Atanu Dey On India's Development

Takes Two to Tango


And now to sit down and consider the comments made on the three parts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) of “A Tale of Two Countries.” I hope to consolidate all the comments into major themes to keep this as short and succinct as possible. First let’s address a basic question. Who is responsible for the state that India is in? Is it the people or is it the leaders? The short clichéd answer is “it takes two to tango.” Ok, you will say, but who started it? It is hard to determine that to everyone’s satisfaction. Did the chicken come first or was it the egg? Putting the blame on one party leaves the matter in a Zen-like quantum indeterminate state of the sound of one hand clapping. (Ponder that for a bit if you will.)

Let’s start with comments on part 3. Ashish Deodhar wrote, “I disagree with your attribution of all our failures to the Nehru-Gandhi family,. . . ” to which larrisa replied, “So who do you attribute it to? Whose ideology has been controlling India up until now?. . . ”

TiredProf chimed in with “Successful politicians do not have ideology. They tell people what people are happy to hear. There is no Nehru-Gandhi ideology controlling India. Nehru-Gandhi exploited their initial family position and people’s stupidity to line their coffers. Who, in a democracy with 90% literacy and 40% college graduates, would hire a family without any college degree for 50 years straight?”

In reply to Deodhar’s “How do we get millions and millions of people to change their attitudes so fundamentally?” larissa wrote,

“You don’t. You need a band of people ruling who are loyal to principles, and they inspire obedience on account of their integrity as they will be willing to take action (stern steps which might be necessary in the case of India) to maintain order and not let things run riot. But they need to have discipline of steel to inspire obedience in people. Discipline in lower levels follows as the top maintains it. But such people requires real men in a nation.”

Ashish Deodhar replied

All these criticisms of the Nehru-Gandhi family would’ve stood had the family been running a dictatorial regime. But that’s not the case. India has had elections every five years (even less than that at times) and the country has time and again voted the Gandhi family to power. I just don’t accept that a country of over a billion people could be bullied by one family to regularly vote for them for over half a century.

Besides, the Gandhis don’t even always have to aspire to rule the country. Sonia Gandhi avoided politics for many years before she was practically coaxed into taking the Congress leadership. . .

So it’s the people who vote them time and time again in power. So if the elected governments fail, the responsibility lies with the people who voted for that government, over and over and over again, and not with those who they elect to fail. Remember, people only get leaders that they deserve! Additionally, a fair share of responsibility lies with the opposition parties who are just poor clones of the Congress party.

Oldtimer was not going to put up with that —

This argument that the fault is with the voters, not with the Nehru clan (or rulers in general) is hogwash.

Telecom minister A Raja’s constituents did not vote him into power to help him mint money for himself, to cite one example.

The flaw in a similar argument in another context would be readily apparent to us, so for seemingly intelligent people to make excuses for the Nehrus or Congress is pathetic. All opportunists and con-artists tend to shift blame from themselves to their victims.

Loknath disagreed with Ashish —

People didn’t vote “Congress” to power, people voted their leaders who gave them carrots to power and these people are bought in an auction led by the congress themselves. UPA Govt. led by the Indian National Congress is an unholy communion of rascals led by Antonia Maino. To quote Atanu..leaders who are fed on kitchen scraps of 10 janpath. Over the decades many independent and small local parties have become integral part of congress. The disturbing fact that people have voted congress to power again and again rests on the fact that congress workers have mastered the art of buying votes for as little as a packet of Biryani, a quarter bottle of rum and few hundred rupees cash.

TiredProf was not having any of it —

And why are generations of Indians content to be bought that cheap?
. . .
And keep procreating, knowing full well that their progeny will be exploited by a similar set of scums.

The victim deserves to be blamed. Condoms cost 25 paise back in 1980s. Someone who couldn’t afford even that decided to be a parent.

And NRI bloggers in AC rooms “analyze” the situation and blame, who else, Congress.

Perhaps that bit about “NRI bloggers in AC rooms” was aimed at me. Truth be told, I am not an NRI and my room is entirely devoid of ACs. California weather is good. But whatever.

Larrisa once again addressed Ashish Deodhar —

Actually even Nehru noticed that Congress was becoming very corrupt even in his time. He made a lot of missteps, and was clueless as to the realities of the world, but actual criminilization of politics occurred after him during the daughter’s rule and thereafter when the failed policies where not changed.

Stuffing polling booths began with Indira Gandhi in places like Bihar and UP with the help of thugs. This is general knowledge. Then thugs in these places realized they could themselves win elections, as Congress would support them if it is able to win in these places. Criminilization or goonda politics began with Indira Gandhi. Why do you think there are so many in Parliament with criminal records? Can you tell me one democracy where this is allowed to happen? I am speaking of convictions, not even accusations of criminal behavior.

To round it all off, Oldtimer pointed out that “the argument that scumbags have a right to be scumbags because suckers can’t help being suckers, has no merit.” And TiredProf replied, “No one claimed that scumbags have a right to be scumbags. Because statistically India is almost entirely composed of suckers, there is no one left to make life miserable for scumbags. That’s all.”

So there you are. Lots of great points. Now here’s how I look at it. First of all, the scumbag politicians and clueless citizens are matched pairs. You cannot have one without the other. The criminality of the one is enabled by the cluelessness of the other — and the two are entwined in a dance macabre the end of which can only be the destruction of India.

The interesting question then is what gives rise to this situation? Indians are fairly unremarkable in that they are not genetically programmed to be stupid. They are as flawed as any other large segment of humanity. India is not spectacularly gifted natural resource wise but neither is it entirely devoid of them. India has not been repeatedly visited by natural catastrophes that periodically sends it back to square one. Over the centuries, India has had a fairly stable existence — barring the occasional Islamic invaders who killed a few million infidels every so often. All things considered, India had all the material and human resources to make a go of it. What went wrong?

I place great store in the cooking analogy. How good a dish you cook up depends on the ingredients and the recipe you use. In the case of an economy, the set of rules is like the recipe. A bad recipe can ruin even the best ingredients.

If the rules of the game are such that crooks don’t get to power and continue in power, the country will have good policies. Good policies will in turn help increase the stock of human capital. Human capital in turn will create physical capital.

Who makes the rules is a bit of a crap shoot. At the time of the American Revolution, the rules were made by a handful of extraordinarily smart people. The US lucked out.

Luck varies. As they say, some are lucky in love, some in cards. Some countries are lucky in the kind of rule-makers they get. For Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew made the rules, and it turned out extremely good for it. For the US, the so-called “Founding Fathers” made the rules, and it became the most powerful nation ever in human history. Some countries are endowed with huge natural resources — which contrary to expectations, is not all that lucky. Economists call it the “natural resource curse.” Sometimes the natural resource curse is compounded with an ideological curse. Saudi Arabia and some other Arab states have that double whammy curse.

India’s curse was that at a very critical time around India’s independence from Britian, the rule-makers were an incompetent bunch. It all starts with a supremely arrogant man, Gandhi. An able dictator but a very poor thinker, he chose as the rule maker someone who was largely incapable of figuring out his own incapacity to make sensible rules. This is the Dunning–Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which people make unfortunate choices but they lack the metacognitive ability to realize that they cannot make good choices.

If the rules of the game are bad, then the outcome is unlikely to be good. India’s poverty — material and otherwise — is a consequence of poor rules.

So here’s my thesis. India has corrupt politicians because the rules of the game allow criminals to come to political power. Once they get political power, they can then game the system to continue to be in power. Part of the gaming of the system is to make sure that the people don’t have any way of getting criminals out of power.

Take the recent set of politician-criminals. The guy whose job should have been to make sure that criminals should be behind bars, instead makes sure that the criminals continue to be union ministers. That guy got that job for being extremely flexible — no rigid moral or ethical rules to prevent him from bending to the will of his master.

But his master did not get to be the master without the public actually allowing it. India is too big for any invader’s army to hold it against the will of the people. In the present case, a more or less “democratic” process has ensured the power that the master has. Theft on a colossal scale goes on under the protection of the master and the appointed minion, and the apathetic public goes about its business as if this was divinely ordained.

In a comment to the post, Sriram recalled an earlier post which referred to a book by Étienne de La Boétie The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (1576). In an introduction to a modern edition of the book, Murray Rothbart wrote:

This fundamental insight was that every tyranny must necessarily be grounded upon general popular acceptance. In short, the bulk of the people themselves, for whatever reason, acquiesce in their own subjection. If this were not the case, no tyranny, indeed no governmental rule, could long endure. Hence, a government does not have to be popularly elected to enjoy general public support; for general public support is in the very nature of all governments that endure, including the most oppressive of tyrannies. The tyrant is but one person, and could scarcely command the obedience of another person, much less of an entire country, if most of the subjects did not grant their obedience by their own consent.

A large country like India cannot be ruled without some degree of popular consent. That the population gives that consent despite the enormous harm the tyranny does to them would be inexplicable but for the fact that the tyrants make sure that the population does not ever become informed enough to know that they are living under a tyranny.

If I were to rule as a tyrant in India, I would do the following. First, make sure that the population is extremely poor. Starving people can be easily controlled. How to do that? Take control of all economic activity. Put things in the public sector. And then keep the private sector under control. Make sure that only a few large firms constitute the private sector. If any large private sector firm steps out of line, punish disproportionately so that it is a lesson for the others. This will keep the population poor and under control.

Next, keep control of the press. Punish and reward the press, depending on whether they toe the tyrant’s line or not. Then get the courts under control. Don’t like a particular court verdict? Overturn it.

Next, keep absolute control over the education system. Too often educated people get uppity. Not a good thing for the tyrant.

In short, have a ruthless license-control-quota-permit raj.

If I had the chance to be India’s ruling tyrant, I would do all that and more. Actually come to think of it, that’s exactly what the India’s ruling tyrants have been doing all along.

In conclusion, sure it takes two to tango. But in the end, it is not the dancers but rather the dance that determines what the dancers do.

It’s the rules. The rules rule.


  1. All I can say is perhaps Chinese will attack again after ten years to deflect internal troubles, which is a very likely scenario, and just as Nehru woke up when the Chinese attacked (his right hand man Menon had turned Indian defense manufacturing to manufacturing pressure cookers and Indians had to beg US for help), Indians might again get a rude awakening as to where their leadership has taken them in the last few decades…

  2. RC wrote:
    “In pure economic terms, the caste system and the effective exclusion of many people from certain sectors based on caste(birth) was extremely in-efficient. It was a license-raj based on birth. Gandhi tried to remove this license raj or at least reduce it..”

    When asked to quote Gandhi’s words where he said he tried to remove the caste system/was against it and when mentioned that it was Savarkar and not Gandhi who was willing to remove the caste system, RC changed his tune to:

    It stupid to stay (sic) that someone can “abolish the caste system” as if it were some sort of royal decree that can be overturned by another decree.”

    So, which one is it, RC? Did Gandhi try to remove the caste system, or is it stupid to remove the caste system? Or, are you calling Gandhi stupid? :)

  3. Kaffir,
    I said that Gandhi’s actions were towards reducing the effects of license raj based on birth.
    And oh BTW, I am calling you stupid to think that someone can just “abolish” or “remove” the caste system. (Look up the word “nuance”, it will go a long way in understanding the world)

  4. RC, the only stupidity that’s on display is in your own ignorant comments and in your backpedaling/shifting the goal-posts when proved wrong. Then again, stupid people like you don’t realize their own folly and unsuccessfully try to bluster it out.

  5. BTW, when you wrote:

    “..that someone can just “abolish” or “remove” the caste system.

    did that apply to your own comment below?

    “Gandhi tried to remove this license raj (of caste system) or at least reduce it.”

  6. Hey guys, one way I find out that India is not progressing is just reading the newspapers such as the Financial Tiems and the Wall Street Journal for headlines as to what is happening in India. Take the Wall Street Journal (lot of lefties lurking in the India Real Time report!). Now the news for China is generally substantial as there is much that is happening in China. Today in the Wall Street Journal, there were tons of Chinese acheivements, such as how Chinese were beginning to compete with Boeing by producing own jets for their airlines. Read news on India in the Indian section. It is mostly career advice and nothing of substance showing that nothing is happening in India in comparison to the news on China.
    The news is often depressing such as the one today on how a building collapsed in Delhi killing more than 60 people due to faulty construction. So this is how India has arrived? Also another depressing item is how much television young Indians watch, and how little they read as reported on the Wall Street Journal. Considering the content of TV, that is sad indeed, most young Indians said their major interest was “movies”. If you do not believe me, check it out here:
    Do Young Indians Read? Not as Much as They Watch TV

    Should this come as a surprise?

  7. Atanu,

    Do you still file tax returns under Indian tax laws? If not, for all legal and tax jurisdictional purposes, you are an NRI. But of course, you knew that already.

  8. Pingback: A Tale of Two Countries — Part 3 | Atanu Dey On India's Development

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