<p>In the run-up to the 1999 general election, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) organised meetings with important political parties to inform them of the beneficial nature of market economy. As a business journalist, I covered the chamber’s interaction with Left leaders. A prominent economist apprised the communists about the abysmal human development indices and how liberalisation could help improve the situation. I remember a term he used – “litany of woes” – to describe the plight of the poor. The communists sullenly heard the prominent economist’s arguments and then unleashed their rhetoric against him, the CII and India Inc.
Two aspects of the meeting were striking: first, the Left’s reaction, which was doctrinaire, almost Pavlovian; and, second, the prominent economist’s obsequious pleading with the communists to seek their approval for liberalisation. His supplication was: look, we don’t believe in your ideology but we concede that its goals are laudable; and, by the way, these are also our goals. Since the economy philosophy we believe in actually helps achieve your goals such as poverty eradication, please appreciate the efficacy of the market economy.
This incident has allegorical significance, because our liberalisers have been pleading with Left-wing economists and intellectuals to accept, or at least not oppose, economic reforms since 1991. Capitalism – or, at any rate, some aspects of it – can be beneficial for all sections of society, including workers and peasants. This is the sum and substance of their message to their “Leftist friends”. The latter, however, disdainfully rebuff such entreaties. The liberaliser proposes, the Leftist intellectual disposes.
But how does it matter? The Left has been politically isolated and electorally battered; it does not appear a big player in any possible political configuration in the foreseeable future. So, why worry about them and their cantankerousness?
It needs to be understood that the Left’s influence has always been greatly disproportionate to its political strength. For the marketplace of ideas is curiously egalitarian in more than one sense of the word: first, social and economic equality attracts a huge premium; and, second, what matters in the public discourse is the ability of the participants to promote their ideas, not their political muscle. It’s a level playing field.
The Left need not be politically in alliance with United Progressive Alliance (UPA), but the guiding spirits of the ruling coalition are in any case Left-leaning. The National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, comprises professional radicals, green lobbyists, bleeding hearts and some downright Luddites. And what do our liberalisers, both within and outside the government, do?
Well, they continue to genuflect to NAC-types and pinkish public intellectuals. Food security? “Very good idea, but you see we don’t have the money right now.” Reservations in the private sector? “Ummm… it would be nice to have diversity, but there are problems in implementing it.” Always hiding behind the problems of implementation, always citing practical considerations, always avoiding the real issue, always beating about the bush. Never telling professional revolutionaries that their economy – their entire philosophy – is off the mark.
In India, the consequences of this outlook included low growth, misgovernance, the permit-quota-licence regime, Inspector Raj, and obscene empowerment of politicians and bureaucrats. All over the world, rich nations follow the capitalist path; and there has not been a single nation that has become prosperous by adopting socialism. Besides, rich nations are also the freest ones in the world. As Milton Friedman said, capitalism is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for political freedom.
One would have expected liberalisers to bombard NAC activists and other zealots with such facts. If you can’t convince them, crush them. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. The liberalisers fear the consequences; the fear is not groundless, as the enemy is an immensely powerful coalition.
In last few years, an alliance of the idealist and the practitioner of realpolitik has come into being, sort of politician-intellectual complex. The idealist keeps crying for expanding the role of the state; the politician is the beneficiary. The weapon of mass deception they use to devastating effect is argumentum ad hominem. Ad hominem is the form of argumentation in which the opponent-arguer rather than his argument is attacked. If somebody makes a case for, say, foreign direct investment (FDI) in a sector, the pros and cons of the case are not debated; the person promoting FDI is accused of working on some agenda. Therefore, the champions of economic reforms are maligned as stooges of big business, the sceptics of food security as anti-poor villains, the opponents of subsidies as heartless experts, the doubters about reservation as anti-Dalit, and so on. The ad hominem attack is so vicious and concerted that the person forgets the main issue and starts defending himself or herself.
Argumentum ad hominem is considered a dishonourable method but it is very effective. Even in the US, it is used by Obama’s supporters to tarnish conservatives and libertarians: criticism of the president on policy matters is often misconstrued as a racist assault. In India, where there is hardly any Right-wing intellectual establishment, argumentum ad hominem is even more damaging.
Make no mistake about it: the politician-intellectual complex has waged a war on liberalisation. It’s a brutal war in which no quarter is given and no prisoners are taken. Liberalisers need to realise that in such wars valour is the better part of discretion.
The author is a freelance journalist