The polity is not something we can see or touch. We derive a picture of it from the talk and actions of men and women in public affairs. When Jayalalithaa breaks the Tamil Nadu government servants’ strike, we get the idea that she commands bigger forces than they. When Narendra Modi tells a Gujarati expert on infrastructure that he has a patriotic duty to help Gujarat and Modi, we know that even Modi has to deliver something — water, power, roads — to stay in power. Thus our concept of the polity is made up of many events; it is like a movie — which is an abbreviation for a moving picture.
And it is a chaotic movie with no explicit plot or direction. That is very uncomfortable when it comes to thinking about it; so we read a design into the convolutions of reality. Some, like economists, bring mathematics to the reading of the design; others do it in elongated words. The rest of us just make do with the pseudo-sociology that we picked up while learning more important things that bring us our livelihood.
However, reading the polity becomes a bread-and-butter activity for those in power; and the picture they have of it is strongly coloured by where they are in the brickwork of government. I, for instance, was struck by the universal belief amongst government servants that businessmen were crooks, and amongst politicians that subsidies and cross-subsidies were good. Both beliefs were self-serving. Corrupt civil servants salved their conscience by believing they were only punishing crooks. Politicians who collected commissions from beneficiaries of rackets excused themselves by thinking the schemes must benefit some poor.
For such civil servants and politicians, the thought of a government that treats everyone justly and leaves them alone to pursue their own business is anathema. So the liberal reforms of the early Nineties faced strong hostility from both; Congressmen stopped Manmohan Singh in his tracks as soon as the payments crisis was over. Nothing has changed since then. Congressmen’s hostility to liberalism and their keenness to run a patronal government are manifest in their manifesto.
Whilst the Congress had worked out its system over 40 years, the Bharatiya Janata Party was a complete novice to the Central government. But it knew what it wanted out of it. It had a large constituency amongst small businessmen and traders; they wanted contracts, forgiveness, bank loans, or import duties. In other words, whilst the Congress liked to set up schemes that in principle could benefit masses but in practice benefited those whom it selected, the BJP was flooded with individual requests for favours. Congress-type politicians are not absent in the BJP. Sahib Singh Verma likes to think of mass pension and insurance schemes which would provide mass opportunities for manipulation. But by and large, the BJP politicians are not into mass rackets; they like to favour their friends.
For this, flexible bureaucrats are necessary and sufficient; and the single speciality of the BJP is the way it politicizes the bureaucracy. Politicizing is a somewhat inaccurate word. Bureaucrats keep their jobs for thirty years; it would be unwise to keep loyalties unchanged for that long. But there are bureaucrats who read what politicians want and get it done. These are the bureaucrats that have flourished under the BJP. Mrs Indira Gandhi used to complain thirty years ago about a shortage of committed bureaucrats; the BJP has overcome that shortage.
BJP politicians have brought pliable bureaucrats to the fore by means of transfers and promotions. But a single bureaucrat cannot get much done. He has to get the obedience of the bureaucracy or its cooperation. The bureaucracy was originally a self-governing hierarchy; seniors taught, supervised, rewarded and punished juniors. Once seniors come to be chosen on the basis of pliability, this structure of obedience crumbles. Seniors come to the fore who do not command the respect of juniors. They can get things done only by cooperation. This requires giving in to the collective demands of bureaucracy, and turning a blind eye to the wrongdoings of individuals. Thus a pliable bureaucracy also becomes a self-indulgent, corrupt and lawless bureaucracy.
The BJP brought pliable bureaucracy to the centre, but it did not invent it. Mrs Gandhi did so. The technology was perfected by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal.
Digvijay Singh had given local Congress MLAs considerable influence over district-level officers. Narendra Modi suborned the Gujarat civil service so completely that no one in a position of power dared stop the massacre of Muslims or administer justice later. The Telgi affair is a graphic instance of the tolerance corrupt politicians have to show of official corruption — when they are not themselves its string-pullers.
The model is not frictionless. It has evolved furthest in the leading states of India, namely Uttar Pradesh and Bihar; here, everything works on patronage and corruption. But the ubiquity of corruption there has also made greed ubiquitous; there are too many local politicians who want a share of the cake. They try to bend local civil servants; when they do not get enough, they change political loyalties. Both to buy them off and to fend them off, chief ministers need to control bureaucracies further down; that is why when Mayavati or Mulayam Singh comes to power, there are thousands of transfers stretching down to taluks. Even such hectic activity does not keep them in power for more than a few months. But where it does work, it is a highly attractive model for politicians. The CPI(M) has had a golden run in West Bengal; it has set a standard to which other parties aspire.
The model is still evolving, and needs further work. As I said, the BJP did some good work on it while in the central government. It also worked out the centre-periphery variant. It kept key ministries in its grip, and gave out peripheral ministries to allies who could make their own piles. The case of Gingee Ramachandran, whom Atal Bihari Vajpayee took back into the cabinet even after his personal assistant was caught with piles of cash, is an illustration.
Maybe we will soon see it evolving further, and rapidly. For if the National Democratic Alliance falls short of majority, a fresh majority will have to be cobbled together, and who better or more experienced to do it than Vajpayee' He will have to take the help of Jayalalithaa, whose unexplained personal wealth is legendary; he may lean on the shoulder of Mayavati, whose expensive tastes have an obscure source of finance.
Thus we may soon see the most skilled practitioners of the pliability model put their heads together and evolve something really complex and advanced. What bargain will they make' What new founts of wealth will they unleash' How will they cut the cake' How will they buy the loyalty of their MPs' What will be the fallout for the civil servants under their respective wings' How long will their mutually beneficent coalition last' There is no money for us in all this; but there may be some education and much entertainment. The colourful Indian political show is one that only we Indians can enjoy; we may as well make the best of it.