The Indian Economy Blog

January 30, 2008

Why Does India Have Such Terrible Politicans – 4

The relevant question is not Who are we going to trust but What are we going to trust?

Arnold Kling wrote a freewheeling essay last year Should You Trust the Government? in which he points out

In the case of government, there is good trust and there is bad trust. Good trust is trust in processes that promote public service. Bad trust is trust in the virtue of leaders or the wisdom of voters.

Trusting the virtues of government leaders is a bad thing. It leads one to cede rights and powers to government that are easily abused. The more that our ideology demands virtue from leaders, the more likely it is that our leaders will prove to be evil.

If you can trust the processes of government, then that is a good thing. Good trust in government is based on processes that provide for accountability, checks and balances, equal protection, and punishment of official corruption. [emphasis mine]

Is India circa 2008 better off vis-à-vis 1950 with regard to the processes that Arnold lists above? My answer would be yes. After all, the percentage of the population that’s literate and educated is much higher. The media’s reach is far greater, especially thanks to the advent of TV. And a lot of the other factors that ensure checks and balances are probably stronger today. While there’s a (very) long, uphill road to climb, I’d aver that we’re better off today. However, many people that I know, if asked to choose between the governments of 1950 and 2008 would opt for the 1950 version.

Q) Do you think the processes that make for effective governance have improved over the last six decades? Were things really better back in 1950 or are we romanticizing the past?

Previous posts in this series: 1, 2 and 3.


  1. So Arnold is saying that the original purpose of the creation of Max Weber’s ‘Buerocracy’ is right after all.

    That processes in India survive because the steel frame supports them and not because of the neta class.

    Or am I misreading the thing completely?

    Comment by Sud — February 1, 2008 @ 6:21 am

  2. I can’t thank the media/TV … and blogosphere is going to join in too gradually … because they are the only things which seem to keep those in power under some sort of check (thax to their own vested interests of a good public image maybe).

    Comment by Prash — February 2, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

  3. In 1950 we just had one major leader – Nehru and our folks were afraid what next after Nehru. 2 other great leaders – Gandhiji and Patel have passed away by then, and Rajaji was sidelined and made to go out of the party. So, Mr. Nehru got awy without any competition and combined with his lack of experience in governance (he spent most of his time before in jail) India pay dearly. We lost to China in that initial phase (UNSC membership, Nuclear status, population control, literacy) that we are still unable to catch up. We alienated US and lost opportunities to integrate our economy with the West unlike how Korea, Japan and Singapore were able to do.

    But, one guy who is hardly as near to Nehru in terms of honesty, changed so much for India. Mr. Rao arguably the best Prime Minister India has ever had took India to modern times with economic integration and a renewed focus on missiles, satellites, Nuclear power and a major power in international circles. This also shows that it doesnt matter whether you have uncorrupted honest Prime Minister or not. Nehru was uncorrupted, but terrible. Mr. Rao the exact opposite. What matters is if the leader could get the job done.

    And regarding the original asserting, why India has terrible politicans, can the authors just state a nation that has great politicians that should set the standard for India. Do you think US and France have great politicans? Think again. How about Africa and Latin America? How about Pakistan and Burma? How about China and Russia? How about Cuba and Venezuala? Compared to most of the world, Indian politicians have done far better job.

    We atleast have a system in place that selected the best scientist as President and best economist as PM, both of these are as uncorrupted/demagougic as anybody in the world could get and both of them from a different religion than the majority. We had couple of Harvard guys in the Cabinet (Chidambaram, Maran) along with a couple of Oxbridge guys (Manmohan and Montek Singh). Even the notorious Lallu has impressed everybody. Our Army doesnt interfere in politics and our major institutions like Supreme Court and RBI are still respectable. Come on, give some credit to the Indian system. It doesn’t mean that we dont have a lot of room to change, but by not recognizing our positives we will risk losing them.

    Comment by Balaji Viswanathan — February 7, 2008 @ 5:27 am

  4. P.V. Narasimha Rao was the best Prime Minister India ever had. He never got the respect and fame, he deserved. PV needs to be re discovered. Nation, particularly media, should learn to respect the good qualities of allegedly corrupt leaders.

    Comment by kiran ojha — February 7, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

  5. I think the basic problem is that India’s ideologies and institutions are all imports from Britain & Europe and most don’t fit Indian conditions.

    India needs its own type of democracy, not the European type; its own community-based legal system, its own educational system. The pity is India hasn’t the intellectual capacity to innovate and adapt these imports.

    But unfortunately, its third rate universities have failed to generate the needed intellectual base for creativity and invention. India invents nothing, it just copies others. Sadly there are no think-tanks to suggest strategies or solutions. Look at the Bolly lot desperately trying for Cannes or Oscar awards and failing every time. They don’t even realise their films are silly and puerile, loud and garish, not subtle and understated. (Contrast the Korean and Chinese products for a change.)

    The politicians are intellectual zeros, coarse and corrupt. Even criminals can be MPs in India.
    They have no skills for rational debate and argument. Most look old and tired, with no style,no charisma, wearing those wooden and vacuous expressions. Has Manmohan Singh said anything clever to attract international attention? He operates like a zombie, bowing to George Bush and with no intelligent proposals. Has he any sense of wit & humour?
    All in all, India is in dire straits. The way forward is to upgrade its higher institutions – especially the universities.

    Comment by Edsa — February 8, 2008 @ 12:07 am

  6. When compared with the socialist type license raj govt. today’s seems better.

    Comment by Dosabandit — February 8, 2008 @ 3:21 am

  7. I agree with Balaji to a large extent. Some of the best things about the Indian polity is that there are genuine differences between different political parties. Compared to that there are no ideological choices in the US and it is quite the same in Europe too. You can interchange the parties and politicians and everything will stay the same. That is good for a stable country that is going well but it will stall political/social innovation leading to many crises as the country falters. We have a vibrant political system in India.

    I wish Balaji was a little more respectful to Nehru. Nehru spent time in jail as part of our freedom struggle. Without sacrifices like his, we wouldn’t be enjoying the freedom we do today. Definitely not as soon as 1947. You can refer to the attempts of the British to keep Malaysia, Kenya and Rhodesia under their thumb with their rule lasting as late as 1980. In Kenya, it ran a series of concentration camps in direct contravention of Human Rights conventions spelt out after World War II.

    Narasimha Rao did spark the current spurt of growth. There is no doubt about it. But he wouldn’t have been able to do any of that if he was handed a dilapidated unindustrialized nation. Nehru had the vision to invest in infrastructure and higher education (against the advice of the likes of Milton Friedman). Indira Gandhi democratized the previously caste-based banking and heavy industries providing opportunities to people from non-trading castes to try their hand in industrial and financial management. The Janata Party coalition broke any notion of continuous political power in the hands of one group. Rajiv Gandhi started with small reforms and borrowed a lot of capital for investment. Of course, I have listed the good sides of all these people. There were the other bad sides too. But without their work Narasimha Rao wouldn’t have been able to do anything.

    As pointed out earlier, the army in India does not interfere in the government. Its not only that but the Indian defence forces are completely under civilian command and India has remained stable throughout. I think India is the only country in the world with such a situation. Also, we do not have jingoistic celebration of military power with people strutting about in military uniforms. This is something we can be proud of.

    Edsa, even the Japanese were known for imitations. I think Indian political institutions are quite tailored for local needs, both by design and evolution.

    PS: Is TCS daily really a credible source?

    Comment by HmmBut — February 10, 2008 @ 4:50 am

  8. @HmmBut,
    I didnt mean to disrespect Nehru. There is no question of his great role in Indian freedom movement. There is no question of his sacrifices and the painful years he spent in the jail. But, my point (and also stated by many India related books from Edward Luce, Gurucharan Das, et al) is that Nehru was not as great a Prime Minister as he was a freedom fighter. Even Mahatmaji would not have fit in the role that should have gone to people like Patel/Rajaji. Nehru’s inexperience with Governance is a documented fact. He made strategic blunders wrt Kashmir and Tibet, and trusted China too much to keep India without a strong defense. And thus he died as a broken man unable to get over from the China war debacle.

    While he did commendable effort for pioneering IITs and the great dams, he did scant work to establish the roots – primary education and rural irrigation/agricultural development. We now have the IITs and the dams and the steel plants, but do our people have literacy and basic ameneites that Mao led China has? If we had given suitable thrust to our basic things in the formative years of the nation, and concentrated on improving agricultre, by now we would be at the driver’s seat. Agricultural revolution would have given way to Industrail revolution absorbing labor surplus that would have naturally evolve to the current service revoltion given that India’s historic strengthen in Finance, Math and Engineering. Given that he had 17 long years to rule and no credible opposition he could have taken risks to change the ground factors, but he chose to build castles in the air. And organizations like NAM served India little besides alienating the West and we chose our friendships and policies on a wrong foot.

    Comment by Balaji Viswanathan — February 11, 2008 @ 2:10 am

  9. So you want us to have sided with the West like Pakistan did? Third World countries that sided with the West were used as useful idiots to be manipulated and then thrown to the dogs once they become useless. Every one of them are either not completely sovereign or are basket cases now. It is good that India played two sides and learnt to be self-sufficient or at least tried to be. Just like China we built up a socioeconomic base however small it was. The authors that you mention have their own biases and were in a position to gain more if India had sided with the West. Their gain needn’t be the gain of all Indians.

    I agree with you the Nehru didn’t go far enough. One does have to keep in mind that India was not politically cohesive with anti-Hindi agitations in the South, secessionist movements of varying degrees in the North East and even Kashmir and many Princelings still looking for opportunities to retain their powers. The India he got was a basketcase – with its capital almost completely stolen and a people who had been colonized for centuries. But you are correct that he didn’t use his unassailable political strength to push for radical changes. He promised land reforms – a key policy that was implemented in Taiwan, South Korea, China and even Japan (in this case an earlier phase) before they embarked on their industrialization. He promised but backtracked fearing enormous opposition and perhaps a loss of power. Perhaps political matters were seen as a priority compared to economic ones.

    India had and still has no business in interfering in Tibet just as Pakistan has no business in interfering in Kashmir.

    Comment by HmmBut — February 11, 2008 @ 8:02 am

  10. Tibet is strategic to India (almost all our current border with China once belonged to Tibet region) in which we messed up a bit. And Tibetan people love India more than China and their culture suited India more than a communist China. But, that doesn’t mean India should have blatantly allowed Dalai Lama to speak against China in Indian territory. That was a monumental stupidity of Indian government then. We totally underestimated China whose strength was many time India’s. Given that strength India should have given Dalai Lama, a passage to US or Europe from where he could have used a great platform to attack China, while India could have remained in the shawdows.

    Regarding, the relationship with West, I never said 0 be their slaves. I just said we need not have alienated West. There is a big difference between two. Currently India has great relationships with all major power poles – Israel & Iran, US & Russia, Japan & China, Europe & Africa, apart from ASEAN and Latin America, by not siding with any major power too closely. That is diplomacy. Whereas in Nehru’s period India became a stooge of USSR rather than being really non-aligned. Almost all our defense deals were with with the Soveiets, KGB was given a free run and we still manage to get our pilots run their flying coffins. While, Indian media fancies a lot of ideas about USSR, most non-Indian media recognized India’s hypocrisy. In this respect, China kept far better distance between the two powers without calling itself non-aligned.

    I never said Nehru’s job was easy. But, just that there were better people at that time who could have led India better. Regarding Nehru, almost any major non-Indian author note the deficiencies in governance. The celebrated “Freedom at Midnight” gives pretty objective views on this. I have so far not come across a single objective International expert on Indian history who consdiers a good governer. If you come across, let me know.

    Comment by Balaji Viswanathan — February 11, 2008 @ 9:30 am

  11. Prashant, to answer your question, I do not believe that the “processes that make for effective governance” have improved since independence…although economic development and changes in media and technology does mean that we are perhaps slightly better off re. checks and balances (only slightly though, in my view).

    What is needed is a fundamental re-think about the system…In that context, some of you will find this post engaging and thought-provoking… It underlines the magnitude of challenge that we face:

    Comment by B Shantanu — February 27, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

  12. It is the system that needs to change, it is the system that is generating such Terrible Politicans. Running a country is not a Joke, when you can have tough entrance exams, aptitude test for an air force pilot, why can’t for politician?. Have a basic criteria required to content and filter out the ‘good for nothing’.

    Comment by little About — February 28, 2008 @ 7:06 am

  13. “The more that our ideology demands virtue from leaders, the more likely it is that our leaders will prove to be evil.”

    We need to move on from the days of the 1950′s when everyone was expected to have the highest moral standards and think for the greater good. People-and politicians are people after all-are selfish. Deal with it!

    In India, the government is still called Sarkaar. In the minds of the common man, Sarkaar has to work for his improvement and he is powerless to do anything without its help. It is this attitude that needs to change. People must feel empowered to demand a better standard of living and not live in fear of demanding their due from their own elected leaders. Today people EXPECT good leadership but don’t DEMAND it!

    Another issue here is education. For a whole bunch of politicians, it is quite beneficial to have an illiterate and uneducated populace because then they can fight on petty issues like caste and religion rather than real issues. I think with the times and the growing reach of all forms of media, the common man will realize his potential and his rights to good governance.

    Comment by Mohit — March 4, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

  14. I think Kling might have stated his case better if he had defined “bad trust” as “trust in the JUDGEMENT of leaders”. Processes, and checks and balances aim to provide a semblance of rationality to political judgement, which is driven by agendas, power imbalances and inevitably, negotiations and dynamic alliances. Processes also prevent extreme gaming of legislative transactions which are nonetheless set up as a series of repeat ‘games’ amongst various players.

    Too much trust in processes is also not such as “good trust” idea. One look at the current scandals in the British Parliament on MPs’ allowances and the Speaker’s expenses and it is patently clear that unless structures prevent poachers and gamekeepers to be the same people, processes and rules are as impotent as Shikhandi!

    Comment by Shefaly — March 6, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

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