India's Gandhi God-Kings

Discussion in 'Politics & Society' started by ajtr, Jul 21, 2010.

  1. ajtr

    ajtr Veteran Member Veteran Member

    Oct 2, 2009
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    India's Gandhi God-Kings

    To make sense of the latest storm in the tea cup of Indian politics, you need to wrap your mind around a curious epithet: intellectual arrogance. That, says Digvijay Singh, a senior leader of the ruling Congress Party, is the problem with Home Minister P. Chidambaram, the man tasked with perhaps the toughest job in Indian public life—keeping its 1.1 billion citizens safe.

    Mr. Singh's broadside against his party colleague, launched in an op-ed in April and repeated Saturday in a television interview, comes against the backdrop of a deepening insurgency by Maoist rebels in eastern and central India that has claimed nearly 800 lives this year. By suggesting that Mr. Chidambaram pays too much attention to security, and not enough to public welfare, Mr. Singh has triggered a flurry of speculation about government policy on what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (no relation) has called the country's "most serious security problem."Has the home minister lost the confidence of his party's leadership? Will the current law-and-order-led approach to the insurgency be replaced by a "hearts and minds" alternative? Should the government view Maoists primarily as rabid ideologues and brutal killers, or as gentle tribals forced to take up arms to defend their way of life?

    Officially, and incredibly, the Congress Party denies a rift between Digvijay Singh and Mr. Chidambaram. And indeed no rational person, least of all the home minister, denies that a successful anti-Maoist strategy will wield the carrot of development as much as the stick of law enforcement.

    Nonetheless, the incident reveals a strange contradiction at the heart of Indian democracy. Though the country holds regular elections and boasts a free press, deciphering its politics can require the skills of a Soviet-era Kremlinologist. The Indian equivalent of interpreting the seating arrangement at a Soviet May Day parade: figuring out a politician's closeness to Congress President Sonia Gandhi or her son, General-Secretary Rahul Gandhi.

    Exhibit A in this drama is Mr. Singh, a party general secretary and a former chief minister of the Hindi-heartland state of Madhya Pradesh. One day he chides the home minister on television and faults the government's anti-Maoist strategy. The next day he publicly second guesses the government account of a controversial 2008 police encounter with Islamist terrorists in Delhi.

    Instead of suspending Mr. Singh, or stripping him of responsibilities, the party treats his outbursts as business as usual. The result is rampant speculation that the Gandhis have given Mr. Singh their tacit approval.

    If Congress were more like its counterparts in mature parliamentary democracies—say Britain or Australia—it would not tolerate this public confusion over vital matters of national security. But unlike the Conservatives and Labour in Britain, or for that matter the Republicans and Democrats in America, Congress is defined less by adherence to a coherent ideology than by fealty to a single family.

    The party may reject the Hindu-first philosophy of the BJP and the narrow linguistic and caste-based agendas of smaller parties, but beyond that it's utterly amorphous, a motley crew of economically savvy technocrats, clapped-out socialists, family retainers and regional satraps. In this hothouse of intrigue and sycophancy, careers can hinge on the ability to change tack according to which way the Gandhis' views are seen to be blowing.

    Meanwhile, with their handpicked prime minister and his cabinet taking care of day-to-day governance, the Gandhis themselves tend to float above the fray in the manner of medieval god-kings, promoting a government program here or an idealistic piece of legislation there. Rahul Gandhi is associated with a program that guarantees the rural poor 100 days of paid work every year. His mother has championed, among other things, quotas for women in parliament and subsidized food for the poor.

    Beyond this apparent sense of noblesse oblige toward the toiling masses, the Gandhis are probably the most opaque major politicians in the democratic world. They rarely speak to the media, and when they do it's not to critics. Their views on the pace of economic liberalization, the nature of the Maoist threat, or the roots of Islamist terrorism must be gleaned from a scrap of information here or a stray rumor there, say a book on counterinsurgency recommended by Mr. Gandhi to the prime minister, or his mother's packing an influential advisory council with assorted tax-and-spend do-gooders.

    Most Indians haven't the faintest idea about whether the Gandhis see the rise of China as more of a threat or an opportunity. Or whether they think American influence in Asia is in India's interest or not. Or if, for them, the trouble with India's economy is too much capitalism or too little reform.

    For the family, this opacity clearly has benefits. It keeps them above the fray of petty politics. It allows them to exercise power without responsibility. It gives them the flexibility to change political course on a dime.

    But smart politics doesn't always generate good policy. Fostering a culture of opacity and public second-guessing about sensitive policy matters is no way to lead a major economy and an aspirant for great power status.

    Mr. Dhume, a columnist for, is writing a book on the new Indian middle class.

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