The Personality Cult

So all business newspapers report that LK Advani had issued a “warning” to Yeddyurappa a while back that he was getting too corrupt. Nevertheless, several BJP “party workers” in Karnataka have been coming out in defence of Yeddy, saying he’s innocent and that he’s still their leader. Some of them have refused to accept the leadership of DV Sadananda Gowda. And some of the leaders themselves are quite silent on the issue, preferring to say that the “law will take its own course”.

This points to a larger problem that is afflicting Indian politics nowadays which is the “personality cult”. First of all, we have several parties (too many to name here) where the only ideology is “absolute loyalty to a certain party leader”. Even in parties that don’t fall under this definition (the BJP for instance), we seem to have several “local leaders” who carry significant weight, and local units of parties that are more loyal to their leaders than to the parties. In fact, if you were to objectively look at it, as a voter there seems to be no escape at all from this cult.

This has several disturbing consequences. One stems from the belief that “loyalty should be rewarded”. Given the loyalty that so many of our “leaders” get from “party workers” it is not surprising that the “leaders”, upon assuming power, accord to these workers plum rent-seeking posts, which will keep them happy. This can result in positive feedback – once a leader has shown that he ¬†will “reward” loyalists, more people clamour to get close to him, and they too must get rewarded. And so it goes.

Another fallout of this personality cult is a dramatic increase in security, with not inconsiderable cost to the public. Given t he power that some of our “leaders” wield, the payoffs of bumping off an opposing leader are quite strong, both in terms of electoral politics and otherwise. Parties which have been built on “personal loyalty” as an “ideology”, upon losing their leaders, will suddenly have no “natural centre” and will tend to fragment. Hence, it is in the interest of all politicians to provide themselves “security”, which comes at the cost of the general public (cue traffic jams whenever there is “VIP movement” in some city, or the fact that our generally under-staffed police force has to spend so much of its effort in “VIP security” rather than other more important policing duties).

Then, we seem to be moving to a situation where parties are bereft of ideologies, and are simply collections of random leaders (who have lots of “followers”) thrown together. I’ll probably address this in detail in another post, but if you come to think of it there is very little to choose between different political parties now in terms of ideology. Yes, the BJP might have the nominal ideology of building a Ram Temple, but take that out and there is little to separate it from the Congress. The regional parties are even worse. The only difference you could probably see there is in terms of the dominant caste or lobby backing each party.

Again, it needs to be pointed out that multipolar politics in India is very young – it’s existed for little more than twenty years. Still, the future of Indian politics is worrisome, and I don’t know how we’ll get out of the rut we’re in.

Sadananda Gowda’s Set-up in South Bangalore

Ever since D V Sadananda Gowda became chief minister of Karnataka not so long ago, we residents of KR Road have been subjected to the holdup of the KR Road-SouthEnd Road signal several times a day. The convoy for which traffic is held up is huge, leading us to believe that it can’t belong to anyone but the chief minister. However, the chief minister’s house is in Milk Colony near Malleswaram, so what is he doing in South Bangalore? We wonder if a chinna veetu¬†exists!

Why you should vote for the BJP

Ok before you bleeding-heart liberals scream at me pointing out the post-Godhra riots of 2002, or Kandahar, or the Shri Rama Sene, let me clarify that this is a purely economic argument. My argument is that if we want economic reforms to go ahead, we should vote for the BJP. I am not commenting on social aspects, or liberalism, or foreign policy, or defence, or uniform civil code. I must also mention that the only party whose manifesto I’ve read is that of the Samajwadi Party, but I have a decent idea of what the BJP and Congress manifestos look like. Both quite horrible, though they don’t come close to the SP’s.

The main argument here is that no government wants to reform to a situation of lesser government. It is a simple situation of letting go of what you have under your control, without any tangible benefits. After all, reforms have never really won too many votes (though I think if the Congress had campaigned properly, and unitedly, in 1996, they would’ve have spared us from being ruled by Deve Gowda). Yes, the bijli-sadak-paani argument is there, but that is more about infrastructure; not about economic reforms or liberalization.

So why do governments reform? Especially when they are doing so at the cost of their own power? It appears irrational, right? Fact is that control over a particular sector doesn’t benefit all arms of the government equally. There will be a few lobbies, and a few ministries, in a few areas that stand to benefit significantly more from government intervention in the sector,as compared to other parts of the government.

Next, the ruling party doesn’t necessarily control all parts of the government. Yes, they control most of the ministries, but there are several other government posts that may not be underr their control. Some may be under the control of allies. Certain bureaucrats who benefit heavily because of government intervention in the sector may even favour the opposition. I think it should be possible to document the “leanings” of various govenment departments in various states. And which of them will get liberalized when depends on which side is in power.

So the reason people reform (apart from when under severe crisis such as under PVN) is analogous to a sacrifice in chess. You give up something in the hope that in return, the opposition loses much more. So if you look at various reforms carried out by various governments (state and central; maybe even abroad; PVN stands out as an exception) you are likely to see this “chess sacrifice” pattern. Governments are more likely to reform, liberalize and maybe spin off departments that are under the control of parties in the opposition.

The next argument is that the Congress, having been in power for close to 50 years, is likely to be “in control” of a larger number of government departments than the BJP, which has been in power for about 6 years. This is the main reason, apart from left intervention of course, that the incumbent UPA government didn’t carry out too many reforms in the last five years, and even rolled back certain reforms carried out by the NDA (essential commodities act, petrol pricing, etc.). It is also critical that whatever reforms a government wants to carry out should be front-loaded – so as to give the reforms time to “settle down” and for people to adjust, before a new government comes in and perhaps rolls them back.

The BJP by itself is no good when it comes to reform – its ridiculous stance on FDI in retail being a case in point. Yes, they did quite a bit of reforms during their 6 years in power, but one can argue that a large number of them fit the “sacrifice” pattern. However, in general they stand to lose a lot less by reforming than does the Congress (exception is in retail as most traders and small merchants are pro-BJP). And hence, they are likely to carry out more reforms than a Congress-led government would.

You might argue that it might be better to vote for a third front party, since there is very little it has to lose in terms of reforming. However, the problem with most third front parties is that they are all active only in very few states, and thus may not stand to gain much by way of a national-level “sacrifice”. And coming back to a national-party led government, my argument is that you are more likely to see reform in ministries held by the chief ruling party, than those held by the allies.

So ladies and gentlemen, if the Congress comes back to power, they will consolidate power in the departments that they have “captured” over the last five years, and in the earlier years when they were in rule. this number is significantly greater than the number of departments that the BJP controls, and hence the Congress is likely to use the ongoing crisis as an excuse to bring in bigger government. The BJP, on the other hand, with less to lose, is likely to take a more pragmatic approach.

Vote for the BJP. Bring the NDA back to power. Let them re-start on the reforms that were made in 1991-2004. Five years down the line, the Congress can come back and liberalize retail.

Update

I usually have a practice of replying to all comments on my blog. However, you might have noticed that I haven’t replied to most comments on this post. As I had mentioned right up front, I am making an economic argument and have clearly mentioned that I’m not going to entertain any comments wrt social policy (and sadly, most comments have been in that direction). So fight it out among yourselves and don’t get me involved in the discussion. And a couple of days after I wrote this post, I was asked to help out with the Congress’s online campaign.