The old familiar
Across Asia, the major powers are gearing up for the next set of challenges. In Japan, Abenomics promises to shake up a trapped economy. In China, the recently concluded Communist Party plenum outlined a series of steps, such as market oriented reform, reducing inequality, tackling overcapacity, freeing up rural land markets, environmental goals, to make the country's growth sustainable. These are big visions. But they also acknowledge weaknesses. How much Abenomics will achieve is an open question. As astute observers have pointed out, the grand vision outlined in China is also an acknowledgment of deep failures. The very thing that was China's strength, decentralisation to the provinces, is also proving to be a great weakness in many cases. It is making it harder to align the Chinese economy to new challenges. In areas like the environment, the central Chinese state, for all its surface power, is also flailing. The centre may give the directives but local power and incentives are aligned in such a way that nothing happens. The establishment of two new administrative councils on the economy and security, both directly under Xi Jinping, is seen as an attempt to further centralise power. Whether this succeeds in overcoming China's version of a governance crisis is an open matter.
But at least the debate and politics seem centred on the next set of challenges. There is evidence that the top leadership recognises the depth of the crisis, past failures to address it, and is at least contemplating bold new moves that break the mould. India's high decibel politics, in contrast, seems to be completely missing any serious engagement with the future. To be fair, the manifestoes are not out. But manifestoes are dead letters unless there is political energy behind ideas. This is a campaign largely focussed on allegations of failure, personality, history and low invective. It is more a boxing match than a society creating a new future for itself through the medium of politics.
There are many signs of this. Narendra Modi may try to project himself as speaking a new language. But whatever success he has had is largely limited to his speeches. He is tapping into a yearning for leadership and, to an extent, he is succeeding. But the two ingredients of genuine leadership are totally absent thus far. First, the BJP is not able to create a new cadre of leaders at any level. In fact, at the lower and intermediate levels, the party wears the same old tired look. Often, new faces signal new politics, and whenever change is imminent, you see a bandwagoning of new people. It is striking that this phenomenon is as absent in the BJP as in the Congress. Just look at the distribution of tickets in these assembly elections in a state like Rajasthan. The choices of both parties signal a regressive, rather than a progressive, politics. Both Modi and Rahul Gandhi, in an odd way, are floating above their party. Rahul promised party reform, but you will be hard pressed to see its meaningful political expression. Modi may change his tone, but he has not changed his party. There is also no consistency between what they say and what their party does. Second, what level of vision one demands of leaders is always a nebulous question. Many great leaders have been rather woolly and intellectually vague. But in so far as they count on their personality to be the draw, they also lend weight to a new wave of thinking. It is hard to see either party doing that.
There is much talk of an aspirational India, an India tired of the old language of politics. The main contenders may occasionally get a script that sounds new, a phrase we latch on to in desperation to signal this new India. But the worrying thing is, with some small exceptions, how old and familiar everything looks. In UP, communalism and caste equations are back with a vengeance, almost as if India's progressive moment will be defined by which political party handles Jats better. Even the progressive Nitish Kumar is falling back on a politics of fear and backwardness. The Aam Aadmi Party has at least tapped into one aspect of the current moment: India needs a new governance architecture. But this is a limited intervention. Rahul is starting to make decentralisation a theme in his speeches, but the complete arbitrariness of his government on so many fronts makes it hard to believe that the Congress can genuinely reform government beyond a point.
India is anxious because we are facing a crisis on multiple fronts. Macroeconomic instability, evidenced most potently in sticky inflation and an uncertain employment scenario. But in the end, the economic thinking will come down to a bunch of schemes. India's institutional crisis is serious. The Congress avoids talking about it, because it caused it. The BJP does not do much better either; all it does is throw the idea of a "decisive leader" at what is a more complex problem. There is an incipient social crisis, brewing around both caste and gender, but no party has the slightest moral leadership to speak credibly on the subject. Delhi experienced one of its most toxic days recently, beating Beijing hands down in pollution levels. Nothing could be better evidence of ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand syndrome than the fact that not one political party chose to even remark upon this. And this is in educated urban India. Occasionally, there appears to be a promising new bipartisan consensus that toilets are more important than temples. But you wonder whether this is about solving a sanitation problem, or about a stimulus to the commode production industry. In foreign policy, almost all parties, rather than spelling out how India could enhance its influence, are busy undermining the country's credibility. These crises could be an opportunity for a new progressive politics. But who will stay ahead of the curve?
One does not have to be starry eyed about China and Japan. It is all too easy to underestimate their challenges. But at least you get a sense of powers grappling with questions of their destiny. Even allowing that democratic partisanship produces a lot of circus, the utter lack of gravitas and sense of responsibility at this crucial moment in our history is disconcerting. This is also compounded by an inability to take any intellectual risk. It is almost as if our politicians' mouths are free to shoot words in any direction, but at the end of the day, the feet remain stuck in quicksand. Is this because we have the politicians we deserve, or is it because they are betraying us?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'