Speaking of Books…

I am currently reading “Imagining India” by Nandan Nilekani. I got a free copy from Webchutney, the PR firm for the book, on the condition that I review it and write about it.  ( I checked with them. A negative review is also allowed.)  I haven’t finished reading it, so this isn’t a review yet. But my initial impression is that it is quite well-written, which is a relief as I wouldn’t want to trudge through 500 pages of badly written prose.  As for the content, well, quite honestly I am not sure what to expect. Nilekani is obviously quite smart ( he is from IIT Bombay, he must be.)  Smart people have clever ideas. But solutions for India’s problems have been obvious for over 50 years now, and they haven’t been implemented. It is rather unlikely that Nilekani has anything radically new, and I don’t think that he is claiming to have any. 

Perhaps what is required is for someone to communicate those ideas clearly and forcefully? There is always a need for someone to communicate ideas and the more the better. From what I have heard, Nilekani is a great communicator, but his comparative advantage is in execution – after all, he founded Infosys and turned it into one of India’s most successful companies. With this record, it is natural for him to expect to be able to do more. But to be able to bring about actual change, it requires skills of a completely different kind, skills that he lumps under “Politics” in the preface. So his attempts to use his skills to actually execute change ends up in task forces with minimal impact. 

As I understand, the book is born out of this gap between what he has been able to achieve and what he thinks ought to be done. The answer to the question of how to close this gap is one that will require fresh ideas.

Rerun – Popular Will and Divine Will

As you ponder over the results of the elections in the five states, it is time to rerun an old post from over a year back: Popular Will and Divine Will

Essentially, I believe that the first fundamental lacuna of India’s democratic system is that a government’s performance at governance has nothing to do with its performance in the elections. Everyone can explain an election after the results are declared, but no one can predict it in advance. I believe that in India, a statement like “If you do X, your probability of returning to power in the next elections is Y” cannot be made for any values of X or Y. This applies to all X, whether X stands for “good” policies  or populist policies. Neither kind of X will have any kind of cause-and-effect relation on election results. 

The problem is not just the electoral system. It is also because no value of X will translate into any result on the ground. A politician can hatch a scheme whereby he can promise free colour TV to all voters. He may think that voters will get TVs and vote for him, while he gets kickbacks from the manufacturer. But given the corruption in the administrative mechanism, it is pointless to try and put this scheme in action. There is no guarantee that the TVs will reach the voters, and therefore there is no way to ensure that his constituents vote for him. 

Given this reality, if I were a politician, I would basically forget about trying to get reelected and concentrate on making money.

Very few politicians have tried to break out of this cycle, and I believe that the person with the greatest chance of succeeding is Modi.

The Decline And Fall of the Indian National Congress

This post will probably come back to haunt me. Later this year, there will be elections in BJP ruled states, and there is a chance that anti-incumbency will bring the Congress back to power there. Next year there will be a general election and the Congress may yet win it, and you guys will come back to this post and mock me for it. But what the hell, here is my view. For what it is worth, I held the same view after the 2004 elections.

I believe that the Congress is in irreversible decline. It may win one election and lose the next, but the trend is towards a decline. In a decade, it will be like Saltanat-e-Shah Alam: Az Dilli ta Palam. (The Sultanate of Shah Alam, a latter day Mughal “emperor” that stretched all the way from Delhi to Palam – then a village on the outskirts.)

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Intra-Party Democracy And Nuclear Disarmament

There are structural reasons why we do not have intra-party democracy in India, but I think that cultural reasons are important too.  Internal democracy is like nuclear disarmament – you can’t do it unilaterally.

In India, the cultural norm is that if you openly speak out against the leader of the party, you are not just disagreeing, but signalling a revolt. Reporters will breathlessly ask the critic if he is preparing to quit the party. News channels will quote sources close to the “two camps” which will talk of how the morale of the party  rank and file has been affected by the events. If you try to claim that there really aren’t any plans to split the party and the disagreements were just that – disagreements, the papers will speculate that the two camps are on the way to a patch up.

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What’s New in Karnataka

About the elections in Karnataka, Neel asks:  “Once again. So whats new? Nothing much.”

Ah, but there is something new this time.  Over 30 years back, a constitutional amendment had frozen the map of India’s parliamentary and legislative constituencies to reflect the India of 1971. The moratorium has now ended, and the picture has moved forward to reflect the India of 2001, an India that is much more urban than it was in 1971.  I have reflected briefly on what urbanization means for India’s politics in the January 2008 Pragati 

Karnataka is the first state to go to the polls after the delimitation. Of course, both voters and politicians will take time to adjust to the new situation, but if I am right, this will be the beginning of one of the most significant changes in India’s politics, rivalling the change brought about by VP Singh in 1991.

My Country, My Lies

L K Advani’s memoir reminds me of the Yes Minister  and the Yes Prime Minister books. In particular, it reminds me of the preface to the latter, which starts something like:

Hacker’s unexpected ascension to the Premiership, which happens towards the  end of the first chapter of his volume, created almost as many problems for historians as it did for the country. Hacker was determined to portray his term in office as a series of triumphs, a task that would have defeated a far more skilled diarist…

There is much more in those fine books that would be appropriate to quote. Unfortunately, I do not have the volumes with me here and my memory fails me as much as it did Advani.

Virgina Postrel Echoes Me

On Barack Obama

Obama’s glamour also accounts for some of his campaign’s other stumbles. Plenty of candidates attract supporters who disagree with them on some issues. Obama is unusual, however. He attracts supporters who not only disagree with his stated positions but assume he does too. They project their own views onto him and figure he is just saying what other, less discerning voters want to hear. So when Obama’s chief economic adviser supposedly told a Canadian official that, contrary to campaign rhetoric, the candidate didn’t want to revise NAFTA, reporters found the story credible. After all, nobody that thoughtful and sophisticated could really oppose free trade.

Unlike Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, the two glamorous presidents who shaped 20th-century American politics, Obama has left his political philosophy a mystery. His call for “a broad majority of Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and independents of goodwill—who are re-engaged in the project of national renewal” is not a statement of principles. It’s an invitation to the audience to entertain their own fantasies of what national renewal would look like

Like any candidate, Obama of course has position papers on specific issues. But even well-informed observers disagree about whether he represents the extreme left wing of the Democratic party or something more market-oriented and centrist. As the NAFTA flap demonstrates, his supporters can’t even decide what the candidate really thinks about free trade. His glamour makes it easy to imagine that a President Obama would dissolve differences, abolish hard choices, and achieve political consensus—or that he’s a stealth candidate who will translate his vague platform into a mandate for whatever policies you the voter happen to support. (The Peril of Obama)

The link may not stay valid for long, but Postrel is using “glamour” in its  original sense, when it meant “Magic spell”. (That also accounts for the odd spelling of the word – odd, that is, if you are an American.)

Arresting Raj Thackeray

I have not been able to make up my mind on whether we should have laws against the kind of things Raj Thackeray says. Quite clearly, conspiring to commit violence should be punished. If I were to pick up a phone and ask a hitman to kill someone, I cannot claim free speech protection. I don’t see how anyone can claim free speech protection if he asked a crowd of people to do the same. The problem is that when people “incite violence” they do not use very precise words. A judge has to consider hidden meanings and effects of those words on “reasonable people”, and a person who listens to Raj Thackeray and then goes out to beat up North Indians is, by definition, unreasonable.

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