Criminalised politics and record GDP growth

India is experiencing record economic growth and record crimialisation of politics at the same time. GDP growth in the June-September quarter was a phenomenal 9.2%, raising hopes that India may actually overtake China in the not-too-distant future. Yet euphoria on this score was dampened by sundry political debacles.

Union Coal Minister Shibu Soren, the top tribal leader of Jharkand, was convicted for kidnapping and murder, the first time a Cabinet Minister has been sentenced for murder. The same Shibu Soren had in 2004 become the first Cabinet Minister to go absconding to escape arrest in a separate murder case. His crime is as sleazy as it gets: he kidnapped and murdered his own private secretary after the two had a dispute over sharing a bribe.

A few days earlier Mayawati, the once and future Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, was in the dock. The Supreme Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to pursue the Taj Corridor case in which she is the main accused, and virtually censured the Congress-led government for trying to let her off the hook.

A couple of days later, Maharashtra, India’s most industrialized state, suffered state-wide dalit-led riots in protest against the defacement of an Ambedkar statue in distant U.P. At least three people were killed, dozens were injured, and the Deccan Queen (the prestigious Mumbai-Pune train) was set on fire. The Deputy Chief Minister said he could not take aggressive action against the rioters because of political sensitivities.

The criminalization and violence of politics is worsening steadily. 1996 an Election Commissioner estimated that 40 M.P.s and 700 MLAs had criminal records, something unthinkable in earlier decades. Manmohan Singh in 2004 chose a Cabinet with six Minister facing criminal charges.

Economic theory says that rapid economic growth not possible without good governance. How, then, is India having booming growth and political crime at the same time?

There are two broad answers. One is that economic liberalisation has improved governance by ending the hassles, kickbacks and patronage networks of the preceding licence-permit raj. The second answer comes from VS Naipaul’s book “A Million Mutinies Now.”

Naipaul holds that millions of historically oppressed individuals and groups are now rebelling against the elite upper-caste hegemony of past centuries, and that the violence and criminalisation of these mutinies must be seen as promising social revolutions, not misgovernance. The historically oppressed classes—dalits, tribals, other backward castes—are not especially criminal or violent: they are simply using the space created by democracy to fight back with the extra-legal tools of force long used by upper castes. This may show up in the data as higher rates of criminal violence. In fact it is evidence of social justice and improved voice for the historically oppressed.

This may not be the whole explanation, but is surely part of it. Today the backward castes have become dominant castes in many states, and use that power as ruthlessly as upper castes in earlier centuries. Even landless labourers belonging to backward castes feel that have gained dignity when a low-caste politician loots the rich.

I recall a survey by the CSDS some years which asked if governance had improved or worsened. A big majority of upper-caste respondents said governance had worsened, while low-caste respondents said it had improved. So, while the two perceptions were radically different, they were two sides of the same coin.

Ideally, we should have top-quality governance for all, regardless of caste or income. Socialism was supposed to deliver this, but degenerated into corrupt patronage networks of the upper castes. But democracy empowered the lower castes politically. Political power soon translated into power over money and muscle too: the three go together inextricably in a country with weak police and judicial systems. Laloo Yadav did little for Bihar’s economic development, but gave backward castes a sense of dignity and empowerment, and for that alone was re-elected repeatedly.

This explains why last week’s events will create no political animus whatsoever against Mayawati or Soren. In other countries they would be politically dead after such scandals. In India they will remain unquestioned leaders of electorally important communities, wooed by all other parties in an era of coalitions. From a low-caste viewpoint, the crimes that Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Yadav are accused of are actually heroic events breaking the power of the upper castes. Soren murdered not just any old private secretary, but an upper-caste one.

Further evidence of this comes from the dalit riots in Maharashtra. In earlier decades, dalits could be raped and killed with impunity. It is something of a political revolution that dalits n Maharashtra can now go on the offensive, and be treated with kid gloves by a state government that dares not antagonize them. It is no accident that the dalit mobs targeted the Deccan Queen—the train it was a symbol of upper-caste domination, no less than Dr Ambedkar’s statues were symbols of dalit self-respect.

Is Naipaul right in thinking that these are the million mutinies that will ultimately give India justice and good governance, despite their short-term mayhem? I am agnostic on this: only time will tell.

What do you think?