The headlines say that the ruling party manifesto emphasises nationalism (“nation first”), and, on the economic front, it will aspire to make India the third-largest economy in the world by the end of the next decade, to make it reach the list of top 50 countries in the ranking of Ease of Doing Business, and repeats the old promise of doubling farmers’ income by 2022.
In the West, there is an old saying that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. But what do foreigners know about the glories of Hindu nationalism? Gandhiji regarded armed nationalism a “curse”. Tagore wrote in 1908: “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I’ll not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I’ll never allow patriotism to triumph as long as I live”. But both Gandhiji and Tagore are long dead.
On the economic front, while most economists believe that, whichever party is in power, unless there is some disaster, India will be the third-largest economy in the world by the end of the next decade, there is hardly any respectable economist who believes that as things have been going, farmers’ income can be doubled by 2022 — it’s just a “jumla”.
The current government puts a lot of value on India’s place in the World Bank’s ranking on Ease of Doing Business, and took a victory lap when it improved significantly in recent years. (It is not particularly hard to “game” the system, as we know that it is based on data collected from only two cities, Mumbai and Delhi. The Chinese are even better than us in gaming it, they had an even larger increase in the ranks in the same years). Nevertheless, an improvement in those ranks is a good sign.
But around the same time when the World Bank came out with the Ease of Doing Business rankings, another part of the same Bank came out with rankings of Human Capital Index, evaluating performance on health and education. In this, India not only has a very low rank, it is even lower than that of two of our poorer neighbours, Nepal and Bangladesh. When these rankings hit the press, one central minister in Delhi told a journalist, “we do not accept the data”. Of course, we accept data only when they go in our favour! There have been more recent examples of this. On the social front, recently Amnesty International came out with the data that Uttar Pradesh now tops in the number of hate crimes in India, but then who does not know that Amnesty International is an infamous agency whose main goal is to malign us!
Unfortunately, international organisations keep churning out data of a similar kind: In the Social Hostilities Index, brought out by the Pew Research Center for 198 countries, at the end of 2016 India was among the eight worst countries. In the World Press Freedom Index, brought out by Reporters without Borders, in 2017-18 India’s rank among 180 countries was low, at 138. In the Rule of Law Index brought out by the World Justice Project for 113 countries, in 2017-18 India’s rank was 62. In the Report of the Economist Intelligence Unit on the State of Democracy in the World for 2018, India is in the category of “flawed”, not full, democracy; out of 167 countries, India’s rank is 41, worse than Latvia, Taiwan or Botswana — the rank for India having sharply declined compared to 2014.
The current government has no doubt had some laudable economic achievements in providing some measure of financial inclusion, roads, housing, sanitation, gas for cooking fuel, etc. for the poor, and streamlining GST (though clumsily implemented) and insolvency procedures for business. But actual progress in much of these has not matched the constant barrage of official hype, and the Indian economy, particularly in the vast informal sector, has barely recovered from the whimsical onslaught of demonetisation in November 2016 thought up by an ignorant but arrogant leadership and carried out by a confused and unprepared banking bureaucracy.
The general expectation, however, is that supercharged jingoism will see the ruling party through. Whichever party wins the election, the real long-term challenge is to stem the rot of institutional foundations. The institutional decay hollowing out the shell of democracy started a few decades back, but it has accelerated. The executive overreach and abuse has dissipated the independence of police and bureaucracy, with tax and investigative agencies blithely used for personal vendetta of leaders and for cynical stirring, or keeping on slow boil, of the anti-corruption investigations for continual smearing of Opposition politicians, while cases against the ruling party politicians (or any new allies who are lured to their fold) are quietly dropped.
Attempts to enfeeble the independence of regulatory bodies are common — even apex bodies like the Reserve Bank of India, the Supreme Court or the Election Commission have come under pressure. The centralisation of all power in the PMO, apart from making a mockery of the oft-repeated rhetoric of “cooperative federalism”, has rendered the cabinet system of government largely ineffective. The legislature is used mainly for acclamation and hurried passing, without much discussion, of complex bills. The joint parliamentary committees that raise questions are starved of information and/or ignored.
Dissent is often branded as sedition and as “anti-national” — even though it is arguable that judged by the frequent violations of the Constitution in letter and spirit and of the civic nationalism that is based on constitutional values it is the ruling party and its affiliate organisations that are in some sense deeply anti-national. The Prime Minister, who is quite effusive on all manner of things in his one-way tweets and radio chats, falls eerily silent when inconvenient truths or atrocities by his party affiliates hit the news. While never hesitating in stressing his own muscular brand of leadership, he is strangely afraid to meet the press or any searching questions from journalists and legislators. He is open only to the part of the media that is fawning and to adulatory crowds. The cloak of “national security” is routinely used to hide away from the legitimate need for public information on even the simplest national defence issues.
National security is also the excuse for the ongoing suppression of human rights in Kashmir valley, the North-east and the jungles of central India — the areas of age-old local rebellions — as the rest of democratic India looks away. But then it is “anti-national” to even mention these things.(The writer is professor of graduate school at the department of economics, University of California, Berkeley.)