A Criminalised, Sectarian, Misgoverned Decade

Three major new trends marked the 1990s. The first was the steady displacement of non-sectarian political parties by those based on religion, caste and region. The second was growing maladministration and criminalisation of politics. The third was a shift in economic policy to quarter-baked liberalisation.

The first two–Sectarianism and maladministration clearly harmed economic progress and poverty alleviation. Economic reform helped economic progress and poverty alleviation, but its quarter-baked nature meant its impact was limited and often offset by the first two trends.

The best proof of this, I never tire of repeating, is a major survey by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies which asked citizens if they were aware of any change in economic policy whatsoever. Four-fifths said no. On the other hand virtually everybody is aware of rising maladministration, criminalisation and sectarianism. That has affected outcomes most.

In earlier decades the Congress Party and two Communist parties claimed to represent all sections of society, and reviled sectarian ones. The Janata Dal under VP Singh started off as non-sectarian. But the 1990s saw the decline of non-sectarian parties and the increasing strength of those based on religion (BJP, Shiv Sena, Akali Dal), caste (Kanshi Ram’s BSP, various fragments of the original Janata Dal) and region (Telugu Desam, AGP, BJD).

Sectarian parties existed earlier but constituted a political minority. In the last decade they became the majority, and increasingly dominated politics. In consequence, the main electoral debate in the 1990s moved away from development to identity politics. What mattered most in winning elections was your caste, religion or regional clout, not your ideas for education or agriculture. Now, parties bent on smashing mosques and burning Christians are unlikely to focus on rural roads and electricity.

Parties bent on creating patronage networks for particular castes are unlikely to improve the administration or reduce corruption. Rather, they will attempt to give their caste brethren a greater share of the loot and privileges of maladministration. Regionalism is often not corrosive and may actually improve matters, as in Andhra Pradesh. But in Assam AGP rule has been accompanied by administrative collapse and unresolved civil conflict.

More serious than growing sectarianism is growing maladministration and criminalisation. A few examples:

  • An Election Commissioner estimated in the late 1990s that 40 MPs and 700 MLAs had criminal records. Law breakers have become law makers. This was not so in earlier decades.
  • The de jure and de facto chief ministers of Bihar (Rabri Devi and Laloo Yadav) both face prosecution. Yet both were re-elected. Some of their opponents, jailed for various crimes, also won elections from jail. Obviously voters in Bihar see no distinction between criminals and politicians. The disease is spreading to other states.
  • In the 1989 election, Rajiv Gandhi was defeated because voters felt the Bofors deal was a scam, and thought that the exit of Rajiv would mean the exit of corruption. In the 1990s they became more cynical. Sukh Ram was caught red-handed with crores in cash in his house, yet he was able to form a political party that swept his local area, and become a king-maker in Himachal Pradesh. Arun Gawli, the Maharashtra don, sees politics as the logical next step in developing his mafia empire.
  • In the hawala case, diaries were discovered with evidence of payments by the Jain brothers to politicians of all parties. An all-party attempt to sweep this under the carpet was foiled by a public interest suit. The CBI was told by the courts to make a full investigation. But, whether because of incompetence or political sabotage, the CBI failed to find any supplementary evidence, and the cases were thrown out one by one. In earlier decades the CBI was not so impotent. In the Mattoo rape case, the court accused the CBI of deliberately bungling investigations into the son of a top police officer.
  • In a celebrated case in Maharashtra, a judge was found to be in cahoots with the mafia.
  • An Allahabad high Court judge who could not get a railway berth threatened to jail the railway officer in charge for contempt of court. Such scandalous behaviour would have been unthinkable in earlier decades. There is no space in this column to list all examples of growing misgovernance in the 1990s.

All official institutions of redress legislatures, civil service, police, judiciary have deteriorated in quality and accountability. The result is what the President on Republic Day called a stone-hearted society. The breakdown of systems has been worst in Bihar, Assam and parts of UP. No wonder, then, that poverty has worsened in these regions in the 1990s.

But there are worrying signs of worsening governance everywhere, including the fast-growing states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. Fast growth can offset deteriorating governance up to a point but not beyond it. Economists at JNU are unable to measure misgovernance in their analyses and so fail to measure its impact of poverty.

But if all you know is what you can measure, you do not know very much. Some celebrated leftists claim that slower poverty alleviation in the 1990s is all the fault of liberalisation. Apparently they believe that collapsing administration and criminalised politics has no impact at all on poverty; that a state like Bihar where caste-based armies prowl the land is a show case of economic reform; that a state like Assam, where every tea-garden and businessman pays protection money to militants, is a paradise of economic freedom.

Certainly the poverty of poverty analysis has deepened in the 1990s. Critics fail to explain how the abolition of industrial licensing or import licensing makes the rural poor worse off. The rural poor certainly will not offer such an inane explanation. They will be puzzled by any talk of reform since the faces of government they see the local thanedar, patwari, PWD engineer and MLAs are all totally unreformed, and often more predatory than ever. We need major administrative, legal and police reforms to stem the rot.

Unfortunately parties are only interested in sectarian politics, and intellectuals are engrossed in irrelevant left versus right debates. The top priority today should be not economic reform, but institutional reform, without which all other reform will fail.

What do you think?