Thursday, 29 May 2014

Modi’s government may be small; the state continues to be big

Narendra Modi’s 45-ministry government has attracted a lot of attention. It is also being hailed as the first step in what could be his signature style of governance – minimum government, maximum governance.
Sorry, but it isn’t.
Modi’s government is certainly a lean government, but it isn’t a minimum government. Let’s not confuse the two concepts. A lean government is about size and numbers. A minimal government is about a philosophy, a certain view of the role of the state.
A minimal state, as defined in the classical liberalism lexicon, is about the state confining itself to just a few areas. There is consensus on two – defence of external boundaries and enforcing law and order as well as upholding the rule of law. There are departures from this point on details. Some liberal streams include the provision of public goods as a responsibility of the state and there are differences on the definition of public goods as well. But the broad point is this: the state should not get into too many areas and most definitely not in areas where people are able to manage their own affairs through their own individual enterprise.  
India is not familiar with the idea of a minimal government. Before 1947, it was used to a colonial-feudal set up and post 1947 that got converted into a mai-baap sarkar. The state kept assuming more and more responsibilities till it was present in practically every aspect of the lives of individual and enterprises, riding roughshod over personal and economic freedoms. And yet the size of the government remained relatively small. Indira Gandhi, remember, ran lean governments. The unwieldy size of ministries is a post-seventies phenomenon. Remember also that gargantuan cabinets continued even after 1991 even as the command-and-control economy structure got steadily dismantled. 
It was only the Swatantra Party that came close to articulating the idea of a minimal state. The second of the 21 principles of the party stated: `. . . The party stands for the principle of maximum freedom for the individual and minimum interference by the state consistent with the obligation to prevent and punish anti-social activities, to protect the weaker elements of society and to create the conditions in which individual initiative will thrive and be fruitful. . .’ It is unfortunate that the party did not get much traction.
Modi’s government doesn’t quite pass this test.
It will if his government decides that the state should not be running hotels, airlines and providing telecom services and gets rid of the public sector in these areas. Instead, Modi talks about strengthening public sector undertakings. It is not clear if the government will pursue an aggressive disinvestment agenda.
It will pass with flying colours if the information and broadcasting ministry, steel ministry, culture ministry and the Planning Commission were disbanded. These are clearly, clearly relics of the socialist era. There are a host of other ministries that could make it to the axing list, but changing their role instead into a more of facilitating/regulatory role can be a subject of debate. Closing down these four is a complete no-brainer; no debate is needed.
There are some who argue that since the increase in the role of the state led to the unwieldy size of the government, limiting the size of the government will automatically result in a reduced role for the state, since administration will be a challenge otherwise. This argument is flawed. One, as already noted, Indira Gandhi ran a tight ship but one which was omnipresent and omniscient. Two, reducing the number of ministries and departments will not lead to shedding of work. On the other hand, technology can make it easier for the state to have its tentacles everywhere – far, far more easier than in the seventies.
Though Modi’s minimum government maximum governance idea does talk about the government moving from an interventionist to a facilitating role, the focus is more about using technology to speed up processes, clearances and permissions and make them transparent. It does not question the need for the myriad procedures that any interface with the government involves. It does not question the number of points of interface with the government. It is about making the government efficient in its current role, not about questioning its role.
Maybe that will come. Maybe Modi will realise that the problem with governance in India is that the state/government has taken on far more responsibilities beyond what should be its core responsibility of defence, law and order, upholding the rule of law and provision of public goods. Maybe he will realise the need for the state to focus on just these and do its job well.
Modi must be persuaded into making the 45-ministry government the first step of an ideological leap of faith. A small government must also mean a small, but effective, state.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

A call to arms: Time to get the classical liberal agenda going

What does the stupendous victory of the Narendra Modi-led BJP in the recent elections mean for India’s liberals - the genuine liberals, not the left-of-centre variety?
But first, let’s get definitions out of the way. The word `liberal’ has been appropriated by far too many pretenders and it’s time for the real liberals to reclaim the tag. The genuine liberals are those who believe in the supremacy of the individual, a small but strong state and no overbearing state intervention in the economy. Not for this section a paternalistic state, one that encourages a dependency syndrome in the garb of empowering people. Not for this section any compromise with personal, intellectual, cultural and economic freedoms. And with the rule of law.
This section was starved of a political voice after the Swatantra Party disappeared from the scene in the mid-1970s, though it has been making itself heard, especially after 1991, through other forums. It cheered the initiation of the economic liberalisation process but despaired at the continued overhang of the socialist era, in the form of the paternalistic-cum-nanny state. Contrary to the lampooning of it by the leftist brigade as `neo-liberals’ pushing the agenda of big business, this section has been warning against the economic reforms process being more pro-business than pro-market and pressing for a correction of this skew.
This group (barring a section that is firmly with the Congress) has, undoubtedly, aligned itself with Modi, decisively rejecting the fear-mongering by the leftists and the Congress. His articulation of the minimum-government-maximum-governance idea, spot-on linking of corruption with lack of transparency in governance and promise to address that, disinclination for sop-driven welfare-ism, clear focus on infrastructure and an enabling business environment has resonated with them. Other post-1991 governments had opened up the economy, but no Prime Minister (not even Atal Behari Vajpayee) had articulated a cogent view of the role of the state the way Modi has.
The liberals have quibbles with Modi’s silence on privatisation and his opposition to foreign multi-brand retailers, but see these as minor details that don’t detract from the fact of a directional shift in economic policy and the role of the state.
This, the liberals seemed to have realised, is the closest they could get to the old Swatantra model. For them the decisive mandate that Modi has got is an affirmation of their belief fact that people – even if they don’t understand ideological labels – are instinctively against dole-centric policies (it isn’t as clear as that but let’s leave that for now).
This group will obviously want Modi to deliver on completely dismantling the socialist edifice that had been built up in the pre-1991 era. They know it can’t be done overnight – the stroke-of-pen reforms got over in the early 1990s. It will be a long-drawn out process, with roadblocks aplenty and even some rollbacks. But they will give him time so long as his focus is clear and he reins in the swadeshi economics brigade in the BJP and the sangh parivar which gave the Vajpayee government a hard time. Some leading lights of this group could get closely involved with a Modi government. 
But there are concerns.
One, what if Modi’s promise of a new economic paradigm isn’t what it seems? What if, as Vivek Dehejia asks in this article, `Modi’s instincts are certainly pro-business, but are they pro-free market’? Wouldn’t this run the same risk of encouraging the kind of cronyism that became rampant in the past decade? Two, will he decisively junk the dole-centric welfare model, which the BJP is not entirely averse to (after all it merrily went around supporting the rights-based entitlement legislations)?
Three, and this is a larger concern, what about the role of the RSS in the personal, cultural and intellectual space? The fact that Modi will not allow the RSS to dictate the economic agenda is clear; that he will do so in other areas as well is not. He hasn’t revealed his mind on the issue of non-economic freedoms, the upholding of which is just as important to the liberals as the ensuring of economic freedoms. He has, till now, remained silent on this. There has been no reaction to the Supreme Court order on Section 377. He has also never come out and expressly condemned attacks on intellectual and cultural freedoms as well as provocative statements against Muslims by the rabid right-wingers.
Also, though they don’t buy the mass-murderer imagery that the so-called `secularists’ propagate, they are critical of Modi’s failure to check the 2002 riots. Upholding the rule of law and protecting life and property is an essential part of the classical liberal agenda.
So there is a dilemma.
Should the liberals remain silent on the social issues, and concentrate their energies on getting the economic agenda going, ensuring particularly that this agenda is a pro-market one and not a pro-big business or worse pro-business house one? After all, the entire left-of-centre brigade will be extra-vigilant on the non-economic freedoms, looking for the first chance to trip Modi up. Should the liberals focus on redefining the role of the state in a way that it doesn’t get into the personal and intellectual space and on strengthening institutions so that they can never become compromised regardless of the regime in power? But what if the doomsday predictions of the `secularists’ come true and gangs of sanghis go around attacking minorities,  young couple indulging in PDA and getting books and art shows banned? Should they remain silent spectators because the economic issues are getting addressed?
Would criticising Modi strengthen both the fringe elements in the sangh parivar, who want to push their exclusivist and conservative social agenda, as well as the leftists/Congress supporters, who are just waiting for any opportunity to discredit and pull down India’s first avowedly right-of-centre government?
These are questions the liberals have to wrestle with in the coming days.
The problem they will face is that if they criticise the government, they will be at the receiving end of the ire of the online and offline Modi fanatics as well as the we-told-you-so jeers of leftists and Congress supporters. If they remain silent, the latter will label them fascist sympathisers waiting for suitable rewards. 
But is this twin attack new to them? Haven’t the liberals always been criticised and labelled by extremists on both sides, as well as Congress sympathisers masquerading as neutral intellectuals? Should the fear of such name-calling come in the way of making the most of the first opportunity they have got to expand the genuinely liberal space in India?
Certainly not.
The Swatantra had limited success because the intellectual climate in the sixties and seventies was overwhelmingly leftist. That is no longer the case.
So why can’t the liberals work with the Modi government, flooding it with new ideas and creating an environment for greater receptivity to economic reforms, something that has been sorely missing till now? At the same time, any attempts to subvert institutions, impose an artificial intellectual consensus or a conservative social agenda and snuff out dissenting voices (including left-of-centre voices) should also be opposed. The two approaches need not be contradictory.
History will not forgive India’s real liberals if they pass up this opportunity.