On Identity Politics, Personality Cults, and Democracy in India

Who you are determines what you do. That’s not the most incisive of observations but one’s identity is inextricably mixed up with what motivates one. Consequently identity does have predictive and explanatory power regarding the behavior of people. Naturally political parties – who must understand crowd psychology to be successful – understand that. Particularly in India, identity based politics has been refined to an impossible degree.

Want to appeal to Paswans (a specific subcaste in UP)? Then give a ticket to that guy named Paswan. Here’s an example from an Economic Times report

on Rahul Gandhi’s first meeting in Chauri Chaura. Madhav Paswan is a sitting Congress MLA:
During his speech, Paswan narrated how he had convinced Gandhi to give him party ticket. “I told him 50,000 people in Chauri Chaura are Paswans. Even if half the votes are polled for me, that’s 25,000 votes. He said the ticket is yours.”

(As an aside, someone pointed out that the title of the piece is at variance with the text of the url for the first part of the piece. The URL reads in part “overwhelming-crowd-seen-at-rahul-gandhis-first-meeting-in-chauri-chaura”, while the title reads “Organisers embarassed at tepid response to Rahul Gandhi’s first meeting in Chauri Chaura”. The URL of the later parts of the report reflect the edited heading. Clearly someone thought that there is a limit to sucking up to Mr Raul Vinci aka Rahul Gandhi.)

Talking of Raul Vinci, it would be impossible for someone named “Raul Vinci” to become the PM of India. For the same reason that Madhav Paswan got himself the Congress ticket, Raul Vinci as Rahul Gandhi has the “ticket” to become the prime minister. His accomplishment can be summarized in two words: lucky sperm. Other than that, hardly anything else qualifies him — not education, not deep insight, not intelligence (an area he is noted to be particularly lacking in), not some breathtaking deed, . . . To not put too fine a point on it, his accomplishments amount to zilch, zero, shunya, nada. It’s his identity as the great grandson of Nehru, the grandson of Indira Gandhi nee Nehru, the son of Rajiv Gandhi & the Italian mama Antonia Maino aka Sonia Gandhi, that totally sums him up and explains his appeal to a significant number of Indian voters.

Identity politics is not the only distinguishing failure of Indian democracy; the other failure has to do with the personality cult obsession of Indians. What else could explain the persistence of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in Indian politics. Pick up any random political report on TV or in print (and let’s note that the Indian media focuses obsessively on three topics — politics, entertainment and cricket), and you will see that its almost always about personalities. It is never about ideas. Has Raul Vinci ever come up with any idea worth talking about, or even been moved by an idea even worth a khoti caudi? You bet your last shirt he hasn’t. Why then do are journalists and reporters so fascinated by him?

I believe that one of the foundational failing of Indian democracy is the basic incompetence of its journalists and media people. As has been observed, democracy is not just about voting but about informed choice. But what does informed mean when those who are charged with informing are themselves astoundingly ignorant, untouched by ideas and are essentially incompetent to reason and report?

If the most celebrated journalists — Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, Vir Sanghvi, Sagarika Ghose, et al, come to mind — epitomize cretinous mental retardation and self-serving toadying, does the average person have any hope of being informed about political ideas and about what matters for general welfare and progress? It is said that great minds discuss ideas; mediocre minds discuss events; and small minds discuss people. Those journalists are forced to discuss people because they have tiny minds.

Lacking the information needed, the average voter is forced to the rely on her primitive instincts, and her vote is constrained by her identity and her atavistic attachment to personalities. The outcome of the political process is predictably awful. Crooks and criminals achieve and retain political power, while the country rushes headlong into disaster.

Actually, a person’s identity need not be a burden. Self-interested behavior is not immoral and in any well-organized society, a person’s identity-motivated actions need not be at the cost of social welfare. So also, a bit of hero worship or personality cult preference does not have to result in disastrous choices. If you had heroes worth worshiping and genuinely good personalities, a bit of looking up at them starry-eyed would be good for you and for society in general by providing you examples to emulate. The trouble is that the stars in the political firmament are the worst kinds of people.
Which raises the question — why are the most celebrated political heavy-weights almost entirely thoroughly corrupt and contemptible? This begs an explanation since it is just not possible that all 1,200 million Indians are so absolutely corrupt that any subset chosen must necessarily have absolutely corrupt members. India must have honest, decent, competent people. So why can’t Indians choose those good people to be in positions of power and responsibility?
As I have provided my answer to that question before on this blog, at the risk of appearing crass, I will quote myself.
The evidence is overwhelming that India’s political leaders are uniformly corrupt. It cuts across political party lines. Public corruption is not contained in some specific geographic region. It is not bounded by linguistic or religious divides. The percentage of criminals in the various state and central legislative bodies far exceed that in the general population. What’s more, that percentage has been increasing with time. And the magnitude of the corruption has also been increasing. The average corrupt deal was in tens of crores of rupees a couple of generations ago — small change compared to the deals these days which is counted in billions of dollars.

If Indians are not characteristically uniformly dishonest, how is it that India’s politicians are so acutely dishonest? Perhaps the system selects the most dishonest and the least principled.

Here’s how it works. The rewards of political power are enormous. Without loss of generality (as economists put it), let’s consider the position of an MP (member of parliament.) As an MP, a person has the opportunity to make $1 billion. Mind you, there’s no compulsion to actually make that amount of money — merely the opportunity. Now let’s ask who is likely to become an MP? Contesting the elections are A, B, C, and D. Of the four, Mr D is competent, honest, and hardworking. The rest are venal incompetent criminals. Mr D will not steal a penny if he were to become an MP, and therefore he cannot afford to spend more than whatever he can raise from his supporters. But A, B and C — they will make a $1 billion if elected. So they are willing to spend quite a bit of future loot, and this they can raise that from their cronies who will in essence be making an investment, the return on which they are assured post the elections.
The corrupt can outspend the honest in any elections because the former will recover the expenses (and more) upon assuming office. It should not come as a surprise that India has degenerated into a kakistocracy — rule by the most corrupt and the least principled.

It is the opportunity to make billions of dollars as an official of the government that is the proximate cause of the criminalization of the government. In turn, the proximate cause of the opportunity to make billions is that the government has control over vast areas of the economy. Being in government gives one immense discretionary powers — to grant or deny licences, to block and prevent legitimate economic activity, to extract rents wherever possible. The more powerful the government, the less power the people have. The larger the government, the less freedom the people have.

Dr Manmohan Singh was made the prime minister — not because of his competency as an executive (which is as evident as the testicles of an elephant) or his character (which is notable due to its absence) but because of his moral pliability and his ability to obey orders from his superiors without question. Removing him would be of little use because surely there are others who are equally compromised and would be happy to fill the chair. [Source: The Three-ring Anti-Corruption Circus is in Town

Sept 2010.]
Public corruption is a reality in India. Pointing it out has exceeded the cottage industry stage and has reached the major multinational corporation stage in the form of the Anna Hazare Inc. I am aware that I am flogging a dead horse in writing about politically motivated public corruption (and publicly motivated political corruption) but I would like to propose a solution. It goes thus. To make political office less lucrative (in fact, to make it zero lucrative), we have to transform governance such that the government does not have such a major role in the economy. If the government does not control the levers of commerce in the country, then of course being in government cannot provide one with the opportunity to steal. That would remove the motivation for the corrupt to occupy public office.

But therein lies the rub. How will those who have staked their personal fortunes on the current state of affairs ever change it to their own detriment? Why would they hurt their own interests by reducing the role of the government in the economy? The simple answer is that they will not. That’s a classic Catch-22 situation.

There is only one way out and that is through the ballot box. Getting back to the beginning of this piece, I noted the importance of identity politics in India. We have multiple identities: as family members, as people of a certain linguistic or religious groups, as workers, as members of society, and so on. It is true that for some people, their religious or caste identities assume primacy in their voting behavior. But for some others — I daresay for the present company — the identity that matters most during elections is our identity as responsible citizens. We care not about the identity or the personality of the candidate but rather what ideas and ideals the candidate holds and whether those ideas will lead to social welfare. We care about honesty and decency, about public order and private enterprise.

It is that identity of ours that we should wear proudly on our chests and act accordingly at the ballot box. We have to also realize that we are responsible for the outcome and that we can affect the outcome. That’s a duty that we owe to ourselves, our society, and the generations to come. We have to vote our values consistent with our identity as responsible citizens.

Voting is not such a hard task. To be more specific, individual voting is not such a hard task. What’s hard is informed voting. How do we know which person is the most appropriate? We have limited time and energy to spare for doing basic research into that question. But since we are all affected by the outcome of our collective behavior at the ballot booth, perhaps we could share the task. Let’s put our efforts together and unite as voters.

If we got together and as a collective pooled our understanding, we could achieve two things. First, we could get better information about the candidates. Second, we could by explicitly expressing our demand for good candidates, we would encourage good candidates to context elections and political parties to give tickets to good people. For this to happen, we have to make a commitment to vote and to vote as a collective. Consider this to be fighting fire with fire: identity politics has brought us to this sorry pass and we have to now express our identity and vote our identity.

The big assumption here is of course that there are sufficiently large number of Indians whose identity is that of an honest, responsible, informed and caring citizen. If that assumption is wrong, we do not have much of a future. But I am hoping that that assumption is valid.



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