India: (Almost) Wild Political Speculation

By Ibn-e Eusuf

A month before the elections in Delhi, Congress, by its own admission, did not even have AAP on its radar, which suggests that the former must still be in a deep sense of shock. So must the other political parties since all had been equally blindsided. Which raises the interesting question: What is going to happen between now and the coming national elections? How are the various parties likely to adjust and adapt to the shock results in Delhi?

The thing to do for an analyst in such a situation is to travel around the country, talk to people, get a sense of the sentiments, and piece the findings together in some kind of a convincing narrative. That door is closed to us Pakistanis who nonetheless wish to figure out what may be in the works in India. And why not – India after all is our big neighbor and despite the fact that some Indians would like us to mind our own business we are not willing to concede our right to stay interested. We don’t need anyone’s permission for our curiosity, more so because we are quite obviously affected by developments across a border that is such an aggravation in our lives.

So all the Pakistani analyst can do is to speculate and, if one were speculating, why not speculate wildly. There are many downsides to not being paid for what one writes and not being read by many either, but by virtue of the same there is the advantage of being unconstrained by any concerns of compensations or critiques. I am going, therefore, to exercise my license to speculate as much as I wish.

That said, those who have studied system theory know that if you have a good algorithm you can pretty much start it far from the real solution and it would converge to the latter in a few iterations at most. The same is the case with a wild speculation provided you have a good conversation – a few rounds and one should be close to a sense of the real possibilities of what might actually transpire.

A wild speculation then is not entirely an outlandish exercise. If our Indian friends would indulge our fancy we might actually learn something in sifting the fanciful from the not so fanciful in our exploration of the Indian electoral panorama that is just beginning to unfold. What gives added confidence is that we don’t have any nuts on this blog who find all ‘others’ moronic and malevolent wasting space thereby in signaling their own lack of any grace or grooming.

Let us start then with the much beleaguered Congress. Without any real strategist in its fold it is bound to muddle around, and without the courage to imagine itself independent of the family it is likely to remain confined to limited alternatives. What might these limited alternatives be?

I see two out-of-the box choices. It can either see the writing on the wall and decide to take its losses by conceding the coming round, in which case it could decide not risk the reputation of the heir presumptive and let Congress be led into battle by a no-name that can be sacrificed at the altar of the electoral exercise. Or, it could let everything ride on one big roll of the dice and draft in Priyanka to lead the troops into the fray. Priyanka, of course, may not be interested but then neither was Rajiv when duty called and he was pressed into service. As to why the electorate might be more impressed with Priyanka than with Rahul, we rely on the judgment (on which more later) of Justice Katju for that.

As it is, it is more than likely that Congress would limp into the contest with no declared flag-bearer and end up losing anyway without a fight or a strategy for the future. So much one might surmise from the history and traditions of the party.

What then of the other major party, the BJP? It doesn’t really seem the BJP knows what to do with the AAP phenomenon and looks likely to press ahead the way it intended to before Delhi. Quite asides from that, the one thing that surprises observers in Pakistan is how a local don has been projected as a national leader on the basis of no real achievements – all objective studies continue to highlight the fact that there has been no exceptional performance in Gujarat under Modi relative to other states in India. And yet, the educated middle class and the business groups have been made to swallow the hype of the great transformer. This is where the Justice Katju verdict seems on the mark – the populace that would buy into the magic of Modi could just as well buy into the promise of Priyanka.

Looking objectively at Modi, it seems quite likely that he would overstep and stumble somewhere in the run-up to election time. Already he has said some pretty dumb things and one cannot put beyond him saying some others that might hurt more and cause him to self-destruct. That, at the very least, might seem the best hope for Congress – and for India, one might venture to say.

The Modi phenomenon does confirm the evidence that the failure of democracy to deliver sooner or later leads to more authoritarian alternatives – padrones who brook no nonsense and make the trains run on time. Well, good luck to India if it votes in the BJP – at last India would have a chief of the same intellectual caliber as most of Pakistan’s, folks one would worry handing over the neighborhood grocery store to.

The Aam Admi Party is of course the joker in the pack. Will it be an urban fad like Imran Khan’s PTI or will it tap into something deep and revolutionize Indian democracy forever? I, for one, don’t see the latter eventuality coming to pass – the structural roots of India’s rural politics run deep – but then neither did I see the outcome in Delhi. Let us for the moment assume that it does – then what? It seems to me it has the frustration with the status quo and the energy of protest furling its sails but I don’t really decipher any real vision to reform the system. All I can sense is the engineering solution to social phenomena – punish people sufficiently and they would shape up, and for the life of me I don’t see that delivering in the long run. It might boil over into an even bigger disillusionment with electoral politics and with democracy – as it is, Kejriwal entered politics quite reluctantly and he might not waste any time reverting back to more direct and more populist measures.

That leaves the increasingly important regional parties, led by a motley group of ladies, of which in Pakistan we know even less than we know of the others. Given the greater than usual uncertainty exacerbated by the emergence of the AAP, it seems reasonable to assume that they would refrain from any pre-election alliances. The safe gambit would be to wait for the verdict and then hitch themselves to whoever appears to have the best chance of getting into the driver’s seat.

That, believe it or not, is what the Indian election contest looks like from a blinkered Pakistani perspective. Most likely it is all amiss, but do take the trouble to educate us to what you think is the more sensible scenario. It would be interesting to revisit the analyses in a few months – ‘when the hurly-burly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won.’

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Update – January 17, 2014: Another strike for Ibn-e Eusuf? Rahul out.

Update – January 8, 2014: Looks like Ibn-e Eusuf scored a scoop! Priyanka in.

  • sanpatel90
    Posted at 07:04h, 28 December Reply

    As mentioned by the author:
    “All I can sense is the engineering solution to social phenomena – punish people sufficiently and they would shape up, and for the life of me I don’t see that delivering in the long run”

    Then what are the solution to improve democracy that will work in the long run ? We can’t just talk theoretically here about removing caste, religious difference, bringing education etc.

    Why the lokpal ( ombudsman ) and decentralization ( mohalla sabha ) solution won’t work ?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:57h, 29 December

      Sanpatel: No, the alternative is not to remove caste or religious difference or bringing education. The point is whether you can change the situation through moral exhortations to behave better and threats of greater punishments. I am relatively pessimistic regarding that route. Look at Pakistan – thousands of mosques put out sermons on how to behave every Friday and inform people about the fires of hell to no avail. A more practical route is to think about the electoral rules that can be changed to alter the behavioral incentives of candidates and voters. In South Asia we have not thought enough about the potential of electoral reform. There is whole series of posts of this subject on this blog. One of them is the following that can illustrate the argument:

      If the Lokpal is one more watchdog in an unchanged system it is unlikely to be effective. The field agents of the organization who would implement it on the ground would be open to the same kinds of side deals as the agents of the income tax department that Kejriwal left in disgust and frustration. Also, it is not clear to me why the mohalla sabhas would be any more effective than the gram panchayats that have been in existence for decades. Decentralization is good but once again the rules and their implementation matter more for the results than the theory. And implementation is very weak in South Asia. Recall that Lant Pritchett called India the ‘flailing state’ because it can not implement all the wonderful ideas that its intellectuals can think of.

    • sanpatel90
      Posted at 10:56h, 30 December

      I agree with you on the non-implementation part. It is easy to remove politicians through vote but public cannot remove the government officials. Why South asia is failing to implement the good ideas ? Is this because of permanent nature of government jobs ? or Is it due to no incentive for doing good work in the govt job ?

      How can efficient of govt machinery be increased ? Can we increase it with non-permanent jobs ? or by fixing some portion of salary as incentive for good work ?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:14h, 31 December

      Sanpatel: These are very difficult questions that people have grappled with for a long time. I believe it might be essential to make sure that the right people get into the jobs in the first place. I realize people would say that is impossible but for centuries China had an extremely meritorious mechanism for selecting public servants. I really like Kaushik Basu’s work on norms – how they get established and their impact on human behavior. I think our theoretical work has not paid enough attention to this dimension of social life.

      I don’t think we can rely overly on performance-based salaries. That just create perverse incentives to reclassify work as good. People who are old enough would recall what happened in Indira Gandhi’s time when family planning agents were paid on the basis of the number of IUDs they inserted.

      Beyond selection, there are the mechanisms of accountability that are a factor of public disclosure of data and information and of transparency of procedures. These are things people have to fight for like the Right to Information Act. All such small victories accumulate in better governance. For one example, see the following:

      Lant Pritchett also has some suggestions at the end of his article if I remember right. Amartya Sen has a perspective in his book on justice though in my view there is something missing in the argument:

      Beyond that

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 11:36h, 31 December

      SA: Merit hardly matters in most of the government jobs where most employees fill up forms and registers, copy stuff from one file to other therefore all (whether selected on merit or otherwise) are sufficiently skilled to do that job. Intent to punish can be a factor in goading officials to work efficiently and speedily. In emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi government employees began to come to office in time, public sector banks began to care for customers which wasn’t the norm earlier. Two years earlier when Anna Hazare was on hunger strike in Delhi, I read reports of truck drivers getting past the check posts ( which were perennial source of delays and corruption) without hitch by shouting ‘Anna Hazare zindabad’.

      The point is if Ministers and PM pass through government offices to attend parliament at 11.30 AM and see hundreds of government employees soaking in winter sun near the open expanse of boat club and do nothing then obviously it will be free for all.

      But yes pressure form top can yield only limited influence, after a while it begins to yield diminishing return.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:10h, 31 December

      Anil: Appointments that are not based on merit have a huge second-order effect that is very negative. When people learn that merit does not count, it takes away the incentive to invest in human capital or to work hard. Instead people invest in networks and strengthen their links with their identity groups – the entire system succumbs to the backdoor way of doing things. It may be true that great skill may not be required in doing the jobs as they are presently done but competent people could certainly think of ways of doing them better. And ministers too need to be selected on merit if they have to select their assistants on merit – otherwise they would only select loyalists who would not challenge their incompetence or dishonesty.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 04:23h, 30 December Reply

    Anybody promising freebies in election manifesto can’t be serious. This group is mostly a collection of ex-journalists and I seriously doubt they can be practical and offer a pragmatic economic policy. But bizarre things happen. (like exodus from other parties can be a factor in their growth)

    In any case they have changed rules of the game for other parties, like it will be difficult for them to patronize known criminals and brazenly corrupt persons.

    The support of common folks for AAP seems genuine but honesty alone is no substitute for efficient and pragmatic policies.

  • Sakuntala Narasimhan
    Posted at 07:26h, 01 January Reply

    No, this is not a “blinkered perspective” at all — many of us in India are saying the same thing and wondering along similar lines. The rise of the AAP is uniformly welcomed, but whether they can succeed, given the rigid bureaucratic monolith, is debatable — it is not just the political parties, but the entrenched corruption among the administrative cadres, that is equally worrisome. How Kejriwal will tackle this, is not clear. If the bureaucracy decides to stonewall the AAP, it can negate AAP’s victory.
    We will wait and see. But AAP is definitely spreading its message and popularity outside Delhi. The Congress will try its best to topple AAP in Delhi, but will lose credibility further, in the process too. As for Priyanka, it doesnt look like she will be roped in (as of now) partly because her husband too is under a cloud about shady land deals. Even if she is roped in, it is not clear if the Congress’s damaged reputation will help her win… this is the view from India…

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:28h, 01 January

      Sakuntala: Let’s hope AAP makes a dent in the system even if it doesn’t accomplish all it has set out to – the evolution of democracy is a very slow process. On Priyanka, you are right – the author was clearly forgetful about the predicament of the husband which in the given environment is a show-stopper.

  • ramblinginthecity
    Posted at 07:43h, 02 January Reply

    This was an enjoyable read. Believe me, being an Indian I have no great insights either. Equally lost and equally curious! Loved your writing and the humor, the analysis seems on the ball too. Only one thing, the AAP (and I’m still on the fence!) seems to have a strategy in place that reaches into the hinterland in some Indian States. Given many rural areas have rather urban characteristics, we could underestimate their influence. Of course, I am an idealist with a touching faith in democracy an that’s what I would like to believe- that it is possible for electoral politics to turn out pleasant surprises every now and then.

  • ramblinginthecity
    Posted at 07:44h, 02 January Reply

    Reblogged this on ramblinginthecity and commented:
    Really enjoyed this piece of tongue-in-cheek analysis from across the border. Yes, no one can take away the right to curiosity and thank goodness for that!

  • Satjit
    Posted at 11:23h, 02 January Reply

    I found it interesting from a Pakistani point of view. If the Indians who read this, can do so without the fact that it is written by a Pakistani bothering them (Some people are remarkably thin skinned), they will find that Ibn-e Eusuf has articulated the Indian political situation and its inherent dilemmas, extremely well. Like him, I fear the rule of Modi. He is divisive and dictatorial. I also agree that whilst Modi has brought some high profile investment, he has failed miserably on the development indicators. I would also like to know how the fruits of his economic ‘boom’ have been spread across areas with significant Muslim populations in Gujarat.

    On the other hand, it is also true that the Congress has run out of steam and needs refreshing and renewal and would benefit from a period in opposition. I believe that it desperately needs to cut the umbilical chord to the ‘Family’. There are many in the Congress who could do the job but lack any mass support; Chidambaram, Scindia, Pilot, Shashi Tharoor and Salman Khurshid come to mind, although I fear that Khurshid being a Muslim, would never be ‘allowed’ to make it. However, I do not believe that the Family will loosen its grip any time soon.

    As someone of Indian origin (and who proudly claims his Gujranwala and Sargodha heritage), I am fearful for the country. When I was growing up, middle-class India was fiercely secular; increasingly I find it assertively, though not aggressively, Hindu. In particular, the Hindutva (as opposed to Hindu – distinction is important) guns are aimed at Muslims and Christians. On a personal level, I find it distasteful, nay abhorrent, to belong to such a set up. My proudest moment was in 2004 when a Sikh Prime Minister was sworn in by a Muslim President at the behest of a someone with Italian Catholic origins, in a country 80% Hindu. Since then attitudes have hardened and has made India a less attractive place. Living in the UK for the past 30 years, a country with an established Church, I have encountered only secularism, to the extent that it is hard not feel sorry for mainstream Anglicans being undermined in the own land.

    As for the AAP, who have taken over in Delhi today. Like Ibn-e Eusuf, I feel that this phenomenon will be short-lived; I do not doubt the sincerity of intentions, I fear the consequences, when, they cannot deliver within an entrenched and corrupt system. Further, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, comes to mind! Across the world, well movements led by well-meaning leaders have perished at the seductive altar of power. I sincerely hope that I am proven wrong but I do not expect to be.

    Finally, it says it all about Indian politics, that the regional parties are all avoiding pre-poll alliances and are up for sale to whoever is likely to form the government. This phenomenon of national governments being held to ransom by partners from regional parties has been a major contributory factor to the mess of the past several years. What India needs is a strong and stable government – alas it does not seem in prospect any time soon.

    However, I do not blame only the politicians and civil servants for India’s ills. After all these people are not from Mars – they belong to the wider society of 1.2 billion Indians. Until Indians change, they will continue to get and deserve such leaders.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 16:24h, 07 January Reply

    There is an SMS joke going around India these days.

    In Delhi, A Mercedes smashed into a scooter.

    Mercedes Guy : Salle jaanta hai mera baap DSP hai .. !!

    Scooter wala : Bhai mein Delhi ka naya Chief Minister hoon.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 22:39h, 07 January Reply

    OK folks – It looks like Ibn-e Eusuf was on to something:

    Congress brings in Priyanka by SMITA GUPTA

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 02:00h, 10 January Reply

    AAP appears to have acquired critical mass. The movement is snowballing into a potent force therefore ace professionals who were fence sitters but put off by impregnable coteries surrounding bosses of political parties now see hope of not only getting ticket to contest Lok Sabha elections but fancy winning it……..

    I am glad this is happening even if AAP cannot deliver it sure has altered the way political parties viewed voters, no more cattle they are ….

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:10h, 17 January Reply

    It looks like Ibn-e Eusuf is reading the tea leaves right.

    Congress seems to have conceded and decided to shield Rahul:

    “The Congress Working Committee (CWC) decided on Thursday that Rahul Gandhi would lead the party in the coming general election after party president Sonia Gandhi rejected suggestions by five members that he be named the prime ministerial candidate.”

    The strategic thinking could be characterized as follows:

    1. It will be a bad outcome – So, protect Rahul.
    2. Congress needs to do as well as possible while still losing: So, leverage Priyanka.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 07:49h, 23 January Reply

    Significance of AAP is that it should not win in the coming general election but they should not also lose. Their utility is in setting standards for behavior for other political parties not in running the government. Ambush style working can’t take them far…. Besides their economic policy is disastrous.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:57h, 23 January

      Anil: You are right except that once AAP is no longer a movement outside the system, it has become a political party. Had it remained the former, it could have had all the good influences without the downsides you mention. But as a party its objective would be to win and for that it will make compromises. If it doesn’t win much, the system would just ignore it. It is a dilemma. I think Professor Harbans Mukhia has made some good points in his recent op-ed:

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