Originally Published 2015-10-30 10:23:15 Published on Oct 30, 2015
Indian polity is a prisoner of 'Luddism'. Left or right, it needs someone who can act as a change agent. Between the Congress and a confused BJP is the third force, the real Luddite socialists -- a conglomeration of SP, BSP, JD-U, TMC and a sprinkling of others. India unfortunately is caught between these forces, devastating its economic paradigm.
Left or Right, the story is the same

The more things change, the more they remain the same is an adage as old as the English language. With Luddites front and centre of the political spectrum here, it is so true of India. Agreed that right wing economics would trump left leaning socialist welfare economics hands down in a caged match, but this is ephemeral in the present context. The economic model pursued by the BJP since May 26, 2014, and one would be quick to ask what economic model? It appears to be a wishy washy rehash of the UPA's policies without a single transformative idea in these last 17 months or so. Now, at one level this is scary because it tells you that the jibes of "suit boot ki sarkar" may actually have done incalculable damage to the psyche of the Modi Government which fell back to the tried and trusted default mechanism of 'Luddism', something that India can't seem to shake off despite efforts off and on over the years. For the record, Luddites were 19th-century English textile workers (or self-employed weavers who feared the end of their trade) protesting violently against newly developed labour-economising technologies, primarily between 1811 and 1816. This phase during the industrial revolution came to throw into stark relief a section of the populace which was challenging mechanisation and culminated in a region-wide rebellion in Northwestern England that required a massive deployment of military force to suppress. It is believed that the leader of this rebellion was Ned Ludd, hence 'Luddism'.

Now 'Luddism' is deeply ingrained in the slow moving politicos who inhabit our polity. Given that we are an agrarian economy and an overwhelming majority of the population continues to reside in rural Bharat, our politicians are constantly trying to pander to their needs, whims and fancies, as they form the largest vote bank. While India has changed thanks to rapid urbanisation resulting in a resurgent middle class, it is still a minority as compared to the brute majority who till the land and make a livelihood out of farming. That too is changing due to an ongoing mass migration of unskilled farmers and their family members who are unable to cope with droughts and rain deficits, Tilling the land is no longer an option for children of farmers who believe it is better to seek a living in towns and cities. The brutal cycle has left urban agglomerates unable to cope with the daily mass migration which is leaving civic infrastructure debilitated in its wake.

Nehruvian socialism inspired by Fabian thinking being the bedrock of the Indian economic main frame was taken to a different level by Mrs Indira Gandhi's abrupt left turn where she unleashed nationalisation of banks, insurance companies, oil and gas sector, coal, abolished privy purses during a four year period 1969-1973. In order to take on the old guard within the Congress and establish her own imprimatur she effected dramatic changes. Challenged by the Swatantra Party, the first real threat to the Congress, Mrs Gandhi resorted to a command economy like never before. In 1969, she nationalised 14 banks, sacked finance minister Morarji Desai and won the 1971 elections on the plank of broad basing Bank deposits and making banking accessible to all. After her famous victory in 1971, she proceeded to nationalise coal, steel, copper, refining, cotton textiles, and insurance. It was a clean sweep. When foreign oils threatened not to provide oil during the 1971 war, she nationalised them too. As a messiah of the poor, the slogan of Garibi Hatao also helped enormously. As Ram Guha rightly says, Mrs Gandhi went onto taste Kipling's two impostors -- success and failure -- in a short of a decade.

P V Narasimha Rao was brave enough to dismantle the command economy given the twin threat percepts of an acute balance of payments crisis and the end of the Soviet Union as one knew it. He had no choice but to unfetter the economy given that rupee-rouble trade had collapsed. He did things smartly. In the process, several of Rajiv Gandhi's ideas manifested themselves - a telecom and technology revolution for one. When UPA 2 came back to power with 206 seats, it was convinced in its arrogance of numbers that the rural vote bank was the heart of its enterprise. A massive and unprecedented farm loan waiver in 2008 augmenting this thinking. The European sensibilities of Mrs Sonia Gandhi helped in creating one of the largest safety nets (MNREGA), one that was predicated to setting up a welfare state. The economic of dole began and the tap refused to be shut down leaving a fiscal deficit of unmanageable proportions.

Open and naked corruption and the return of a system of redistribution of wealth through discretionary allotments of natural resources as a replacement for the old license permit raj broke the back of the welfare state. Remember that this was the same Congress party which under Rajiv Gandhi and primarily Narasimha Rao had thought differently, the lurking Luddites having been pushed back into the shadows. Then came Modi like a breath of fresh air, talking growth, development and economic prosperity. His lingua franca was one of jobs and employment. People flocked to him in droves, the youth stampeding hoping that the BJP if it came to power would unleash reform like never before.

Instead, the Luddites within the saffron network gave us the Cow. Rising intolerance and shrinking space have meant that the plank of growth and development has become secondary, now being held to ransom by the politics of hate. Luddism in the shape of populism has been the single biggest bugbear for India, UPA 2 and now the BJP also inebriated with the arrogance of 282 MPs prisoners of Luddism unable to decide which way to go. The Congress under Rahul Gandhi appears to be stoking the fires of retrograde and regressive thinking, its disposition and outlook controlled by the rural vote bank. The BJP sadly has fallen in the same trap, dry gulched by the magnet of hustings and restrained by its ideological masters - the RSS. Leaving the middle class completely immobilised.

Indian polity is a prisoner of 'Luddism'. Left or right, it needs someone who can act as a change agent. Between the Congress and a confused BJP is the third force, the real Luddite socialists -- a conglomeration of SP, BSP, JD-U, TMC and a sprinkling of others. What I describe as the Republic of Kichdi, the most dangerous threat to the economy. India unfortunately is caught between these forces, devastating its economic paradigm.

(The writer is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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