Thursday, August 15, 2013

NaMoMania

As I explained at in a previous post, the Bhagwati-Sen skirmish is really about two views of economic development. I was wrong, of course. In my beloved India, where all is maya, it is really about Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and the arrayed forces of Good and Evil they represent: in this case the Congress and the BJP. 

Respectively? I didn't say that. You can flip the order if you want. And as Parakeet Ghost shows in the following guest article, it probably doesn't matter, except for a kerfuffle here and there.  

India’s Reagan Revolution: A Primer

by Parakeet Ghost

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Debraj posted last month about Star Wars --- the great debate between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati on the future course of India’s economic policy. The Indian media is very excited about this. They see it as an intellectual prequel to next year’s national elections. In this post, I thought I’d fill you in on the political side of things.

The battle is between the two major national parties – the incumbent Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress is tied by its umbilical cord to “Nehruvian socialism”, the vision of its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who believed the state should manage the economy with a firm hand. The umbilical cord was supposedly cut in 1991 with economic liberalization, but skeptics doubt the Congress’s DNA has changed. On the other hand, the BJP is widely seen as being friendly towards markets and unfriendly towards monotheistic religions.

The presumptive prime ministerial candidates of Congress and the BJP are respectively Rahul Gandhi (the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru) and Narendra Modi (the current chief minister of the state of Gujarat). With typical Indian fondness for acronyms and short cuts, they are often referred to as RaGa and NaMo. Strangely enough, these compressions do them more justice than their full names.

Raga is a musical form in Indian classical music. When maestros give their rendition of a raga, they will often sing two lines of lyrics for more than two hours. Our RaGa has only ever spoken two lines in his parliamentary career of nearly a decade. Opinion is divided as to whether his popularity will go up or down if he opened his mouth but there is admittedly more room above than below.

Namo is a short form for namaskar or pranam, the Indian way of paying respect to elders and gods. To wit: ya devi sarvabhuteshu... namo namaha! (O omnipresent goddess, I bow before thee). In his millions of lay followers, NaMo inspires nothing short of worship. Earlier this summer, the Times of India breathlessly reported how NaMo had retrieved 15,000 Gujaratis from the flood-ravaged Himalayas using minivans, while the Indian army struggled with a fleet of helicopters! His fans’ faith in NaMo’s Batman persona is matched only by his own – he controls the portfolios of Home, Ports, Industry, Energy, Irrigation, Mines and Minerals, Information and Broadcasting, Large Cats and Fashion (to mention a few). I sometimes wonder if his reported aversion to monotheism isn’t an exaggeration.

In 2002, shortly after NaMo became chief minister, there was a slight kerfuffle in his home state of Gujarat. This has dogged him ever since, inviting an ignominy that hapless Indian students face every day for quite different reasons – denial of a US visa. NaMo’s supporters claim that other than this mishap (the aforementioned kerfuffle, not the visa), his record in Gujarat is exemplary. Which is a little bit like trying to answer the question: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” Nevertheless, in deference to NaMo’s uncharacteristic reticence on this particular issue, I will drop the matter.

You must be wondering: where does Reagan come into the picture? Patience, dear reader, patience! Read on and you will be rewarded.

India, you see, is a country that lives on the opposite psychological pole to America. In America, if you are hit by a meteorite, people will ask why you were too lazy to watch the sky. In India, if you refuse to get out of bed, there will be protests on the street demanding the government do something for bed-ridden people. The Indian psyche is more suited to (or shaped by) Nehruvian socialism than rugged individualism and ruthless capitalism. And if the hunger for handouts isn’t enough, regulation is still the rage.

In India, in order to sneeze, you need a license from the government. Applications have to be filled in triplicate at least six months in advance and you will probably also have to pay a bribe of five hundred rupees to the sneezing inspector to get a clearance (no pun intended). Things are a little better these days – you can apply online, though the servers frequently crash during the rainy season.

While the masses cling firmly to the ‘mammaries of the welfare state’ (though medical reports say the flow of milk is rather deficient), India has a small but visible band of pro-market pundits who shout from the rooftops to stop public breast-feeding. These folks inhabit academia, think-tanks and op-ed pages. You may find them at the Brookings Institution as often as the India International Center.

Following Indian politics and elections must be a traumatic experience for fellows with hard heads and soft hearts (well, don’t expect the softness of muslin silk – more like worsted wool I’d say). Imagine an American presidential race between Lenin (D) and Stalin (R), with Trotsky demanding more air time as the independent candidate, and William F. Buckley having to cover it all for Fox News. You may begin to understand their pain.

This is why any mention of NaMo gives this crowd the goosebumps. Ever since the dust-up in Ahmedabad (that must never be mentioned), NaMo has repositioned himself as a champion of free markets. He organizes a Woodstock for foreign investors, hands out project clearances at the speed of light and cradles India’s top businessmen in his arms for photo-ops. Gujarat’s GDP is growing at a thousand percent per hour. “Less government and more governance is now his slogan, and refreshing,” coos Shekhar Gupta, the editor of Indian Express.

In a scene dominated by the acolytes of Marx and Derrida, the Cinderellas of India’s intellectual community feel their hour has come. India 2014 is looking more and more like America, circa 1980. What seems imminent is not merely regime change but a transformation of the zeitgeist. The socialist cobwebs are going to be blown away and a spirit of muscular laissez-faire is about to grip the country. If Jagdish Bhagwati is poised to become India’s Milton Friedman, NaMo is our Reagan. Together they will usher in the Gujarat model as national paradigm, giving the boot to Amartya Sen’s tired, old Kerala model. That one involved massive social spending, women wearing the pants at home and too much coconut in every damn thing you cooked.

Namo namaha!

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Now that you know the big picture, let me give you a little detail. In policy after policy, issue after issue, as RaGa’s party indulges in vulgar populism and reckless profligacy, NaMo takes a principled stand in favour of fiscal prudence and market discipline. 

Congress won the last election by passing an expensive public works legislation – the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). This time around, they’ve thrown another Hail Mary – the National Food Security Bill (NFSB), which is supposed to give practically free grains to two-thirds of the population. As you would expect, NaMo has written to the Prime Minister registering his strong protest.

But what is this he says? He is bitterly complaining about the bill’s stinginess: “The ordinance proposed to reduce the entitlement of below poverty line (BPL) families from 35 kg per family to only 25 kg”. The whimpering then rises to a crescendo: “People involved in labour-intensive activities required about 2,500 calories per day,” says NaMo, and you can almost hear him holding back his tears. Why is the bill giving them “barely 20% of one’s daily calorie requirements”? Why indeed? Am I reading this right? Is this what they call Conservatism 2.0 (aka Compassionate Conservatism)?

Ok, we’ll take another example. The Congress has been dragging its feet for a long time on the issue of allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) in India’s retail sector because some of its pesky coalition partners have been raising hell about it. Here is NaMo at a rally, thundering against the government’s pusillanimity. You can hear Reagan roaring for capital flows. 

Oh, wait! He’s upset about the impending death of the corner grocery store. He’s furious that cheap Chinese goods will be dumped on the Indian market, killing our small scale manufacturing units. Is this wail against Walmart a mislabeled Arundhati Roy clip? It looks like NaMo alright.

Fine! I’ll show you the real heart of the lion of Gujarat. For the longest time, the Congress has dealt with India’s sectarian movements and centrifugal forces by appeasement. The most egregious recent example is the Congress decision to carve a new state Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh. NaMo promptly sent an open letter to the people of the state, slamming the Congress for playing cynical, vote-bank politics. Let's tune in:

We stand by our commitment to statehood for Telangana.... Statehood for one region should not be viewed as coming at the expense of another region.”

Oh no! He is actually for Telangana! How dare the government do what NaMo approves of?

Look, let’s not miss the forest for the trees. We need a new morning in India. RaGa is useless because no one can make out if he is singing ahir bhairav or darbari kanadaThe time is ripe for an Indian Reagan. Is there a better candidate than NaMo? You tell me.