Click here for other writings of Indian liberals

Performance vs ideology

By GURCHARAN DAS in TIMES NEWS NETWORK [ SUNDAY, JANUARY 12, 2003]

Two Sundays ago, reluctantly, I concluded that after the Gujarat elections we have no alternative but to start a political movement to focus single-mindedly on governance, reforms and performance. Reluctantly, I say, because the last thing we need in India is a new political party. The psephologist, Dorab Sopariwala, tells us that 177 parties contested the last parliamentary election and 94 parties got a combined vote of less than 0.005 per cent; 139 parties did not win a single seat, and 12 parties got one seat. Hence, I was careful in saying that we should start a movement and when it acquired sufficient mass it could become a political party.

In the nineties we finally achieved a two party system and hoped that it would bring stability and choice. We also hoped that liberal reformers might infiltrate the two main parties and ‘subvert’ them from within and push the reforms. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and reforms have been painfully slow. Today, we distrust the Congress because of its statist tendencies and its anti-reforms rhetoric; the BJP’s cultural agenda makes it even less attractive to free-thinking Indians. Above all, it is the inability of both parties to deliver good governance that makes us despair. Amartya Sen has been after me to start a right wing secular party, a sort of modern day Swatantra Party, which would presumably wean away some of the middle class from the BJP. He has consistently advocated strengthening secular forces, and his project acquires urgency now after Narendra Modi’s win. But there are other good reasons for having a classical liberal party: Our middle class is growing rapidly and none of the existing parties addresses its needs; the timing is also right as the nation’s centre of gravity has shifted to the right in the nineties.

I must confess that I used to believe that the BJP might one day occupy such a space, and voters would eventually nudge it towards the moderate mainstream. Vajpayee has the same hope for he understands that rightist parties can only survive if they marginalise extremists at the fringe. Hence, he has tried to make his party rethink its identity and urged it to distance itself from fanatics. Indian intellectuals, unfortunately, have not helped Vajpayee and continue to dismiss the BJP as untouchable. They have been unwilling to begin a dialogue. In such a dialogue, I would say this: ‘‘You are right, national pride can lead to competitive advantage. But pride does not come from bashing Muslims or Christians; it comes from performance, which in turn comes from a single-minded devotion to reforms, and improving our education and health institutions.’’

Sadly, now after its thumping victory in Gujarat , hopes of a moderate BJP have been almost extinguished. As I have thought between the two alternatives — a right secular party versus a movement for governance I find many similarities between the two projects. Both will vociferously advocate reforms, both will push government towards performance and accountability, and both will want religion out of the public space. The difference is that the former is based on ideology and the latter cares only for performance. What divides the right and the left today is not capitalism and socialism but the size of the government. The right wants a smaller government than the left. Having suffered so much at the hands of corrupt bureaucrats, many Indians will favour a small government, I expect. But they would also want the state to invest vigorously in education and health. But wouldn’t this mean a big government? Not necessarily, for the state doesn’t have to run schools and hospitals. In the end, I believe, given a choice a good governance movement will find greater resonance with the people than a new ideological party because what people want is for politics to satisfy their day-to-day needs above all else, and only one-pointed, pragmatic implementation will achieve this.

gurcharan.das@indiatimes.com; post box 3046 , New Delhi110003