Rahul Gandhi is dismayed by centralisation of power. But that’s how it has always been – development by a few, for a few.
Three days from now, on Saturday, India will celebrate the 63rd anniversary of its status as a republic — a constitutional democracy that augured a break from a colonial past of debilitating poverty, lack of opportunities for social economic and political advancement for the majority; in short, a movement towards Tagore’s “heaven of freedom.”
Not many will remember those hopes or even what the significance of the republic is. For urbanised middle-classes, self-absorbed in chronicling the myriad enchantments of the global economy and ways to consume them, January 26 will be just another day at the malls. For the downtrodden — women increasingly aware of their vulnerabilities in an age that paradoxically promises them more empowerment, the peasant slowly discovering the totality of his helplessness brought on by the relentless march of an urbanisation that renders his ancient profession meaningless, and the construction worker — what can the Republic mean but another day to get through?
Time for change
For the ruling party, the 63rd anniversary will mean a lot. It is no coincidence that the anointment of Rahul Gandhi as the de facto leader of the weary and exhausted Congress should have occurred around the start of the New Year and days before the Republic’s birth anniversary. Politicians, like film stars, believe in signs, and January 26 is a potent signifier.
Heard by someone living under a rock the past few decades, Rahul Gandhi at his post-coronation address certainly sounded like the winged messenger of a new dawn, an Obama-esque presence with pedigree to boot: A message of hope for the meritorious, for the discards from the centralised power operating behind “closed doors”, a “government system that is stuck in the past.” All that was missing was, “Yes we can!”
It was a noble and earnest performance, an act that would have been first heard the day the republic was founded, when Indians hoped that the weight of history’s accidents and omissions could be sloughed off, that the opportunities to exercise power and perhaps seek the high road of merit would arrive in their lifetime. That Rahul Gandhi has to reassert, 63 years later, the mandate of the republic enshrined at its inception would seem to mean that something has gone wrong all these years. Rahul Gandhi thinks so; only he assumes governance and power-diffusion have slipped up; in fact they never existed.
‘Closed door’ polity
Political and economic power always stayed behind “closed doors” and its centralisation in the hands of a few was pretty much evident to a noted economist and public official delivering the 42nd Convocation Address at Nagpur University with the title: “Public Interest and Big Business in India”.
He opened his exegesis with the following: “(There is a) general agreement among qualified observers that there has been, since Independence, an increase in corruption, and that this is especially in evidence among the highest and most powerful strata in society.” Swaraj or “self-direction” (as he terms it) should have “made us keenly conscious of social obligations” but it has not.
The economist locates the “defects” in basically a congruence of business and political interests. Political power should have been geared to welfare but as in colonial times, “the dominance of VIPs and the rich in all projects and programmes continues to be a marked feature of the Indian situation.” The drive to industrialise the national economy is certainly noteworthy but “economic power within this sector is concentrated in a small number of hands” while the “public importance and influence of those occupying the sector is extraordinarily large.”
Was this concentration of power in the hands of a few an accident of history? Unintended outcomes of distortions in policy?
This is what the students of Nagpur University heard: “The accumulation of gains and the rapid increase of economic resources and power in particular private hands can be described as a deliberate objective of official policy.” How so? “Almost all government operation is based on the offer of incentives to private capitalists.” Just to make it clearer: “Incentives always mean…further opportunities, direct or indirect, of adding to the resources under their control.”
The speaker, who was no fire-spewing radical, attempted to locate the theoretical assumptions driving this confluence of power and money. The premise that ‘Production precedes Distribution’ is part of the neo-classical discourse but he had found it located at the heart of the developments then unfolding.
He attacks the slogan ‘Production Before Distribution’ as no more than a “cliché used as a cloak for a policy which its protagonists find it difficult to avow openly”, a policy that, in fact, wishes to speed up production while all other objectives, “especially distributive justice, should be laid aside.” Putting it “bluntly” the speaker terms the policy “a plea for allowing concentration of the ownership of the means of production and turning a blind eye to the need for improvement in standards of living…”
The cosy nexus
Finally, the nexus of public officials and politicians cosying up to businessmen creates the grounds for large-scale corruption. Why?
Public officials “have not evolved for themselves any common code of values or code of conduct.” The result: a form of cosy capitalism in which “most officials who exercise large discretionary powers in relation to the regulation of business might yet look on businessmen as potential employers or patrons of their sons and relatives and even of themselves.” Ditto for politicians.
This notion of crony capitalism was elaborated (without using that term) by the late D.R. Gadgil on January 20, 1962, just six years after the founding of the republic. Gadgil was no radical but a keen critic of public policy, intellectual founder of the cooperative movement and institutional builder, creating the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics; five years after that speech, he was made Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission by Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother.
What we learn from the vantage position of the present is that nothing seems to have changed, that 1991 and the adoption of some free market principles may have turned the intimacy between political power and private capital more obvious — once the smokescreen of ‘democratic socialism” had been abandoned in favour of “globalisation”.
That is the kind of history Rahul Gandhi has to reckon with.