A Congress version of Modi will not succeed

Regular leadership transitions are necessary, but even necessary transitions weaken the entity that is being led, as contenders to the gaddi duke it out and governance takes a pause amidst the uncertainty. The transition can be made shorter and smoother by having a well defined and legitimate process.

There are many different ways to decide on the succession – it could be dynastic or democratic. You could have an appointive process where the incumbent or a board makes the choice. You could do a search for the next reincarnation of the bodhisatva, or you could have an elephant with a garland choose the next king. To succeed, the process requires legitimacy. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success.

What is legitimacy? In the words of Thomas Schelling, it is a focal point. In those of Lord Varys, “power resides where men believes it resides”.

If I win a legitimate democratic election, I know that my opponent will not mount a rebellion against me, so I will have no need to conduct a purge and eliminate my opponents. My opponent knows that I know that he will not mount a rebellion, and therefore, I will not attempt a purge, and therefore, he feels safe enough to not mount a rebellion. I also know that once the election is over, norm assures me that barring exceptional circumstances, I am safe from a challenge till the next election, and therefore I do not need to be in a combative posture continually. I can reach out and shake hands with my opponent and strike up a working relationship with him.

The dynastic method of succession also successfully serves as a focal point. It narrows the field of contenders to the throne to a small number within the family. (If you adopt a rule like primogeniture, the field is down to one) While it is disappointing for someone outside the dynasty that he will never gain the top position, the disappointment is somewhat mitigated by the knowledge that others around him are in the same position and he doesn’t have to engage in constant power struggle. Because the dynastic position is for life, the lucky sperm can focus less on power struggles and more on governing, at least till his offspring grow up.

I don’t want to overstate the case for the dynastic system. Historically, most dynasties did not survive for long. They were overthrown by others who established their own dynasties. And the dictum of legitimacy being a necessary but not sufficient condition of success applies particularly with the dynastic system.

Many people are calling for either the democratization of the Indian National Congress or a Modi-style rebellion against Rahul Gandhi, but the problem remains the same with either scenario. The democratic process does not have legitimacy in the current Congress. The dynastic system does. Legitimacy takes a long time to be established. The power struggle that is required to unseat the Gandhis will finish the INC much before legitimacy can be established.

The BJP does not have a legitimate process for succession either. Modi took over a party whose aging leadership was overdue for retirement. There was no formal leadership challenge, no election or any kind of competitive process. Everyone kind of just decided that he was the right man for the job and the entire party reoriented around him. Modi’s task was made easier by his overwhelming popularity within the party. It also helped that the party has organizational and ideological coherence that ensured that it would stay intact even if there were a power struggle.

The Congress does not have any of these advantages. Its organizational coherence is uneven at best, and it has no ideology to motivate it. A BJP leader or worker does not have a future outside the party, as Keshubhai Patel, Uma Bharti and Kalyan Singh learnt. For a congressman, the INC is one of the many career options. There is no reason the party will stay together during the period of inevitable uncertainty when a leadership struggle happens.

To make this concrete, we can try to imagine a Congress version of Narendra Modi – a challenger to the leadership. Obviously, such a person is unlikely to exist in the current national “leadership” of the INC, because popular leaders have been systematically eliminated from there. So imagine an ambitious and talented leader at the state level, either within the Congress or outside it. He wants to carve out a career path for himself that will take him to the Premiership of India by adopting any strategy that will work. In any plausible scenario, is staying in (or joining) the Congress, deposing and taking over its leadership the dominant strategy? I claim that the answer is no. I would argue that in almost every case, breaking up the state level party to form a new entity and trying the coalition route, or trying to form a new national party that attracts the disaffected leaders of the Congress and other parties dominates in terms of cost-benefit analysis over the strategy of working within the party.

The one exception I can think of is a strategy that does not directly challenge the legitimacy of the dynastic system. This is the method by which the Peshwai was established, the method by which ambitious and competent ministers have risen to be the power behind the throne when the throne is occupied by weak kings, or indeed the method that resulted in constitutional monarchies in many countries of Europe. But for such a strategy to work, this ambitious minister will have to insinuate himself into the good books of a man who has absolutely no discrimination and whose natural instincts are to trust charlatans like Praveen Chakravarty, fight off political machinations and intrigue by a jealous inner circle whose attacks on him will only increase the more successful he gets and somehow also concentrate on his core job of strengthening the party and helping it win elections. Perhaps in some particular combination of circumstances the stars might align and the right person adopting such a strategy may be the right choice, but no, this is not something one can reasonably hope for as a way to form an alternative to the BJP.

India’s election system won’t work in the US

During my BTech, I took an elective named Appropriate Technology, which was offered by the Centre for Technology Alternatives in Rural Areas, or CTARA, a bastion of the Gandhian faction. The course only made me sceptical about the concept of appropriate technology, because my suspicion was that the term was just a euphemism for romanticizing low tech jugaad solutions in the garb of being appropriate for the particular rural setting in which it is used. Prof. Date, who taught the course, saying that “farmers can sing while using it” as a point in favour of some contraption did nothing to allay my suspicion. My argument was, yes, we should gauge the appropriateness of the technology for a particular setting, but sometimes the most appropriate technology is not low-tech, but hi-tech that leapfrogs over the path other countries have taken.

I’ll admit though that the EVM is a very good example of the appropriate technology that the AppTech course was claiming to favour. It doesn’t fetishize low-tech and does not adopt hi-tech for the sake of it. Adopts just enough technology to solve the specific constraints that the Indian system faces – stop rigging via booth-capturing, be sturdy enough to work in dusty places without a steady supply of electricity, etc. It doesn’t try to solve problems that don’t need to be solved. It didn’t succumb to the temptation of connecting to the network to make it easier to tabulate votes. The higher tech a machine is, the less secure it is, so the the fact that it is low-tech is a feature, not a bug. In fact, I was uncomfortable with the idea of adding a paper trail to the voting machines, not because I was opposed to paper trails, but the general principle is that adding moving parts, features and inputs or outputs to anything increases the chances of failure or compromise. In the event, the VVPAT enhancement seems to have been done well, so there is no longer a need to object to it.

Now, every time the Americans hold an election, or for that matter every time we hold elections, many misguided people point to the way Americans hold their election and hold it up as an example to emulate. This is deeply stupid for two reasons:

  1. The American system for conducting elections is objectively terrible. It has probably the worst system among democracies, and if it were any worse, it would no longer remain a democracy.
  2. The American system works under a different set of constraints and requirements from the Indian one.

This is why, while it is misguided to say that we must emulate the Americans, it is also misguided to say that the Americans should just outsource their elections to the Election Commission. The Indian system won’t work in the US for the same reason we can’t copy the Americans. Our constraints are very different from theirs.

For example, Indians have good reason to envy the fact that Americans have a much greater ability to vote by mail. Postal ballots do exist in India, but only a small fraction of citizens are eligible to cast their franchise by that method. An expansion of postal ballots in India, however, would prove disastrous. There would be widespread vote-buying and intimidation of voters.

Similarly, American systems seem to provide a better ability for a person to figure out whether his vote has been counted or not. He can send his vote by mail, check online to see if it has been received, and if not, go to the polling station and vote. But before we think of adopting a better audit trail, we must realize that there is a trade-off between the secrecy of the ballot and an audit trail. The United States faces a different trade-off from us. Secrecy is a lot more important in India than in the US. In the US, people are quite open about their voting preferences. More importantly, they can rely on rules that require officials who count the vote to maintain secrecy. That choice would be inadvisable here.

So, while we should certainly envy some of the features of the American systems, we should be careful before translating that envy into imitation. Designs involve trade-offs, and we face a different set.

The most important reason, however, for why the Indian Election Commission would face its Waterloo in the United States is cultural. As a rule, I find that Indians design for control while Americans design for convenience. This is true of not just elections. It is the reason why the US is so reluctant to require PINs while making card purchases, and why we had to learn of the benefits of offering easy returns from the Americans. Of course, the reason for the differing cultural choices is partly the differing trade-offs that our nations face – the US can accept a higher risk of fraud because it has a better legal system that is able to catch more of the fraud that occurs. It is equally true that cultural differences take on lives of their own and exist independent of the underlying reasons that gave rise to them. So an American and an Indian, when faced with a similar set of trade-offs, will make differing design choices, the former favouring convenience while the latter, control. An Indian would find it weird that some Americans can register to vote right on election day, for example.

This is of course a generalization, and there are exceptions – for example, Indian voters are registered by EC officials visiting their homes and taking down their names, which is surely more convenient for those who do get registered that way (not so much for those who get left out). But the generalization is valid enough. In case of elections, Americans should probably learn to be a little more rigid, but in general we would do well to learn better how to design for convenience.

Trump is Tamasik

The Bhagavad Gita and many schools of Indian philosophy speak of the three guNas, or categories of human nature – Satvik, Rajasik and Tamasik. My theory of Trump is that he is Tamasik while we expect people in his position to be good or bad in Rajasik ways. This is a mistake that his supporters as well as detractors make.

What are the three guNas? I don’t claim to be an expert, but here is how I would interpret them:

A person with the Satvik guNa will perform his appointed role in life unmoved by the pleasure or pain it gives him. A Satvik president or prime minister, when faced with a difficult political decision, will ask himself only “What will a platonic chief executive do when faced in this situation?” and do it. Whether the outcome of that decision is favourable to him or not does not come into the picture, and the question of what the decision will do to the next elections and to his own political survival are relevant only to the extent that they are good or bad for the country.

Needless to say, a Satvik guNa is an entirely theoretical construct, and no such person exists or has existed in real life. But people may:

  • Rise to the occasion and behave as such when the situation demands
  • Believe, and possibly convince themselves that they are behaving in a Satvik manner
  • At least make an attempt, and struggle with themselves in the process
  • Claim to be be Satvik, and try to convince their constituents that their actions are driven only by Satvik motives

The point to be noted though, is that do any of these things, you need to have the ability to conceive of these higher order motives. To an extent you have to fake it till you make it, but even when you are faking it, you should know what you are faking.

Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, demonstrated his Satvik nature when he planned his leadership transition – or did he? In his autobiography, he describes, with a high degree of self-awareness, that he realized that his mental acuity was reducing as he got older, and therefore, it was time for him to pass on the mantle to someone else. So he undertook a well-planned search for a successor, found one, and handed over the reins to him.

Except of course, he sincerely believed that his son, Lee Hsein Loong was the right person to succeed him, but he nominated Goh Chok Tong because it would be unseemly to pass on power directly to his son. And oh, having decided to retire, he did not actually retire. He stayed on in the cabinet as Senior Minister and then Minister Mentor till he reached an advanced age and was eventually forced out by his son a few years before his death.

Was Lee demonstrating his Satvik nature and making disinterested decisions for the benefit of Singapore? Given that both Goh and the younger Lee have turned out to be good Prime Ministers, that is certainly a possibility. Or did he convince himself of the Satvik nature of his actions, but in reality, his decisions were tainted by his love for his family and desire to cling to life? Or perhaps he was aware of his imperfections and tried to do the best he could. Or it is possible that this was all a ruse. We will never know and perhaps he never did; such is human nature.

Most functional adults are Rajasik. They are driven by ambition and desire. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We recognize ambition as natural and even desirable. We celebrate romantic love and love for one’s children. When a politician we support displays the killer instinct and acts like he wants to win the elections, we appreciate it, though if he uses corrupt means to do so, we should ideally oppose it.

If Lee’s retirement was actually a long-drawn strategy to install his son in power, it was a perfect demonstration of the Rajasik guNa. The goal was driven by familial love, but in the means employed to reach it, he was able to control his impulses emotional drives and follow a multi-year strategy to achieve it. This is more than someone driven by his Tamasik nature would be capable of .

Trump, as I was saying, is Tamasik. He is driven by his impulses, and in his case, the impulses are all negative ones. Now, to be fair, all of us struggle with our impulses and emotional drives, but becoming a functional adult involves learning to rein them in, and converting them into higher order goals. We all have sexual desires, for example. The Rajasik nature involves sublimating them into a higher order emotion called love, and pursuit of love involves choosing one person and forgoing others; not giving into the impulse of going after every woman you find sexy. Trump has not made that transition at all. A Clinton may give into his impulse; Trump is his impulse.

You can see that in every one of his behaviours. An example of this that I found fascinating was the bleach incident. In the video, Trump is insecurity given human form. Any person who reaches a senior position in an organization will be familiar with the feeling. You find people reporting to you who have much greater expertise than you in their field. When you talk to them, you, who have always prided yourself on your knowledge, feel that bit of insecurity. You are afraid of asking a dumb question and being shown up. But you are an adult and you reach back to the techniques that you have learnt along the way. You display faux humility, you praise people for being very smart and say things like “Forgive me if this is a dumb question” and then ask your question.

Trump is completely unable to do that. He is unable to recognize his own insecurity and therefore unable to maintain a distance from it. He sees scientists talking and what matters to him is not the content of what they are saying, but the fact that they are coming off as smarter than he, so he has to say something to remedy the situation. Whether it is appropriate in that context is irrelevant to him.

A common thing people say about Trump is that he tells it like it is. That is not actually true. He lies quite flagrantly. The reason for the misconception is that people are confusing the transparency of his lies with honesty. He is like my six year old son, who, when woken up at 7:30 AM to be in time for his class at 8, throws a tantrum complaining about not being woken up at 6 AM as he had asked for the previous night (He always asks to be woken up at some ungodly hour, we say yes and wake him up when we want.) Of course, the real reason for the tantrum is that he is sleepy and is annoyed and having been woken up, but he knows that he can’t complain about that, so he makes up some reason, and it’s clear to us what the real reason is.

Now, we are all human beings, and we continue to get groggy when we do not get enough sleep even in adulthood. A person displaying Satvik guNas would have enough self-awareness to put a distance between himself and his grogginess. He will say “I am not the person who is feeling sleepy and irritable. I am the person who has a job to do and needs to rise about the irritableness.” The Rajasik person will have this self-awareness as well, but his lack of sleep will still steep through and he will show his irritation in some other way that seems completely justified to him but probably leave the target of his ire confused about what his fault was. My secondborn’s tantrum seems much purer in comparison to a Rajasik person’s and a lot more comprehensible.

Trump’s lies are like that – they are much more transparent, communicate his feelings much more viscerally than a normal adult’s lies do. When they reach others who share his feelings, they feel real, never mind the factual content.

The other reason for people getting confused about Trump is that it is difficult to imagine that a purely Tamasik person like Trump can get so far in life, so it is understandable that many people substitute him with an imaginary Rajasik person in their heads, and end up behaving as Vidyottama did with Kalidasa

The princess raised her index finger . Kalidasa, quickly replied by showing two fingers. He had thought that Vidyottama was meaning to poke him in one eye. He was obviously thinking of outdoing her. Actually she had indicated that God is one without a second. Kalidasa’s answer was wisely interpreted as the truth has two parts the supreme God and the individual soul. She was surprised by this wisdom. Venturing further, she showed her five fingers to indicate five senses. Kalidasa thought she was about to slap him so he showed his fist. This time Vidyottama thought it to mean that controlling the five senses can lead to ultimate greatness. Thus impressed, she then agreed to marry Kalidasa.

Growing into functional adulthood involves overcoming, sublimating or at least rationalizing your basest Tamasik impulses. Perhaps you overcome your cowardice and sublimate your pride into higher order values like courage, honour and bravery. Or perhaps you are a cynic who see your country as worth fighting for, and you rationalize that feeling into a higher order value called pacifism.

When we deal with a normal Rajasik person, it is sometimes possible to see the underlying Tamasik being powering him, but it is also possible to have a dialogue with the Rajasik person he has constructed. Perhaps he is a bully who has sublimated that emotion into support for strong law enforcement, but it is still possible to have a discussion with him on the merits of his policies around law enforcement. Perhaps he is a transactional person who is cynical about US foreign policy engagements and wants to pull back, but it’s still a valid policy option with pros and cons, the timelines around said disengagement and the extent of it.

With Trump, there is no higher order Rajasik person. Sure, maybe his gut feeling aligns with your policy preferences – perhaps his instinct for minimizing the COVID crisis and push for reopening the economy aligns with your considered policy preference on navigating the tradeoff between deaths due to the pandemic and the economic disaster, but do you want someone as impulsive as he in charge of making that tradeoff? In case of Trump, we need to ignore Eleanor Roosevelt’s dictum that “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”. There are no big ideas sitting on top of his personality flaws. He is entirely his flawed personality.

It is not just his supporters who mistake him for a Rajasik person. His opponents do as well. Look at Trump’s COVID response. Yes it is not the response of a decent or competent person. But it’s also not the response you would expect if you model Trump solely as a populist authoritarian either. Dictators are Rajasiks. A Rajasik dictator would have taken advantage of the crisis. He would have blamed China, whipping up xenophobia. He would have rallied his people, made it sound like he was fighting a war and he would have cast the inevitable economic hardships as wartime sacrifices from which the nation would emerge stronger. Which idiot dictator wastes a crisis like this? Trump got the blaming China and the xenophobia part down, but his genius was to make himself sound whiny and weak while doing so. The rest of the tricks from the dictator’s playbook were useless to him as it required him to display Rajasik guNas which he is unable to even play-act at, just like my secondborn.

He is unable to make inspiring speeches because he is a cynical man. To cast the economic hardships as wartime sacrifices from which the nation would emerge stronger would require three things that were out of his capability. First, it would require him to acknowledge setbacks, which he is chronically unable to do, because he is continually looking for wins. Secondly, the notion of making sacrifices for the common good is foreign to someone as self-absorbed as he. Thirdly, he is unable to conceive of the future. He lives in the past and the present.

He and his supporters endlessly whine that the Coronavirus crisis was engineered to make him lose his reelection. That is amusing, because there was nothing about the crisis that made it inevitable that his election would be at risk. In fact, if you had told an unbiased observer in 2019 that a virus from China was on its way and that it would cause hardship to the people of the US, that observer, assuming he did not understand Trump’s personality flaws, would have predicted that it would lock in Trump’s reelection, as my friend Karthik did (though this was in April 2020, not 2019).

To summarize, I believe that people’s misunderstanding of Trump comes about in one of two ways:

  • His Tamasik nature is good at communicating his unadulterated visceral feelings to others who think like him. This communication is mostly one-way. He is unable to understand others, pick up cues from others and adjust his messages accordingly, which is why his playbook is limited and repetitive.
  • People are unable to believe that he is who he is, so they mentally substitute a Rajasik in his place. But his madness does not have a method to it. As Groucho Marx said ““Gentlemen, Chicolini here may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”

And that is all there is.

Should you vote for your PM or your MP?

Many people are arguing that because India is a parliamentary democracy, voters should be voting to elect members of the Lok Sabha, and that it is an error to vote on the basis of whom they want to see as Prime Minister. Such fidelity to the original tenets of parliamentary democracy is touching in a country that has amended its constitution over a hundred times in seventy years and is currently run according to the whims of its judges. This argument also reminds me of one of the two dumbest features of the United States Constitution. 

I am referring to the Electoral College. The US Constitution, as it was originally written (actually, even in its current form) does not provide for direct election of the president by its citizens.  The president was supposed to be elected by an electoral college. Each state would be able to send a certain number of members to the EC, the number being equal to the sum of the numbers of the representative and senators from that state. The method of choosing the electors was left to each individual state. The electors could be chosen by the state legislature, and I believe this was the method adopted by most states during the first few decades of the republic’s history. The electoral college was expected to gather, debate and then vote for their choice of candidate for the president. 

The existence of the electoral college is the reason why the vote of the citizen of a smaller state carries a larger weight than that of a larger state. Every state gets 2 senators regardless of its size and it gets to send at least one representative even if its population may be smaller than the average congressional district, which means that a state that has a population 1/20th of that of a state that sends 20 representatives gets to send 3 electors as against the 22 that the larger state can send. 

But this is not the reason why I believe that the electoral college a dumb idea. To understand why it was unworkable, take a look at how it evolved to its current form. It changed in 3 ways, 2 of which should have been entirely predictable to a political scientist

  1. States began to bind the electors – i.e. they started making laws saying that the electors should vote for particular candidates of their choice.
  2. They started to mandate that all  electors from their state vote for a particular candidate
  3. One by one, all states devolved the “choice” of  electors to the voters of the state. 

The first 2 of these should have been completely predictable. Firstly, why spend time and energy on electing a bunch of people whose only job is to confer among themselves and then elect another person, when you could spend that time and energy in deciding on the person you ultimately want to see elected? Perhaps the founders of the United States believed that discussion and debate among the electors would lead to decisions of better quality, but electing a president is not like writing a constitution, making laws or negotiating some kind of agreement. If you have to do any of those things, by all means delegate the task to your representatives, because there is much scope for discussion debate, give and take, and compromises – all good reasons why it was a bad idea to hold a referendum on Brexit. There is very little scope for compromise on the question of who should be the President – you can’t mix the head of one person and the heart of another and construct a compromise president. Perhaps you can bargain over who should be the vice president, over cabinet positions and over what policies the president should follow, but given that cabinet members can be dismissed at will and policies can be changed at will,  and given that the Electoral College disbands itself after the election, there would be very little scope for the Electoral College to hold the president to any compromises he agrees to. It should have been completely predictable that the election of electors would become an election of the elected. 

The second outcome was also predictable, given the first. In theory, states could have adopted systems where the ticket was split – perhaps in proportion to the votes in the state legislature. In fact, in the early decades of the republic, many states did so. But a state that chooses to split its ticket is much less valuable to a presidential candidate than a state that gives all its votes to one candidate. Once a few states started adopting the general ticket model, everyone else was compelled to follow suit. 

The devolution of the vote to the ordinary citizens wasn’t a predictable consequence of the design of the Electoral College, but seems to have followed from the cultural DNA of the United States. At least in the 19th and till the early 20th century,  that nation seems to have had a strong bias for direct elections.

 I recount the story of the Electoral College of the United States for a couple of reasons. The first is that questions about what constitutes the essence, the basic structure of a republic, is difficult to pin down. You still hear many Americans defend the Electoral College, but when they do, they do not refer to its actual design. Instead, they argue, in rather vague terms, that the College is the reason why the United States is a republic rather than a democracy. It is not quite clear what they mean by that. These days, the design of the EC affects democracy in the US in two ways – first by overweighting the smaller states and second by giving all votes from one state to one candidate or the other depending on who got the majority in that state. There may be some justification for the first. I am not sure why the second is a good thing, but can think of many reasons why it is bad. It must surely contribute to the polarization of politics on geographic lines.  It is rare for anyone to argue that the electors should vote like actual thinking people rather than dummies. Recently, the Americans elected a mentally unstable person as their president, and there were some murmurs that this was exactly the kind of situation for which the Electoral College was designed – that the electors should vote as responsible people and not as bound agents, and override the choice the Americans seem to have made. It should be immediately obvious why that would have been a terrible idea. No matter what the constitution says, the legitimacy of democracy depends on everyone following the rules that everyone agrees are the rules. The voters did not vote for the electors. They voted for the man or woman they wanted as president. A set of essentially random people overriding this choice would destroy the legitimacy of the republic, no matter what the original design of the Electoral College was. 

The second reason is that the experience of the Electoral College has some relevance to our parliamentary system.  Our chief executive is elected by the Lok Sabha. You could say that it essentially functions as a permanent electoral college.  Now, many of you will protest my characterization of the Lok Sabha as a permanent electoral college, and will argue that our Sansad is a legislature, though I am sure you will agree that the lower house also functions as an electoral college. A textbook answer to the question: “What are the functions of our Sansad?” would be: 

  1. Makes laws
  2. Exercises oversight over the executive
  3. Members of Parliament act as a bridge between their constituents and the government
  4. Elects the Prime Minster (Lok Sabha only)

But how is it in practice? Our parliament doesn’t actually make laws in the sense that the Congress of the United States does. That body actually has primary responsibility for making laws. Senators or representatives draft legislation, the Senate and the House form committees to consider them, amendments are proposed, there are negotiations among the legislators, and this back and forth determines the final shape of the law. The executive has a significant say in this process – but it has to exercise its say mostly informally – through its influence over the legislators and by the power of the President to appeal to his popularity. The formal power the President has is the threat of the veto, but the veto power is, by definition, not an agenda setting power.  I think that it is fair to say that no other legislative body in the world, and in particular no legislative body among parliamentary democracies, exercises that kind of power. In most other countries, the government sets the agenda and writes the acts of legislation, the legislature debates them, amends them as needed and passes them into law, or not. In India, a bill not drafted by the government being turned into law is so unlikely that I believe it has happened only once in its history. The parliament has next to no input to drafting or amending legislation, and while members of parliament have a vote, that vote is entirely on party lines. Members of the ruling party support all bills introduced by the government, and members of the opposition oppose it if their party decides to oppose or support if it does. 

The oversight function fares better, if only slightly. Members of parliament do have some freedom to question ministers of their party, especially when it happens behind closed doors in parliamentary committees. 

The only thing that really differentiates our members of the Lok Sabha from electors of an electoral college is the third function – which is to stay in contact with the people, listen to their grievances and communicate these to the government. In fact, India has introduced a weird innovation in the form of the MP Local Area Development Scheme that allocates funds to members of parliament to carry out what are essentially municipal schemes. Many people who believe that we should vote for MPs rather than the PM also believe that the function of a member of parliament is to carry out local development work in the constituency.  Going by the original constitutional design, the latter is just as out of scope of an MP’s remit as is the former.  The only reason MPs are tasked with these things is that our municipal governance is non-existent. 

It is quite clear that the most important task of the legislatures in India is to elect the chief executive, overshadowing their ostensible purpose, which is to legislate. For a voter whose concern is to see certain laws passed and policies executed, the rational thing to do is not to pretend that you are electing legislators, but to model the problem as electing a prime minister, and the members of parliament as members of an electoral college. The alternative model is that of the MP as a feudal patron with the power to dispense government largess and who acts as a conduit for your grievances. The model of an MP as a legislator doesn’t really make sense. For one thing, MPs do not legislate in practice. Secondly, even if by chance one constituency decides to elect an MP who believes that his main task is to legislate, it is pointless unless he is able to coordinate this with a couple of hundred other MPs. 

If you think through this, it should not be surprising – indeed, it should have been completely predictable, as predictable as the evolution of the electoral college was. Some people will argue that the law-making powers of our legislatures began to atrophy due to the anti-defection amendment. I agree that the amendment is a bad idea and did contribute to the worsening of the independence of our legislatures, but the root cause lies with our system of government. If you were designing a system, and you went: “We will have elected legislatures. Their main function is to make laws for the executive to implement. And oh, they will also elect a committee that will actually run the government.” a perceptive political scientist should have been able to point out that this system would inevitably lead to the latter function overshadowing the former, especially in an era where the development of mass communication makes presidential politics possible. The parliamentary system did not come about because someone thoughtfully designed it. In countries where the parliamentary system originally evolved, the monarch held executive power, the legislature slowly wrested law-making powers from him, and eventually evolved to take on executive power as well. There was a path dependency to this. Because the traditions of the legislature had time to evolve before there was a prime minister to exercise executive functions, the legislature in places like Britain does have some independence. India’s Sansad never got time to evolve that kind of independence. It came bundled with a popular prime minister. It is therefore inevitable that it grew to be a kind of glorified electoral college.  If you need that to change, give the voters separate votes – one for a chief executive and one for their representative. If you insist on giving only one vote, don’t be surprised if they decide to use it to choose their chief executive. 

Cash for Votes

It is true that corruption, as Indira Gandhi once famously said, is a global phenomenon. That said, the nature and quantum of corruption varies across space and time. We believe that the first world has less corruption than India, but a citizen of a western country will ruefully point out the prevalence of lobbying and bribery through campaign contributions in his country. We would both be right in our views. Outright bribery in cash seems a lot uglier than corruption through lobbying. In practical terms, it is also less transparent because it is unaccounted for.

Of course, the first world wasn’t always wealthy and wasn’t always so sophisticated in its modes of corruption. The United States, during its gilded age, was famous for corruption among its legislatures. Businesses bought favourable laws by bribing lawmakers outright. William A Clark, the Copper Baron, bought his way into the US Senate by bribing members of the Montana state legislature. This was back when senators were elected by state legislatures. This scandal led to the passage of the 17th amendment, providing for direct elections to the Senate.
There is one curious incident of the dog in the night time that failed to bark. Why do we not have examples of an Aya Ram Gaya Ram culture having developed in the United Kingdom? The party system seems to have developed early and grown strong roots there. There has never been the equivalent of an Anti-Defection law in Britain. Why was there no phase when MPs routinely switched parties, leading to unstable governments? Legislators in the US decide legislation while in the UK, they choose governments. There should be much greater scope for inducements in the latter system. Why did it not happen?

One explanation is that at the time the party system formed in the UK, members of parliament were independently wealthy, making them less susceptible to inducements. I think that this explanation is partly true. But I think a stronger explanation exists. Back when the British party system formed, the two parties were the Whigs and the Tories. (The Labour party did not yet exist, which is not surprising given that franchise was limited to holders of property and land.) The two parties represented two classes of British society. The Whigs were the party of the aristocratic land owners while the Tories were that of the industrial and business classes. Given the rigidity of British society of the time, your class was your identity. Imagine an MP of the time trying to change his party affiliation. Given how closely the affiliation was tied to class and identity, such a thing would have been impossible to imagine, let alone put into effect. I think that this close linkage between party affiliation and identity explains why the party system got so strong in the UK.

How does this relate to India? Indian politics is identity politics. People vote according to their caste or religious affiliations. The are parties that are closely linked to particular castes or religions. You’d expect the same party dynamic to develop in India too? But it hasn’t, and the reason is perhaps that politics developed to be a lot more transactional in India. For example, BSP is closely associated with the Dalits, but if a Dalit leader switches over from the BSP to the SP, or a Brahmin leader joins the BSP, it isn’t considered a big deal. The supporters of the leaders in question may migrate with them or they may not, and if they do not, switching parties was a bad career move for the politician in question, but it is not an unthinkable or a career-ending move.

The exception to this would be things like someone switching from the MIM to the BJP, from the communist parties to the BJP, or vice versa. Politicians freely switch from the BJP to the Congress or vice versa, but the BJP has a core drawn from the RSS that doesn’t easily switch.

Also, the BJP is more likely to have a base of supporters who are fiercely loyal to the party and its ideology, are unlikely to follow a leader to another party and are willing to punish someone who switches out of the party.

Overall, it appears to me that the incentives that face the BJP are different from those that confront other parties on the question of party discipline. The BJP is likely to benefit more and more quickly from a culture of strong party loyalty developing than will other parties, which should mean that they face a different trade-off when they have a choice between buying legislators and staying out of power.

It could get worse after Trump

I believe that Donald Trump is not an aberration, but that he is the continuation of the same tend that gave us Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, the Tea Party movement, the Occupy movements, Brexit, and a whole bunch of other people or movements.

It is a well-established now that the communication and coordination tools associated with the Internet – social media, email, blogs and independent media etc. have made activism, self-organizing and building political movements easier. When it is cheaper to make something, there will be a greater supply of that thing,it should not be a surprise that we see so many of these movements.

When we see a lot of passion and fervour among followers of a movement, we tend to believe that there must be an underlying fundamental reason behind that passion and fervour. I think that this belief is a mistake. Any organized movement where followers spend most of their time with one another, feeding on each other’s grievances and sense of injustice can generate in its followers the same self-righteousness, an inability to see other points of view and an unwillingness to compromise.

The American political system is more vulnerable to these internet-enabled movements because it is unusually bottom-up. Party leaderships have very little control over politicians’ careers, which are instead made or unmade by popular voting, either in the general elections or at the primaries.

American politics over-promises, but under-delivers change. Obama is a much better and saner man than Trump, but the fact is that the rise of both to power was fueled by movements whose followers fervently believed, against all evidence, that the American system was broken so badly that a complete overhaul (in Obama’s case) or complete destruction (in Trump’s case) is worth risking in order to make it better[1]I am not questioning the idea that some changes are necessary. I am flabbergasted that the richest nation in the world is risking annihilation to solve the problem of some people being richer than … Continue reading.

Trump’s contribution to worsening the trend is norm breakdown. Norms are what cause people to stop saying ?? ???? ????? ??????and start saying ???? ??? ???? ?????[2]For some reason the Hindi font isn’t showing up. The first phrase is “Hum Paanch Hamaare Pachchees” and the second is “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas”. Trump has gotten away with saying and doing outrageous things, and this means that he has also reduced, for future presidential candidates, the cost of saying and doing outrageous things. Again, when cost reduces, supply increases, and the US’s supply of crazy leaders with outrageous policies will increase.

I’ve made the argument that US version of the two-party system with two big-tent political parties and open primaries gives them everything, good and bad, that a multi-party democracy would. But the system has an important structural constraint, which is that ultimately two candidates face off against each other. This used to mean that craziness got airtime during the primaries, but moderation won out in the general elections. With so many movements that can’t stand one another, the structural constraint that pushes candidates towards moderation will prove inadequate.

And what stops the US from turning into a de jure multi-party democracy? Just the fact that it’s a stable equilibrium. The Republican Party won’t split as long as the Democrats stay united, and vice versa. But this equilibrium won’t hold if there is a three-way split where the third party is formed by slicing off chunks from both parties. Or a four-way split where the two parties split simultaneously.

The multi-party system could be a phase. But even a phase lasts multiple election cycles. During this phase, the US will have presidents who are electoral accidents, disliked by most of the voters. India has gone through this phase – it lasted over 30 years for us. The defining feature of the age will be presidents that prefer radical policies, but lack the legitimacy and political capital to implement them.

Americans are worried about Fascism under Trump, and yes, Trump has the instincts of a Fascist. But the democratic institutions of the US are strong enough to prevent Fascism from taking hold; that is not what they need to worry about.

India’s experience should prove instructive in this regard. We complain that the Supreme Court has taken over so much of policy-making. This process started with judgments like the basic structure doctrine and Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India[3]I wrote much of this post before Trump had his first run-in with the judiciary with his Executive Order on immigration, and events are already proving me right. There is a parallel here with Maneka … Continue reading that were responses to the authoritarianism of the India. It gathered pace and became a full-blown problem during a period of weak governments of dubious legitimacy. We recently had this controversy over the propriety of a decision to bypass seniority when appointing the Chief of Army Staff. Principles like these stem from the idea that the government cannot be trusted with any discretion at all, lest it be misused. They were solidified at a time of weak minority governments that lacked legitimacy.

The US is likely to be in for such a stint at a time when it can least afford it. Checks and balances are great at preventing bad things from happening. They aren’t very good at ensuring that the right things happen. The best way to understand this is to imagine that the government is your employee, and the institutions imposing checks and balances are his manager.

If the manager consistently finds that she and her subordinate don’t see eye to eye, or if she finds that the subordinate is too incompetent and won’t follow broad directions, the only solution is for them to part ways. But what if, for some reason, she is stuck with the subordinate? She may try to make the best of a bad situation by micromanaging, by giving increasingly detailed instructions and by having too-frequent reviews. As any manager who has tried them should know, these don’t work.

There is no easy or good way out of this situation. Yes, Trump needs to be impeached. But impeach him too soon and it will seem like a coup – a legitimately elected president, still reasonably popular with his base, taken out by the establishment. Leave it too late and his actions are normalized – if you didn’t impeach a president for clear evidence of ties with a foreign country, what will you impeach him for? The longer you wait, the more damage the institutions of the US will suffer, if you impeach too early, you are left with President Pence, a weak president with little legitimacy. Of course, impeaching Trump does nothing about the structural issues that made him possible.

The only way out of this is if the USA somehow finds a moderate, unifying, likeable and decisive person as president. It may yet happen, but if it happens, it will be a stroke of good luck rather than the system correcting itself.

Notes

I am not questioning the idea that some changes are necessary. I am flabbergasted that the richest nation in the world is risking annihilation to solve the problem of some people being richer than others
For some reason the Hindi font isn’t showing up. The first phrase is “Hum Paanch Hamaare Pachchees” and the second is “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas”
I wrote much of this post before Trump had his first run-in with the judiciary with his Executive Order on immigration, and events are already proving me right. There is a parallel here with Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India. In that case, Maneka Gandhi was denied a passport by the Janata Party government for clearly political reasons. The case reached the Supreme Court, and the Court ruled in Gandhi’s favour. In doing so, it expanded the definition of the right to life to such an extent that it could then be used for almost any intrusion by the courts into the realm of policy-making on the grounds that they were securing the right to life and livelihood. Earlier the job of the courts was to prevent bad things from happening (i.e. preventing the government from taking away your life without due process). Now, it is to ensure that the “right” things happen (making sure that the government does things that guarantee your life and livelihood). The dispute in the courts over Trump’s immigration order runs a similar risk of the courts getting into policy-making to prevent him from screwing up.

Third Parties in the United States

The two-party system is well-entrenched in the United States, and the blame usually falls on the First Past the Post (FPP) system.

It is true that FPP discourages third parties. Suppose that you have an election in one constituency, and three candidates A, B and C are competing to be first past the post. Now suppose that A and B are likely to finish at first and second place respectively. If you are a supporter of candidate C while B is your second choice, voting for C will in fact help A. Once you realize this, you, as a voter will shift your vote to B. When enough voters do the same, C will realize that he or she has no chance, and drop out of the race. Over a long enough period, the lesson will be learnt, and the constituency will be left with only two parties.

Does this explain why the US has only two parties? Not really. What is true for one constituency does not necessarily hold when scaled up. You could have only two viable parties in a constituency, but they don’t have to be the same two parties across the nation.

In a parliamentary democracy, for example, third parties have an incentive to exist, because they can punch above their weight in coalition governments. It is claimed that the presidential system in the US favours a two party system because it makes the whole country a single constituency. But that does not make sense. The US also had a fairly strong Congress that takes its law-making duties seriously. Why aren’t there multiple parties representing differing interests in the Congress?

Also, the US is geographically large, moderately diverse and a strongly federal country. Why aren’t there regional parties as we have in India? “Presidential Elections” is not a good answer. The parties could easily line up behind two major candidates at election time. The continued persistence of the two party system in the US requires an explanation.

I believe the explanation is that political parties in the US are unlike parties anywhere else in the world. They are big-tent parties. They are much more bottom-up than parties elsewhere. Their leaderships, such as they are, have very little leeway to steer their parties in their preferred direction.

Third parties form when a faction or an ideological grouping feels too constricted within the confines of an existing party. Because the two major parties are big tents, that is but a dim possibility in the USA. In other countries, if you disagree with the party leadership, you often have no option but to split and form another party. In the US, the party leadership has very little control over your career. Your career is decided by your performance at the primaries.

In India, regional parties are a way to handle the diversity of the country. They also provide popular local leaders the freedom of manoeuvre they wouldn’t have if they were part of a larger national party. But in the US, all politicians are free agents anyway. There is no need for a local politician to form a regional party to be independent of the national leadership.

Given this, how would a third party improve the politics of the USA? Aspiring third parties like the Libertarian Party and the Green Party complain that the two mainstream parties do not give space to minority viewpoints. Really? What stops someone from forming a libertarian wing of the Republican Party or a green wing of the Democratic Party? If those ideas have enough appeal to win elections, they should have enough supporters who would be willing to register as members of those parties and vote for libertarians or greens in primaries.

Actually I suspect that the third parties’ real complaint is that if they tried to work within the two major parties, they would have to compromise on their core principles. That is a valid complaint. The politicians and policies that emerge from within the two major parties are the result of compromises forged among the major wings of those parties.

But how would it be any different if, instead of a two party system, you had multiple parties, each with a core set of principles of its own? Those parties would still have to join together in a coalition to come to power, and in a coalition, they would have to compromise on some of their principles. We have seen the weird results that coalitions throw up in India.

I could be wrong here, but third parties in the US seem to show up exclusively for the presidential election. They put up candidates, they complain a lot about how there is no space for alternative voices and then they disappear for 4 years. This seems to me to be no way to build an alternative. If they really need to build a party, there’s a lot of organizational work that would be needed. I would expect them to focus on winning lower level elections first and then work their way upwards. They are either not doing this, which means that they are not serious; or they are trying to do this and failing, which supports my point that there is really no need for them.

And if for some reason, they think that a presidential candidate that doesn’t fit clearly into one of the two major groups coming out of the blue and getting elected just like that is the right way to change the political system, the recent election of Donald Trump has proven that that too is possible within the two party system. (I mean that the election is possible, not the change.)

Overall, I do not understand the case for a multi-party system in the US. There is nothing that such a system can bring to the table, either good or bad, that the two-party system with American characteristics does not already provide. It is precisely those specifically American characteristics that have stopped third parties from emerging, not the generic stuff like the FPP system or the presidential form of government.

The Decline of the Congress is Irreversible

It is my belief that the Indian National Congress is in a state of long term decline. It has been in that state since at least 1984. I do realize that when one speaks of trends that last 32 years, one runs the risk of making pointless predictions like the one that says that in the long run, we are all dead. In this post, I will explain why it isn’t meaningless in this case, and why my claim is probably true.
In the First Past the Post (FPP) system, the party in the first or second place is weaker than it looks, while the party in the third place is stronger than it looks. That is because the First and second place parties are like Vali in the Ramayana, who had the boon that in hand to hand combat, he would gain half the strength of his opponent. Because the two parties are alternatives to each other, voters who are disappointed with one party will choose the other regardless of whether they like the other party all that much in the first place. Ambitious politicians will tend to choose to join the first and second parties as long as ideology doesn’t matter to them. A party in the third place may get fewer votes than the number of actual supporters because many of them vote for the first or second place parties so as not to waste their votes.
Another way of putting this is that as long as you are in the first or second place, you have time and the force of inertia on your side. You can exist in a state of structural weakness for many election cycles till something forces you into the third place. The third place is disastrous for a party on its way down, while it is great for a party on its way up. Many voters supported the party on the rise, but didn’t vote for it because they didn’t realize it had a chance. They will now decide to vote for it the next time.
This next time though is 5 years away, and the party has this time to keep up and build further momentum. Or lose it. The party on the rise doesn’t have the force of inertia on its side.
The above discussion partially explains both the longevity of the Congress and its slow decline over so many decades. It is difficult to dislodge someone from the first or second position whatever their structural weaknesses. Also, 32 years seems long, but it isn’t all that long when time is measured in election cycles.
What I have started above is a law that is true of all FPP systems. In India, the additional wrinkle is that it is a federal country where politics happens at the state level. It is well known that even parliamentary elections in India are determined by state level politics.This fact leads to two contradictory points.
First, the process of decline I have outlined above has to happen state by state. It has to lose its first-or-second party status and get relegated to third party status in sufficient number of states for the Congress to truly go into oblivion.
Secondly, no, not really. The raison d’tre of the Congress is that it is a national party. It cannot survive for long as an aggregation of its state units, no matter how structurally strong the state units are.
Is there a role for a national party in a country where all politics happens at the state level? If the answer to this question is no, it’s not just the Congress, but also the BJP that’s in trouble. Astrong state leader always has incentive to leave along with his or her state party, as the evidence of the NCP, TMC and YSR Congress can attest.
If the answer is to be yes, the national unit of the party has to bring something to the table, and that something must relate to the electoral fortunes of the state unit. The state party doesn’t need help when it is in a strong first or second place, but it does need nurturing when it is in the third place and rising, or rescuing when it is in the second or third place and failing.
Let me list some ways in which the national unit of a party can justify its existence and how the Congress measures up.
1. National popularity of its leadership
The days when the popularity of national leaders was the only thing that mattered are long gone. These days, a popular leader can make a difference at the margins. The Congress hasn’t had popular national leaders since the days of Indira Gandhi. The BJP has done better – it has had Vajpayee and Modi so far.
2. Ideology
The Congress used to have an ideology; it doesn’t have one anymore. The BJP does. The he party’s ideology gives it an organizational identity and unity that makes it difficult for individual state leaders to stake out on their own. It also sustains the state units during those long periods when they are in the wilderness, either struggling to build it up or struggling to recover from a setback. It is true that this ideology also limits the party’s reach, but there is no denying that it gives the party a certain organizational coherence.
3. Career path and bench strength
The national party can provide a career path for ambitious state level politicians. If it does, that would be one good reason for state leaders to stay with the party. Neither the Congress nor the BJP is great at this. We must remember that Modi’s ascent to the leadership of the BJP was the exception rather than the rule. But the Congress is hopeless on this count. The supreme leadership of the party is reserved for the Family, no popular leader is allowed to join the national leadership and even state level popularity makes the Family uncomfortable.
The bench strength argument is kind of the opposite of the career path one. When the party isn’t doing well in a state, the national party could provide a bench where competent state leaders can be parked while waiting for good times to return, or plan for an assault back on the state. The BJP is reasonably good at this; the Congress is very bad.
4. National organization
When the state unit is in trouble, revolting or needs some kind of help, the national leadership needs the ability to marshal resources to intervene. It needs an organization with reporting lines independent of the state units. To have credibility, these organizations need to be inclusive enough that the state units don’t treat them as outsiders.
As an analogy, consider the Indian Civil Service or the Army. These organizations report directly to the Union Government. It would be disastrous for the army to comprise of units reporting to state governments. It would be equally disastrous if the army recruited only from a particular region of India. For example, if there is some disturbance in Tamil Nadu and the state government is unable to keep the peace, the people of Tamil Nadu may be thankful for the presence of the Indian Army, they may also prefer that in that instance, depending on the nature of the disturbance, the soldiers who come in are not natives of the state, but there nature of the reception will be very different if the Army is, in general, considered to be an outside force that has come in to impose the will of the rulers in Delhi and clueless about local conditions.
The BJP has such a central organization. The Congress hasn’t had that experience since 1969. When the national leadership of the INC intervenes in a state, it’s usually treated as a bunch of out of touch jokers.
5. Law of averages
We’ve seen four reasons why a national party may justify its existence, and none of them applies to the Congress. To explain the continued existence of the party, we must fall back on the argument by inertia, or the simple fact of presence. The Congress is present in a larger number of states than the BJP is. We have already seen the strength that comes from being the first or second party regardless of your organizational strength. The national leadership of the Congress has exploited this very well. It has in fact prevented the state leaderships from getting too strong, because then they will be at risk of leaving. But as long as they are present, they contribute Lok Sabha seats, which is what the National leadership wants.
Take concrete examples. Perhaps Gujarat, Rajasthan, MP, etc. are permanently lost to the Congress in the sense that they will never form state governments there. (I don’t necessarily agree with that assumption, but let’s go with it for argument’s sake.) Does the national leadership care? Why should it? As long as they are the second parties in those states, the difference in terms of Lok Sabha seats is small. Add to this all those other states where the Congress is present but the BJP isn’t, and you soon realize that the INC has a 50seat- advantage over the BJP on average. These 50 seats aren’t enough to get the Congress a majority, but in most elections, they are enough to form a government with the help of other parties most times.
6. Coalition building ability
It is commonly claimed that the BJP’s ideology makes it less able to attract coalition partners than the Congress’. There is little evidence for that. The real reasons are the law of averages and the weakness of the Congress. I explained in point #5 why the law of averages gives the Congress an advantage in the number of seats. Potential coalition partners know this, so they naturally gravitate towards the party that will give them a better shot at power. The Congress then uses the partnership at the Centre to insinuate itself into coalitions at the state level, where, by virtue of being the junior partner of a regional party, it saves itself from the fate of a third party on its way down. Its coalition partners support the Congress because they know that it will never be a threat to them in their states.
I have used the present tense to write about points 5 and 6, but there are indications that the Congress may have lost those two advantages. The advantage of presence is durable, but once it is lost, the Congress doesn’t have the ability to get it back. Coalition building ability is dependent on the Law of averages working in the Congress’ favour, and if coalitions don’t work out, the Congress will be wiped out from states where it is in third place.
Political commentary after 2014 has used the electoral map of India to make the point about the Congress’ impending demise. But a party doesn’t die because it has lost an election, or even because it has lost a lot of elections. The tipping point for the Congress might have been when it lost undivided Andhra. It didn’t just lose elections in the two states, but destroyed itself so thoroughly that it effectively no longer exists there. Undivided Andhra has 42 Lok Sabha seats. As long as the Congress was present, its advantage over the BJP was 21-0. Now it’s gone down to zero.
It may soon go negative. The Shah-Modi team has been on a relentless quest to expand the BJP footprint and knock out the Congress from one state after another. Some of these attacks may succeed while the Congress may be able to fend off some of them, but I think that it is safe to say that there will be no counter attack. The best the Congress can hope for is that they survive these assaults long enough till age catches up with Modi or Shah, or the BJP governments become unpopular, our the party develops internal dissension, giving the Congress respite from these assaults.There will be no revival of the Congress the way the BJP was revived.
The Congress has faced many electoral defeats in recent times. After every defeat, op ed columnists have repeated their calls for the party to revive itself by looking outside the Family for leadership.
These calls lack coherence. Leaders don’t show up just like that. The way to find out if they deserve leadership is to have a contest for leadership. The Congress no longer has the capacity to survive a fight for leadership. If there is a leadership challenge, the party will splinter or split down the middle.
No leader can do a hostile takeover of the party. A friendly takeover is only slightly more conceivable. We can conceive of a situation where the Family continues to hold de jure leadership while quietly letting a more competent leader take over the party. This though would require the Family to go against every instinct they have displayed on the past three decades. I don’t see that happening.
Most importantly, leaders usually don’t have “reviving the party” add their primary mission in life. Their goal is usually something on the lines of “Become Prime Minister of India”. For Modi, reviving the BJP was the path of least resistance to reach his goal. For an ambitious Congress leader who wants to be Prime Minister, attempting to revive the party is a futile distraction from his goal. It is likely to take less effort to just walk out and form your own party. This fact alone is enough to ensure that there is no chance of the Congress ever getting a revival.

A Tale of Love and Heartbreak

I don’t know how many remember the story of Syed Modi, who was murdered in 1988. He was a star badminton player who had fallen in love and married Amita (Ameeta?) Kulkarni, also a badminton player. He was shot dead in Lucknow while returning from practice.

Suspicion fell on his widow and on Dr Sanjay Singh, then sports minister of UP. The allegation was that they were having an affair. The case ended up with the CBI.

As it happens Sanjay Singh is a relative of the late VP Singh, who, at that time, was leading the fight against the Rajiv Gandhi government over corruption and misgovernance. Sanjay Singh is also the “Raja” of Amethi. It was the height of the Bofors scandal – a few newspapers, notably N Ram’s Hindu and Arun Shourie’s Indian Express were courageously exposing the bribery. I had just started reading newspapers, was following the various scandals with avid interest and virtually hero-worshipping Shourie.

Arun Shourie decided that the CBI investigation into the murder was intended to persecute Sanjay Singh, and mounted a full-scale defence of Amita Modi and Singh. Looking back, it is incredible how much of it I swallowed. I don’t remember the specifics, but a few things stand out. The CBI had found Amita Modi’s diary, where she had written about the conflict she felt in choosing between “S1” and “S2”. It should have been obvious even to a stupid 14 year old what S1 and S2 were, but I bought the Indian Express version where it quoted Rani Jethmalani (Ram Jethmalani and his daughter were fighting on behalf of the defence) to say that the diary just reflected Amita’s disturbed mind and nothing else. The Indian Express also went to Amethi where they interviewed the people there. They were quoted as saying that while it was imaginable that their Raja would do a bit of womanizing, they couldn’t believe that he’d committed the murder. Garima Singh, the then wife of Sanjay, stood behind her husband.

Eventually, the case came to trial in 1990, by which time VP Singh was the prime minister. The CBI had weakened the case sufficiently that Amit and Sanjay were acquitted.

I forgot all about the case till I read a small news item tucked away somewhere, to the effect that Sanjay had married Amita. By then, VP Singh had gone from being the darling of the middle-class, the crusader against corruption, to its most hated symbol, with his Mandal agenda. Arun Shourie had gone from campaigning vehemently for VP Singh to fighting him. I don’t think he has ever mentioned the Syed Modi murder ever since VP Singh became Prime Minister. But the news of the wedding made me feel profoundly stupid. It’s difficult to believe now, but at that time, I had honestly thought that even their supposed affair was a story concocted by the CBI as part of its witch-hunt. (That is how the mind rationalizes. I suppose I could have believed that they did have an affair, but did not commit the murder. But then, how could it be a with-hunt to investigate the suspicion?)

So, quite clearly, Shourie had been perfectly willing to lead his newspaper on a campaign to subvert justice even as it was fighting the government on corruption. I am sure he did it with the highest of motives – I think he thought that getting the Rajiv Gandhi government out was then the highest national interest. But something didn’t seem right.

Of course, Sanjay Singh then had a fairly typical political career for a UP politician. He switched parties a few times. He was with the BJP for a few years before finally landing up with the Congress. Now, he and his wife are the feudatories of the current royal family.

The story faded to a dim memory for me, but I suppose the lesson has always stayed with me. It accounts for my cynicism over the Lok Pal and the concept of “Persons of unimpeachable integrity”. It accounts for my scepticism over the idea that the dynasty represents everything that is wrong with the country, or that if only the country rediscovered its Hindu soul, we would be great. It accounts for my discomfort with idolizing or demonizing (Narendra) Modi. In general, I am sceptical of any solution that relies on people’s character rather than structures and incentives.

The Moral of the Corruption Tale

Gaurav argues that the onlydiscerniblemoral from my tale of corruption is that Indians are corrupt. Well, that is a good enough summary, but I need to fill out an entire blog post, so here I spell out the lessons I drew from that incident.
The most striking aspect of the tale, to me, was this: B, who was undoubtedly a well-meaning man, saw nothing wrong in misusing the CBI to achieve whathe considered were morally justifiable ends. But if misusing public resources to achieve private aims is what is considered corruption, how were B’s actions any less corrupt than A’s?

There is a tendency in India to think of incorruptibility as a personal quality roughly equivalent to “lack of avarice”. We believe that corruption is caused by a hankering after material wealth, and consequently, the tendency is to hold the saintly man, preferably with no family to lead him astray, as the model from which good governance will flow. Sometime back, I read a story on how Nitish Kumar was transforming Bihar. I do not remember the source now, nor the exact words, but there was a line on how honest a man Nitish was. Apparently, industrialists who went to him with bags of money (presumably as donations to the party fund) found that Nitish did not even look at or touch the money when they tried to hand it over, but asked them to keep it in one corner. Now, without detracting from Nitish’s achievement in making Bihar governable, which is indeed a considerable one, Nitish’s own personal “cleanness” makes no difference to the fact that the wads of notes that industrialists contribute to his party funds distort policy-making, just as B’s own personal honesty made no difference to the fact that his actions ensured that a person who ought to be arrested and in jail was out of it because it served the cause of a private dispute.

This tendency to think of corruption in terms of personal characteristics is a consequence of the saintly idiom in Indian politics. Gandhiji contributed significantly in establishing this, but he was by no means responsible for originating it. This mode of thinking has had many deleterious consequences on our polity. One of them, which has thankfully reduced in severity, is an Indian inability to distinguish between a dishonest man and a person who, having made his money honestly, enjoys the good things in life. This inability was fueled by, and in turn contributed to, the antipathy towards free-market policies. Whether it is liberalization that changed this attitude or generational change, this particular attitude’s trend is downwards. Other consequences, however, remain. We tend to search for the incorruptible person to run our systems, and our fantasies of a perfect society display a disturbing willingness to hand over dictatorial powers to such a person.

The second aspect of the story to note was the reaction of the association’s members. The membership was split in its support between A and B, but there was no dispute over facts. None of A’s supporters thought him to be an honest man. Indeed, it never occurred to them that there was anything wrong with looting from the public purse. What tipped the views of his supporters in A’s favour was the fact that A did a good job at the association – and yes, they knew that he took a cut there too.
For that matter, A’s opponents weren’t particularly concerned about the public money either. It was his avarice and his behaviour at the association that they were concerned with (Of course, as we have noted, B, the supposedly honest man, wasn’t that concerned about A’s corruption)
This is an important point, and unless we address it, we are not going to get rid of corruption. For us,the government’s money is “out there”, something external to us. It exists to be looted. The job of our representatives is not to be incorruptible and govern impartially. It is to be corrupt in our favour.We are strongly opposed to corruption when indulged in by our opponents, because they are denying our side the opportunity to do the same thing.

That brings me to the Jan Lok Pal idea, which is essentially a fantasy that we can get rid of corruption without addressing the systemic problems that cause it. I will write about it in a subsequent post.

(Update: Aadisht pointed out that I mixed up A and B in the last few paragraphs. Fixed that.)

A Little Tale of Corruption

This story played itself out back when I was a teenager. The two protagonists, let’s call them A and B, were locked in a dispute. The dispute was about how the affairs of a particular association ought to be run. Now, it is somewhat important to mention that the association in question was a caste-based association, and the specific caste in question is Brahminism. However, I feel some regret having to mention this, because this fact will prejudice the minds of many of my readers. I, therefore, ask them to try and ignore the caste-based nature of the association and treat it like any other voluntary association of citizens. The import of the story and the morals to draw from it will not change significantly.

With this caveat in order, let us return to the story of A and B. Now, as it happened, both A and B were government employees. A was known to be extremely corrupt. Not a file passed through his desk without a bribe having to be paid to him. His extra-income showed up, not in his lifestyle, but in the assets that he was known to possess. He had no flashy taste in clothes and he had no unbrahminical “bad habits”. His wife, a genuinely good woman, wore much less jewellery than the ordinary middle-class woman at weddings. However, it was well-known that he had accumulated a lot of money. He had used it to buy up houses and stock up enough in his benaami bank accounts to last hisdescendants seven generations.

 

B, on the other hand, was known to be an honest man. He had never taken a bribe in his life, and his family’s lifestyle reflected this as well. For long, they lived in the same Central Government Quarters that his employer provided, and while his family did eventually achieve its ambition of buying a modest house, at the time of the story, they had been unable to achieve it. B was widely reputed to be uninterested in wealth – and rumour has it that he was also uninterested in family life, believing himself to be cut out for higher pursuits, one of which was the association that is the subject of our story.

 

Let us now turn our attention to the subject of the dispute between the two men. We will not get too much into detail, but suffice it to say that the rights and wrongs of the dispute were exactly what one would expect from the character sketches of the two men we have drawn above. A had monopolized the affairs of the association, and it was widely thought that he took a cut from the association’s budget. To be fair to him, however, it was also widely thought that the association was in fact being run well, and its members regularly reelected him. B was proposing a change in the association’s by-laws that would bring in more transparency and bring in some degree of fresh blood in the association’s managing committee.

 

The dispute between the two men got personal, as these things frequently do. Apparently A struck the first blow – the details of which I do not remember. In response, B retaliated by calling in his contacts – he had many – and getting the CBI to open an investigation of A’s affairs. (“CBI” was the term used in the conversations I listened in on. It might have been some other investigative wing.) The CBI carried out a series of raids on A’s property.

 

The response to the raids among the association’s members – and here I think it is relevant to point out that almost all of them were middle-class, educated Brahmins – was mixed. Some thought that A had got his comeuppance. Many others felt that B had gone too far in involving the police in an internal dispute.

 

In any case,these raids shook up A and made him ready to open talks with B for a possible compromise. After extensive discussions, a “compromise” was reached, which can better be described as a surrender. A agreed to the rule change that B wanted – and B used his contacts to call off the CBI raids and hush up the investigation.

 

I will end this story here. There are of course many lessons to draw from this, and if I start off on them, the size of this post will double, so I will leave those for a subsequent post. But I must mention that this story tells us almost everything we need to know about the Indian’s attitude towards corruption, and the Indian’s conception of honesty. Of course, we will get a Jan Lok Pal who will fix everything.