C O M M E N T A R Y
India in crisis
Dr. Gautam Sen
A weak PM, an infirm Center, crumbling democratic institutions and a corrupt political class are worsening the dangers to the nation from foreign threats, writes Gautam Sen.
London, 18 May 2011: Indian economic growth is masking grave problems bedevilling the country, placing it in some significant jeopardy. The political class as a whole is unable to comprehend the scale of the potential threats to India's well-being because it is almost exclusively focused on the struggle for political power and the extraordinary rewards that political success now bring. Having prospered unconscionably, independent India has deflected its ability to reflexively apprehend dangers the nation may be facing. This is not a problem of good or bad individuals alone, but sclerotic institutional arrangements, although having the corrupt and incompetent at the helm worsens matters immeasurably.
Economic growth is clearly desirable, but it intensifies inequality because some sectors and regions unavoidably advance faster. Unless such inequalities are alleviated private resentments manifest in political disaffection. The Indian political system does respond to popular resentment and protest, but in a haphazard and inefficient way. It is apt to throw money, sometimes very large sums, reactively to buy short-term political respite rather than address underlying reasons for socio-political tensions as a matter of course. These cleavages can end up taking a more dangerous shape in separatism and the desire to overthrow the established political order. Politicians with short-term horizons and a preoccupation to acquire wealth quickly in a relentlessly competitive political system that offers no guarantee of longevity are ill-suited to deal with such complex issues.
Worse, internal societal fissures create opportunities for hostile countries in competition with India to engage in mischief. A variety of outsiders are now actively working to acquire leverage over the Indian polity and often succeeding. In the case of Pakistan little novel need be said, except to reiterate that its multifarious acts of sabotage are increasingly facilitated by intermediaries in Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, which exercise influence within India by deploying their enormous financial clout. And, quite clearly, there is little that is not for sale in India at a price. Chinese subversion is extensive and they have some Indian political dispensations at their beck and call. The US is also hyperactive in an advancing India that is now well worth controlling. And their myriad local assets, including state-sponsored NGOs, sometimes masquerading as religious orders, are being used to encroach upon Indian decision-making autonomy.
In recent decades India has suffered profound political and constitutional upheavals. Political fragmentation prevents a single national party dominating decision-making at the centre. It results in negative outcomes that can be deemed worse than the disadvantages of an overweening single political party wielding power. Such asymmetric primacy would afford the space to respond to crises without constantly being prisoner to short-term imperatives and recalcitrant allies. Nowadays, the latter seem to regard their sojourn in Delhi as an opportunity for enrichment and consolidation in their own regional backyard. Unfortunately, the rise of the BJP merely institutionalised the political division of mainstream votes at the centre without adding anything noteworthy to Indian politics. India's deepening constitutional crisis is a product of internal Congress politics that has delivered a grievous blow to the vital office of the prime minister. Historically, the Indian PM's office was usually able to act purposefully when the body politic encountered serious stress. But the alarming disempowerment of the contemporary PM's office and loss of dignity have emboldened egregious misconduct that should have been restrained by its authority.
It is also necessary to comprehend fully the hostile measures being instigated against India by a dramatically resurgent China. The only reason China might be hesitating to launch a direct military assault to inflict long-term setback on India is the cost it may entail. But a weak India, considered likely to succumb in short order, will constitute an invitation to Chinese belligerence. In the event of such a catastrophe India's regional enemies may hope to benefit by pressing their own claims simultaneously. An Indian retreat in the face of Chinese assault will surely prompt immediate Pakistani military action against it. And the Indo-Nepal and Indo-Bangladesh border may witness unprecedented historic challenges since both neighbours have begun advancing claims to huge territorial swathes of India. China has endorsed them and is suggesting that India should be broken up into a number of small polities, much as the departing British had earnestly wished before August 1947.
Finally, the most depressing spectacle to behold is a thoroughly decent man's reputation irreparably tarnished as he presides nominally over shameful levels of malfeasance. He surely ought to have resigned since he can have nothing to gain from association with the on-going descent into ethical bankruptcy, but that is another matter. More to the point are the dangers of runaway corruption that, by its very nature, cannot be instinctively self-limiting by some concern for the public interest. Such a self-serving phenomenon of corruption, animating much of the ruling order and driven by the self-propelled logic of individual greed, may be hard to curb even if India's economic prosperity falters and buoyant tax revenues diminish. In that case a fiscal crisis, of the kind that has historically accompanied national collapse, could combine with even more intense rivalry for shrinking opportunities to plunder in a demoralised and disaffected nation. This was the prelude to the French revolution and its bloodletting, in which France's foolish nobility and clergy perished en masse under the guillotine.
Dr Gautam Sen taught international political economy at the London School of Economics & Political Science for two decades.