Friday, October 23, 2015

The fatal conceit of the Indian politician

Go whither? Narendra Modi embodies the worst of both the left and the right wings
“I’m not conceited. Conceit is a fault and I have no faults.” Imagine this quote on an internet meme, alongside a picture of Narendra Modi, looking dapper in that famous pinstripe suit, or maybe a trademark Modi kurta. It would surely get thousands of shares on social media, many from bhaktsimpressed by the Prime Minister’s modesty. Don’t rush to share it, though: as one tends to do on the internet, I just misattributed. Those words were not uttered by Modi, but by former Van Halen singer David Lee Roth. But Modi could have said them, could he not?
Please don’t think I am picking on Narendrabhai alone. All politicians are vain. Indeed, one could argue that in politics, vanity is a feature and not a bug. Politicians come to power by selling specific narratives about their excellence; and they can sell it most effectively if they believe it themselves. Success in many fields often begins, comically and ironically, with self-delusion. But politicians have consequences, and there’s nothing remotely comic about that.
One reason that India is still a poor country is the ‘fatal conceit’ of our founding fathers, to use Friedrich Hayek’s powerful phrase. Jawaharlal Nehru, and his minions and successors, believed that economies were best planned from the top down. An economy is a complex thing; the poor and ignorant masses of India needed to be directed by wise and benevolent planners. Those who have studied economics or paid attention to history know that this was foolish and wrong.
Economies, like languages, are products of “human action but not human design,” in the words of Adam Ferguson. They function brilliantly on their own, with millions of individuals pursuing their self-interest, and thus increasing the value in the lives of others, for that is the only path to profit. Planning is not only not required, it is an impediment. Nehru and his successors ravaged the economy with their well-intentioned interventions. I won’t recite the litany, but here’s the thing: 68 years after Independence, 24 after the Soviet Union collapsed, we are still enslaved by a failed philosophy. And we’re still suffering because of the fatal conceit of flawed individuals.
It amuses me sometimes that Modi is considered a right-wing politician. He actually embodies the worst of both left and right. Like his party, and the ecosystem of religious nutjobs that sustains it, he is right-wing on social issues; and left on economic ones. Basically, he is against individual freedom in every domain possible. Wait, did I just call him an economic leftist? Well, if a man is to be known by his actions and not his public image, what else can we call him?
I know many economic liberals, bald because of six decades of tearing their hair out, who thought Modi would be a free-market messiah. My ass. Tell me this: exactly what reforms has he carried out that increase our economic freedom? When Modi took over, India was ranked 140 out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index: it has since slipped to 142. He has not reformed the labour laws that, for decades, have prevented us from becoming a manufacturing superpower. The licence and inspector raj remains what it was under his predecessors. A litany of what he has not changed would be the same as that of what was wrong with our country before he took over.
Friends in high places tell me that the system doesn’t allow him to act. But the truth is that Modi suffers from the same fatal conceit that Nehru displayed. He believes the economy needs a top-down manager. He would rather reform a public sector unit than sell it off. When he talks about ‘minimum government and maximum governance,’ as catchy as that slogan might be, he is speaking of making the government more efficient and not at eliminating it entirely from areas where it has no business existing.
His conceit isn’t limited to his economic thinking, though. Look at how the man struts, as he travels the world meeting the high and mighty. I wonder if he realises, though, that these global leaders give him importance because of the chair he occupies, and not the man he is. I suspect he has actually drunk his Kool Aid, and believes the Modi Wave narrative of the last elections. He may be headed for a fall if so.
Look at the numbers from the 2014 general elections again. The first-past-the-post system made it seem like a wipeout, as the BJP got 6.4 times the seats that Congress did. But they got just 1.6 the vote share of the Congress. It was 31 per cent to 19 per cent, and a four per cent swing away from them next time could easily result in a hung parliament. They delivered outlier performances in states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, which seem statistically impossible to repeat. And the following things are certain: Since the election, they have not won more supporters than they have lost; the turnout of their supporters is bound to be less the next time around; other parties, clear about what they are up against, will make smarter coalitions to consolidate the non-BJP vote; anti-incumbency will be a factor now that some of the Modi sheen is gone.
Modi behaves like prime ministership was his destiny and he will win again easily in 2019. But if he doesn’t get his act together, reforming the economy and constraining the lunatic fringe in his party, he could be in for a surprise. India could choose another delusional politician over him, and 2014-2019 could be remembered as The Selfie Years.
Amit Varma is a novelist. He blogs at

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