Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hacking up a politics furball...

(Note: rolling unedited blogular post ahead, decidedly boring, basic, and about politics. Likely to be updated. Beware.)

One of the things I love most about India is that there is quite a broad spectrum of political parties. Now, I say I love this, and by that I mean it's fascinating. There's a kind of pinball effect always in play, like that show The McLaughin Group, but in Hindi. This country is changing so rapidly, and everyone's accusing everyone else of not doing it the right way, or of ignoring this or that interest group. The debates are about class and culture, about a history of agriculture vs. the rise of computers, and of course about tradition and modernity. It all winds up as a big family argument, with weird flashpoints and triggers. At this point, I'm just trying to identify the main players on the political stage and their affilitations in terms of class and culture.

From my rudimentary viewpoint (I'm in Consular, not Political, remember!), we have three main national parties, the BJP, Congress, and the Left Coalition (led by the Communist Party of India, or CPI). The BJP is out of power and flailing, but on occasion it lands some embarassing body blows to the central government. The BJP is synonymous with Hindu nationalism, center-right economic policies, and with the idea that a rising tides lifts all boats (aka the "new economy," "outsourcing," and "India Shining."). Much like the Republicans in the US, they have managed to turn a handy trick, convincing culturally conservative villagers to vote for a party that emphasizes investment in the Bangalores of India, potentially at their expense.

Congress is the middle-of-the-road, all-things-to-all-people, traditional power that also runs on star power. It is the party of the Nehrus and the Gandhis that has embraced securalism. Congress is currently in power as part of the United Progressive Alliance coalition (UPA). Its policies are stretched between a desire to raise the growth rate (8.1%, woohoo!) and a desire to raise the living standards of the poor. It's trying to be all things to all people, again much like Centrist Democrats in the US. But many people will tell you the latter is just a sop to maintain its coalition. Of course, many would probably say the same about mainline Dems in the US too.

Of such critics in India, a number would acquit themselves as members of the Communist Party of India (CPI) or the more radical CPI(M), or Communist Party of India (Marxist). From what little I know, they are considered by many to be obstructionist curmudgeons who often cling to their theories of non-alignment and suspicion of capitalism. To their supporters, they are heroes, a final bulwark against the hegemony of market economics. As such, they are wary of foreign direct investment (FDI) policies, seeing them as a trojan horse that could lead to a new era of colonialism, this time to multi-national corporations. So some argue that keeping FDI out is shackling India to an inefficient and lumbering economy, and the CPI folks respond that it's better to do it our own Indian way than open a Pandora's Box of bargains with foreign capital. After all, once you've sold your country, it's hard to get it back. I imagine you could compare the CPI folks to the more radical democrats in the US who are anti-NAFTA, anti-GATT, anti-WTO, etc.

The one thing all the parties seem to agree on is that India is the greatest country in the world. I've not heard the term Indian Exceptionalism, but it seems to be as strong a sentiment here as in the US or most any other country. The BJP sees India's inherent greatness in its Hindu traditions and in its ability to be a leader in the IT and computer services boom. The Communists seem to want India to make it on its own, or at the very least to not go through another round of neo-colonialism via ownership by multi-national corporations. And Congress seems to be in the middle, shouting Jai Hind and wondering how to keep it all together.

The BJP was in power recently, but was surprisingly and uncermoniously kicked out of power in the 2004 elections, which few expected. The main message at the time was: don't ignore the poor. (I think it was also a repudiation of hindutva, but I'm really uneducated on whether there was a mandate against using religion as a political wedge tool from this election or not...) Congress came to power and announced that its Common Minimum Programme (CMP) would lead India to its rightful place in the world (watch out, China!) while creating opportunites and a safety net for the poor.

Since 2004, I think Congress has shown its true colors as a middle-left, secular government that favors mild market liberalization. It's also pretty wonky at the very top. If it were a horse, I think it'd be a solid bay, not a galloping wonder, but a solid ride nonetheless. Fortunately or unfortunately, one member of the UPA has popped a bit in Congress's mouth and is riding it hard. The CPI has kept Congress from going too far to the right, and the debate from my perspective is whether they are benefiting the country in doing so, or if they should just step off and fade into history. I'm really not sure.

For my part, on the one hand, I do love the fact that the communist party is alive here. While it is full of graft and some parts may be associated with Naxalite rebels/terrorists, the Communists do represent the left-behinds in India, the people who are generally without running water, who work as laborers for less than a dollar a day, and who vote based on whether they have more electricity this year than last. Tom Friedman doesn't report about these folks as much, but they are still the vast majority. And they vote! Also, the party has a rich intellectual heritage (of which I know very little, unfortunately). But mostly, it serves as a foil to ask an important question - how great can our country be if the majority of us are hungry, dirty, and poor? And sometimes the question becomes a demand, i.e. show me that the rest of us are benefiting from the Bangalore boom. Otherwise, the populists and the demagogues will have their way with the vote.

Also, one could argue that the Communists have pushed Congress to implement domestic reforms. Recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a revolutionary, yet very very basic "welfare" system for poor Indians. The program basically guarantees all adults 100 days of access to labor jobs per year. Under the scheme, rural workers would be paid Rs.80 for seven hours of unskilled work every day, and would be paid even if the government could not locate jobs for them to do. Note that 80 rupees is less than two dollars per day, which is to say shockingly little, but also almost twice as much as many folks make each day. So, on the whole, it's a step forward.

On the other hand, the communists are driving me crazy! They are standing in the way of India's modernization. In their kingmaker role in the UPA, they have effectively slowed the proposed increase in foreign direct investment to a crawl. An increase in FDI would mean a massive increase in capital, which could be used for entrepreneurial growth, sure, but as importantly for infrastructure and development projects. The communists are also part of the group standing in the way of India getting out of the nuclear isolation hole it's been in for a few decades now.

Ultimately, I have no idea what's going to happen in the next month in Indian politics, much less the next year, which makes for some pretty compelling newspaper reading.

(Whew. This was a long, unedited ramble on politics with little fact-checking (perfect for a blog, no?). If anyone's made it this far and cares to correct me, please do so. These are all just my perceptions, and I'd like to sharpen them a good deal!)


At 2:23 AM, Blogger Alizarin said...

Wooo! Where's an erudite rant have to go to get heard, if not on a blog? I'd excise your last parenthetical paragraph, then let anyone who can gainsay you do so. Perfect for a blog, like you said.

So ... I learned a lot. I'll have a place to start when I read the paper (I mean Yahoo news, of course). There were a bunch of thorny questions -- like, who gets that development money? If it's only for a small percentage of the population, then doesn't that create a kind of colonialism, under other Indians?

At 6:18 AM, Anonymous shrinkwrap said...

Pithy pithy pithy! In China vs. India, India is clearly more transparent.


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