the present government has undermined the Indian state’s ethical claims to legitimacy. "