Atanu Dey On India's Development

On Identity Politics, Personality Cults, and Democracy in India

| 24 Comments

Who you are determines what you do. That’s not the most incisive of observations but one’s identity is inextricably mixed up with what motivates one. Consequently identity does have predictive and explanatory power regarding the behavior of people. Naturally political parties – who must understand crowd psychology to be successful – understand that. Particularly in India, identity based politics has been refined to an impossible degree.

Want to appeal to Paswans (a specific subcaste in UP)? Then give a ticket to that guy named Paswan. Here’s an example from an Economic Times report on Rahul Gandhi’s first meeting in Chauri Chaura. Madhav Paswan is a sitting Congress MLA:

During his speech, Paswan narrated how he had convinced Gandhi to give him party ticket. “I told him 50,000 people in Chauri Chaura are Paswans. Even if half the votes are polled for me, that’s 25,000 votes. He said the ticket is yours.”

(As an aside, someone pointed out that the title of the piece is at variance with the text of the url for the first part of the piece. The URL reads in part “overwhelming-crowd-seen-at-rahul-gandhis-first-meeting-in-chauri-chaura”, while the title reads “Organisers embarassed at tepid response to Rahul Gandhi’s first meeting in Chauri Chaura”. The URL of the later parts of the report reflect the edited heading. Clearly someone thought that there is a limit to sucking up to Mr Raul Vinci aka Rahul Gandhi.)

Talking of Raul Vinci, it would be impossible for someone named “Raul Vinci” to become the PM of India. For the same reason that Madhav Paswan got himself the Congress ticket, Raul Vinci as Rahul Gandhi has the “ticket” to become the prime minister. His accomplishment can be summarized in two words: lucky sperm. Other than that, hardly anything else qualifies him — not education, not deep insight, not intelligence (an area he is noted to be particularly lacking in), not some breathtaking deed, . . . To not put too fine a point on it, his accomplishments amount to zilch, zero, shunya, nada. It’s his identity as the great grandson of Nehru, the grandson of Indira Gandhi nee Nehru, the son of Rajiv Gandhi & the Italian mama Antonia Maino aka Sonia Gandhi, that totally sums him up and explains his appeal to a significant number of Indian voters.

Identity politics is not the only distinguishing failure of Indian democracy; the other failure has to do with the personality cult obsession of Indians. What else could explain the persistence of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in Indian politics. Pick up any random political report on TV or in print (and let’s note that the Indian media focuses obsessively on three topics — politics, entertainment and cricket), and you will see that its almost always about personalities. It is never about ideas. Has Raul Vinci ever come up with any idea worth talking about, or even been moved by an idea even worth a khoti caudi? You bet your last shirt he hasn’t. Why then are journalists and reporters so fascinated by him?

I believe that one of the foundational failing of Indian democracy is the basic incompetence of its journalists and media people. As has been observed, democracy is not just about voting but about informed choice. But what does informed mean when those who are charged with informing are themselves astoundingly ignorant, untouched by ideas and are essentially incompetent to reason and report?

If the most celebrated journalists — Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, Vir Sanghvi, Sagarika Ghose, et al, come to mind — epitomize cretinous mental retardation and self-serving toadying, does the average person have any hope of being informed about political ideas and about what matters for general welfare and progress? It is said that great minds discuss ideas; mediocre minds discuss events; and small minds discuss people. Those journalists are forced to discuss people because they have tiny minds.

Lacking the information needed, the average voter is forced to the rely on her primitive instincts, and her vote is constrained by her identity and her atavistic attachment to personalities. The outcome of the political process is predictably awful. Crooks and criminals achieve and retain political power, while the country rushes headlong into disaster.

Actually, a person’s identity need not be a burden. Self-interested behavior is not immoral and in any well-organized society, a person’s identity-motivated actions need not be at the cost of social welfare. So also, a bit of hero worship or personality cult preference does not have to result in disastrous choices. If you had heroes worth worshiping and genuinely good personalities, a bit of looking up at them starry-eyed would be good for you and for society in general by providing you examples to emulate. The trouble is that the stars in the political firmament are the worst kinds of people.

Which raises the question — why are the most celebrated political heavy-weights almost entirely thoroughly corrupt and contemptible? This begs an explanation since it is just not possible that all 1,200 million Indians are so absolutely corrupt that any subset chosen must necessarily have absolutely corrupt members. India must have honest, decent, competent people. So why can’t Indians choose those good people to be in positions of power and responsibility?

As I have provided my answer to that question before on this blog, at the risk of appearing crass, I will quote myself.

The evidence is overwhelming that India’s political leaders are uniformly corrupt. It cuts across political party lines. Public corruption is not contained in some specific geographic region. It is not bounded by linguistic or religious divides. The percentage of criminals in the various state and central legislative bodies far exceed that in the general population. What’s more, that percentage has been increasing with time. And the magnitude of the corruption has also been increasing. The average corrupt deal was in tens of crores of rupees a couple of generations ago — small change compared to the deals these days which is counted in billions of dollars.

If Indians are not characteristically uniformly dishonest, how is it that India’s politicians are so acutely dishonest? Perhaps the system selects the most dishonest and the least principled.

Here’s how it works. The rewards of political power are enormous. Without loss of generality (as economists put it), let’s consider the position of an MP (member of parliament.) As an MP, a person has the opportunity to make $1 billion. Mind you, there’s no compulsion to actually make that amount of money — merely the opportunity. Now let’s ask who is likely to become an MP? Contesting the elections are A, B, C, and D. Of the four, Mr D is competent, honest, and hardworking. The rest are venal incompetent criminals. Mr D will not steal a penny if he were to become an MP, and therefore he cannot afford to spend more than whatever he can raise from his supporters. But A, B and C — they will make a $1 billion if elected. So they are willing to spend quite a bit of future loot, and this they can raise from their cronies who will in essence be making an investment, the return on which they are assured post the elections.

The corrupt can outspend the honest in any elections because the former will recover the expenses (and more) upon assuming office. It should not come as a surprise that India has degenerated into a kakistocracy — rule by the most corrupt and the least principled.

It is the opportunity to make billions of dollars as an official of the government that is the proximate cause of the criminalization of the government. In turn, the proximate cause of the opportunity to make billions is that the government has control over vast areas of the economy. Being in government gives one immense discretionary powers — to grant or deny licences, to block and prevent legitimate economic activity, to extract rents wherever possible. The more powerful the government, the less power the people have. The larger the government, the less freedom the people have.

Dr Manmohan Singh was made the prime minister — not because of his competency as an executive (which is as evident as the testicles of an elephant) or his character (which is notable due to its absence) but because of his moral pliability and his ability to obey orders from his superiors without question. Removing him would be of little use because surely there are others who are equally compromised and would be happy to fill the chair. [Source: The Three-ring Anti-Corruption Circus is in Town Aug 2011.]

Public corruption is a reality in India. Pointing it out has exceeded the cottage industry stage and has reached the major multinational corporation stage in the form of Anna Hazare Inc. I am aware that I am flogging a dead horse in writing about politically motivated public corruption (and publicly motivated political corruption) but I would like to propose a solution. It goes thus. To make political office less lucrative (in fact, to make it zero lucrative), we have to transform governance such that the government does not have such a major role in the economy. If the government does not control the levers of commerce in the country, then of course being in government cannot provide one with the opportunity to steal. That would remove the motivation for the corrupt to occupy public office.

But therein lies the rub. How will those who have staked their personal fortunes on the current state of affairs ever change it to their own detriment? Why would they hurt their own interests by reducing the role of the government in the economy? The simple answer is that they will not. That’s a classic Catch-22 situation.

There is only one way out and that is through the ballot box. Getting back to the beginning of this piece, I noted the importance of identity politics in India. We have multiple identities: as family members, as people of a certain linguistic or religious groups, as workers, as members of society, and so on. It is true that for some people, their religious or caste identities assume primacy in their voting behavior. But for some others — I daresay for the present company — the identity that matters most during elections is our identity as responsible citizens. We care not about the identity or the personality of the candidate but rather what ideas and ideals the candidate holds and whether those ideas will lead to social welfare. We care about honesty and decency, about public order and private enterprise.

It is that identity of ours that we should wear proudly on our chests and act accordingly at the ballot box. We have to also realize that we are responsible for the outcome and that we can affect the outcome. That’s a duty that we owe to ourselves, our society, and the generations to come. We have to vote our values consistent with our identity as responsible citizens.

Voting is not such a hard task. To be more specific, individual voting is not such a hard task. What’s hard is informed voting. How do we know which person is the most appropriate? We have limited time and energy to spare for doing basic research into that question. But since we are all affected by the outcome of our collective behavior at the ballot booth, perhaps we could share the task. Let’s put our efforts together and unite as voters.

If we got together and as a collective pooled our understanding, we could achieve two things. First, we could get better information about the candidates. Second, we could by explicitly expressing our demand for good candidates, we would encourage good candidates to context elections and political parties to give tickets to good people. For this to happen, we have to make a commitment to vote and to vote as a collective. Consider this to be fighting fire with fire: identity politics has brought us to this sorry pass and we have to now express our identity and vote our identity.

The big assumption here is of course that there are sufficiently large number of Indians whose identity is that of an honest, responsible, informed and caring citizen. If that assumption is wrong, we do not have much of a future. But I am hoping that that assumption is valid, and it is that hope that motivates a group like the United Voters of India. Come, join us.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

  • http://oshantomon.blogspot.com Sambaran Mitra

    Nice post. A few comments though.
    You wrote: “Which raises the question — why are the most celebrated political heavy-weights almost entirely thoroughly corrupt and contemptible? ”

    I know about a few political heavy-weights, who are not corrupt. They may have strong and harmful ideologies though. Hence, in spite of being honest, they are not able to do good for their electorate. Bottomline is that being honest is necessary but not sufficient condition for better governance.

  • http://oshantomon.blogspot.com Sambaran Mitra

    “Voting is not such a hard task. To be more specific, individual voting is not such a hard task. What’s hard is informed voting”

    Brilliant observation. I would say, in spite of having information, voting is tough.

    Assume there are two issues which I feel strongly about. Assume there are 3 politicians/parties A, B and C. Let the first issue be caring about freedom-of-expression. An incident happened where politician A and B banned books, restricted people movement, disrupted closed door exhibitions and gatherings. I am now decided that I will vote for C in next election.

    Let the second issue which I care about be minority-appeasement. It boils my blood when appeasement is done in the name of true development. A and C are masters of minority-appeasement. So, B should get my vote if I consider only about the second issue.

    Now, what shall I do? I have to prioritize whether I care more about freedom-of-expression or minority-appeasement. If instead of two issues and 3 politicians illustrated above, I have 5 issues or there are 6 politicians, the decision becomes so much tougher.

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Sambaran,

      Now, what shall I do? I have to prioritize whether I care more about freedom-of-expression or minority-appeasement.

      The nature of the world is that we are never given the perfect choice; we have to choose between imperfect choices. In elections too, we have to choose the best among the lot. What UVI is stressing is that the criteria (Pretty Good Principles) be used to decide which of the candidates is the best of the lot. Having collectively decided that, the members of UVI are honor bound to vote for that candidate.

  • Balamurali

    Not able to sign-up. It only allows me to select Maharashtra as state.

  • Vikram

    “I know about a few political heavy-weights, who are not corrupt. They may have strong and harmful ideologies though. Hence, in spite of being honest, they are not able to do good for their electorate. Bottomline is that being honest is necessary but not sufficient condition for better governance.”

    Very true. You only have to look at the communist parties. Usually their leaders are not corrupt.

    Or Didi of Bengal. I had an occasion to be guest at her house in Majerhat and I must say I was impressed by her simplicity. But then..

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Vikram,

      You only have to look at the communist parties. Usually their leaders are not corrupt.

      Being not corrupt is a necessary but not a sufficient qualification for holding public office and making public policy. One can be good and honest, and yet be totally incapable of managing a corner grocery store. Surely running a large complex economy like India should require skills and qualifications that go beyond just personal integrity.

  • http://rexzilla.livejournal.com Rex

    A couple of days back I met a Shiv Sena MP on a train from Pune. I asked him what he thought of the Hazare movement, and he promptly replied that as long as educated people stay away from the political process by not voting, there is no incentive for politicians to change.
    He was all for compulsory voting, and said that if the 40% of the country that is educated was to vote, they could really transform the political scene.

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Rex wrote,

      He was all for compulsory voting, and said that if the 40% of the country that is educated was to vote, they could really transform the political scene.

      I think compulsory voting is a silly idea. (Silly means empty and in this context, it means “empty of content”.) Making uninterested and uninformed people vote is not the answer to India’s problems.

  • http://rexzilla.livejournal.com Rex

    Atanu, nice to see UVI has a website now. But it only seems focused on Bombay – when signing up the only state you can select is Maharashtra and city Bombay. Anyhow, I’m promoting the site on Facebook.

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Rex,

      We are working on making UVI membership India-wide. It should be done within a day or two.

  • http://www.indianliberals.org Ashish Deodhar

    Atanu

    Good initiate. Congratulations and all the best.

    I second Sambaran Mitra and Vikram. Voting as a block is important but is only a piece of the puzzle. Honestly is not the only important factor in politics. Ideology is equally important and that is what almost all political parties lack in India (except the communists, unfortunately)

    I take heart from the success of Ron Paul in the ongoing Republican caucuses. We need a similar libertarian movement in India. UVI is a good start but it needs an ideological context. That should be a libertarian movement in my opinion.

  • Samar Haarikar

    @Atanu: Great article and analysis. I see lot of similar efforts and activities going on in parallel. For instance, Freedom Team of India. What is your take on this?

    I found similar echoes of minimum governance and libertarian ideas on this group. I feel that it will be great if all like minded groups come under the same umbrella, discuss and co-ordinate.

    Please let us know your comments. It will be useful for people like me.

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Samar,

      About “Freedom Team of India” — I am familiar with the group and its goals. I think that Sanjeev Sabhlok is a very dedicated and hardworking person and I know him personally. I support him. The point that we disagree on is this: I believe that it is not possible to create a new political party. What is possible is to change an existing political party by putting pressure on it to reform.

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  • Mallikarjuna

    Chauri Chaura,
    Very place where police station was burned in 1922 & led Gandhiji to withdraw Non-Co Operation Movement.

    How apt, Rahul Gandhi, Grand-Successor of Gandhiji canvasses at that place !!!

  • http://akshar.co.in/ Akshar

    Indian journalists are retards because of the pathetic education system that gives no important to streams other than science.

  • tp

    “The big assumption here is of course that there are sufficiently large number of Indians whose identity is that of an honest, responsible, informed and caring citizen.”

    How does the above assumption square with the recent report that 70% of milk samples were found adulterated with detergents, powder, glucose, and urea?

    Are folks involved in producing and selling milk magically more corrupt that other cadres in the country? Or are the cows hoarding the good stuff for their calves?

  • http://themmindset.wordpress.com/ The Mindset
  • Ashish

    Hello Atanu,

    Nice initiative. But I have a query, don’t you think confidentiality of voter’s identity is a serious threat here? Hope, you got the point. Political Parties will know exactly who(a person) voted against them.

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Ashish wrote:

      . . . don’t you think confidentiality of voter’s identity is a serious threat here?

      If the list of members who signed up to be part of the voting block were made public, yes, then there may be a possibility of intimidation by political parties. But the list is secure and besides, if the number of members is large, this would not be a serious threat.

  • http://www.unitedvotersofindia.com Deepesh Lakhera

    Dear Balamurali,

    We Thank you for your interest.
    The registrations are now open for all Indian citizens.

    ———
    Balamurali said:

    Not able to sign-up. It only allows me to select Maharashtra as state
    ———

    UVI Team.

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  • Mahesh Sreekandath

    Dear Atanu,

    You have the precise definition of the problem plaguing Indian democracy.

    Informed decision making is cognitively taxing while instinctive decisions based on collectivist mentality is not. It’s cognitively much simpler to approve ideas based on source instead of considering each thought on its own merit. Considering the numerous other challenges in life it’s not surprising that Individuals pick the cognitively least stressful process for decision making. In short if a person is found appealing then all his ideas are perceived in a similar light.

    Seems large consensus on complex issues manifest only via employment of baser instincts while detailed ratiocination inevitably leads to multiple perspectives and to serious dissent. So I am skeptical about consensus being formed on specifics of policy making but optimistic about such agreement being formed on abstract principles like limited government or Rule Of Law.

    I always thought that media and our cinema reflect our own sensibility, just like in any other business they deliver what people want to hear, no matter how unsubtle or brutish that might be.

    Humans are same everywhere and we rarely try to reason through our morals, but in certain parts of the world the conservative thinking preserve those traditions which have engendered prosperity in the past. Protestant or Mormon work ethics are never reasoned from first principles but they are unconditionally accepted, if only we could define whose abstract principles which absorbs Indian sensibility and evolves us in the right direction.