How can India’s political parties best embrace the country’s development?

Following this year’s World Economic Forum in India, Keval Dhokia considers the route ahead for Indian national politics. Keval is currently studying an MA in Journalism at City University.

Will India’s politics be able to break away from the Congress party? Photo by foxypar4

The World Economic Forum made its annual appearance in the north Indian boom-city of Gurgaon earlier this month, with the usual spate of commercial-types manning the invite-only event.

The conversation with the most potential was the closing plenary session which involved the former president of the Oxford Union Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who leads India’s planning commission, but rather predictably the actual level of debate was poor. The chairmen of Nestle and Infosys both used the platform for public relations, while the $400,000-a-year CEO of Save the Children International, Jasmine Whitbread, had decided to recede into quietism bordering on anonymity.

Ahluwalia eventually posited that the recent recessionary conditions in the western economies had not affected India much, and that it had always been an inward-looking economy, unlike its export-orientated eastern neighbours. But the planning commission’s own numbers show that India’s manufacturing base has slowed to less than four percent growth this year, from a peak of more than 12% in 2007. This suggests that India’s exports have faltered due to a fall in international demand.

India’s falling overall GDP growth rate (6% this year), is a sign that its place amid China as an emerging economy is far from reality, and in attempting to defend the Indian government, the bureaucrat Ahluwalia said, “It’s not a secret we have a coalition government that is highly participatory and highly fractionated (sic).” The audience laughed here.

This laughter was authentic and illustrated the true irony of the situation in which India finds itself: the voracious implementation of democracy by the electoral commission as the piece-de-resistance of Indian political emancipation has led to the very economic policy paralysis that has road-blocked development and justice in Indian society for decades. This is illustrated by the lack of both pro-poor policy enforcement and major public infrastructure renewal.

Inequalities in income are visibly huge but statistically uncharted (neither the planning commission nor the World Bank have data on the income inequalities in India), while the state of public infrastructure is dismal (witness the 600 million people without power last July). Corruption is also rife from the top-down and environmental degradation is widespread across India’s burgeoning cities. With this in mind, India’s lauded service sector growth (IT and call centres) is merely circumstantial compared to the truly meaningful change that is occurring in the country.

The Indian establishment is shifting to address the country’s institutional impotence and this intellectual phoney war is embodied in the political alternatives to the Congress Party, which has been running Indian public policy for nearly ten years. These are the Left Front alliance and the Hindu nationalists who provide the necessary centralisation and working-class legitimacy that is required for India to address its two key developmental issues.

The Left Front of regional communist cadres is the most theoretically appealing, not least because China has done immensely well with a communist government and a similarly large and diverse population. Mao’s violent egalitarian upheavals eroded regional and established political power, paving the way for an effective one-nation policymaking process with equally strong policy enforcement bite. This has meant that projects like mass-industrialisation and sustainable rural-to-urban migration have been possible under the watchful eye of a government with its roots among the rural poor.

The picture on the ground in India is clear: the communist civil war engulfing Central and Eastern India is the embodiment of this yearning for radical equality and justice. To top it off, the most developed state in India is Kerala – with a communist administration. This signals that authentic state socialism is an attractive option for improving the lives of the Indian people.

The problem here is the impracticality of implementing communism in a country with constitutional autonomy for ethno-religious sub-groups; western India has the Sikhs, the nationalist Gujaratis and the Marathis, all of whom oppose the communist model as they have the most to lose from income redistribution. This is why the Left Front has only managed to penetrate the east of India. This fundamental geographical antagonism is what keeps Indians fixated on past glories and addicted to the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi: the Congress party.

The success of India on the scale of China depends partly on whether the Indian electorate will commit to a national rather than local party, but also on whether the Hindu nationalists will complete their transition from an anti-Islamist focus to rural development, and how deeply the Left Front and the communist insurgency will penetrate into the West coast’s capitalist heartland.

Any outcome in the 2014 general election that resembles the status-quo means five more years of Congress-led coalitions and five more years of poverty, power-cuts and civil war.

 


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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