India’s Internal Clash of Civilizations

A scandal involving India’s telecom minister shows the country needs to recruit a more accountable class of politicians.

It was no strange coincidence that the day the Indian parliament convened for the first time since American president Barack Obama addressed it this month, praising India’s rise as a world power, proceedings were disrupted because of a scam charged against telecom minister A. Raja.

It is an irony that a statesman of the stature of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not afford to dismiss Raja due to petty party politics.

India is nothing if not a kaleidoscope of superficial and competing images. It is the only country in the world, for instance, to simultaneously speak of ahimsa (nonviolence) and nuclear deterrence. However, the stark is too big and cracks are widening.

First consider President Obama’s statement. He said that India has acquired a rightful place among global powers. His perspective of India is shaped by his impressions of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a soft spoken academic turned bureaucrat who finally got into politics more by circumstance than by choice.

Manmohan Singh’s clean image and integrity are beyond doubt and he represents India’s modern cosmopolitan, educated middle class. But his inability to mobilize the masses means that he does not have the political clout to dismiss a tainted minister of his cabinet from another party because of the pulls and pressures of coalition government. Singh’s ascendance as prime minister stems from a dual development of bureaucratization in governance and the corporatization of the nation. He represents a generation of leadership that is no longer trapped in the ideological dichotomies of the Cold War; one that has embraced free-market economics in conjunction with welfare policies.

Since India adopted market based policies in the 1990s, it has needed ministers who are knowledgeable and educated. People as Yashwant Sinha, former finance minister and now the leader of the opposition; Jaswant Singh, former minister of external relations; Shashi Tharoor, the current foreign minister; Jairam Ramesh, former commerce minister and now responsible for India’s climate policy; and former prime minister Narasimha Rao all belong (or belonged) to this category. These are not people whom we can term as professional politicians but became ministers because of their closeness to government leaders and their razor sharp intellect. Just as any professional bureaucrat who would have toiled for thirty years and contributed to India’s growth quite unsung, these politicians had done yeoman service to the country.

On the other hand, if politicians themselves are succumbed to superior political power, then one can understand the fate of reputed bureaucrats in India.

Now the problems is this. If highly respected individuals in power can’t make decisions based on merit, it is a symbol of India’s contradictions. One can’t help but draw the analogy of an engineering college in any of the southern states in India. The chairman of an engineering college might not even have passed a matriculation but could have amassed wealth because of his political connections and his ability to earn money through “fixing things.” To run a school he needs to find a principal and a chief executive who would have earned their degrees in prestigious colleges abroad. The chairman will conduct a “public diplomacy” to run the college. This stark inequality is increasingly visible in modern India. This is nothing short of a “clash of civilizations” between India and Bhārata — between a country that is liberalizing and becoming modern and one that is steeped in an agriculture based feudal mindset. India today is going through a tough transition phase.

This clash of civilizations is evident in politics where it becomes even more complex and multifaceted. As in the United States, power is divided between an executive, a legislature and a judiciary in India. The executive and judicial branches are supposed to be nonpartisan whereas the parliament represents the people. Government ministers are usually also members of parliament. As an increasing number of politicians faces criminal charges, it will be difficult for seasoned bureaucrats to work for them.

The problem in fact started with India’s constitution. At the time India’s political system was devised, national leaders were highly educated and enjoyed mass following in opposition to British colonial rule. They believed that the legislature should be the more powerful of branches of government, expecting future politicians to have the intellect and authority to control the executive. But without the glue of nationalism, India’s growing middle class gradually withdrew from politics, started to look inward and left a vacuum for less impressive people to grab power for a living. In the bureaucracy meanwhile changes have been less and less pronounced, producing a discrepancy between politicians and administrators that is clear today.

There are two ways for this trend to reverse course. The first would involve the expansion of the executive bureaucracy and require an amendment to the Constitution. India’s constitution can be amended and updated but it’s a arduous process.

Second, India needs its growing middle class to start thinking seriously about joining politics as a profession. Instead of confining their political opinions to dinner table conversations, young professionals should aspire to political careers.

In the book False Economy released last year, Financial Times editor Alan Beattie offered an analogy that is worth considering. Comparing the histories of Argentina and the United States a century ago, when Argentina appeared well underway to becoming an economic powerhouse, Beattie points out the American system managed to get the right people in the right offices whereas in Argentina, power was centralized, leaving its government unable to cope with financial disaster when it finally hit. The eventful twentieth century largely saw the potential and failure of Argentina largely forgotten but India should remember it today. It needs more men like Manmohan Singh and less politicians of the caliber of A. Raja if is to succeed at becoming a global power.