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About Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.




Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Recent entries

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Cricketers Focus on Process, Not Results. So Should Fans

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Consent Won a Battle This Week. The War Remains

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25 August, 2018

Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

This is the first installment of Politics Without Romance, my monthly column with Bloomberg Quint. As the name indicates, this column will look at Indian politics through the lens of Public Choice Theory.

One more Independence Day comes up, and it’s time to ask that annual question again: Where have all the leaders gone?

It’s a common lament that the politicians of today are the opposite of the freedom fighters who got us this Independence. We had giants then. We have pygmies now. Our leaders then were driven by principle. Our leaders now are driven by the lust for power. Why?

If you look at politics through the lens of economics, which I will do in this column over the new few months, the answer lies in incentives. Why do people get into politics? What do they want from it? What can they realistically expect? What do they need to do to get to the top? What trade-offs do they need to make? What do they need to do to stay on top?

Right from the 19th century, our freedom fighters had little personal upside to their battles. We were ruled by the British Empire, and these men had no chance of coming to power and enjoying its rewards. The downside was significant, though. If you were in a position of influence, you could lose it. If you were not, and fought too vigorously, you could land up in jail or worse.

The generations of men and women who rose up to fight against the British empire did so because they were animated by a higher cause. There was no personal upside to it. There was a principle at stake. For example: Freedom is my birthright, and I shall have it. And they cared about that principle so much that some of them were willing to die for it.

Once Independence was achieved, the incentives changed. Firstly, getting the British to leave was so miraculous, coming after a decades-long struggle, that our leaders did not notice what we did not achieve. Yes, we got political independence, but we still weren’t guaranteed the personal and economic freedoms that we had fought for.

One of the seminal moments of our Independence struggle was Mahatma Gandhi’s protest against the tyranny of the salt tax. Well, consider that the tax on salt is far higher today, not to mention other taxes or other tyrannies.

Here’s what we did on August 15, 1947. We replaced one set of rulers with another. Only the colour of their skin changed. And those who had fought against those in power were now in power themselves. Their incentives changed. Would they change?

In the early years of our independence, our politics was ruled by those who had come into the freedom struggle for the sake of principles, not power. I’m willing to give them the benefit of doubt. Their mistakes were honest mistakes – such as the embrace of the Fabian socialism that kept India poor for decades longer than it should have. That flawed thinking was the fashion of the times, and was not driven by bad incentives. The drive towards Big Government did, however, change incentives further.

Henceforth, it was natural that those who would be drawn to politics would be driven by the lust for power. Now that it was possible for Indians to join the ruling class, people were bound to want to do so. Now that we had achieved Independence, there no longer seemed a burning need to fight for higher principles. Principles would become a rationalisation, a way to position a political brand to differentiate it from others. 

Those who did enter politics for reasons of principle would soon find themselves having to compromise on those principles for pragmatic reasons. So much so that by the time they actually achieved power, there could be no trace of those original principles. There is an old truism that power corrupts. It is equally true that the quest for power corrodes character. There may be politicians who start off idealistic—but they cannot remain that way, no matter what their public positioning.

Why is this? Incentives. Achieving power requires two things: Money and Votes. (As you can only get Votes by spending Money, this is arguably one thing, but I’ll speak of them as two to illustrate the different directions that politicians are pulled in.)

First, money. Over the decades, it has gotten more and more prohibitive to fight an election. One needs crores to contest even a local election. Where does this money come from? Who can afford such large sums?

The money always comes from interest groups who expect a Return on Investment. There’s always a quid pro quo involved. I give you money, but when you come to power, you do XYZ for me. First, money leads to power. Then, power must lead to money. This is the chakravyuh of politics.

For example, if a big industrialist gives a political party money, what could he want out of it? One, he may want regulation that protects his industry or company from competition. Place tariffs on foreign goods, deny a license to a competitor, and so on. (All these can be done citing seemingly noble principles.)

Two, he may want special privileges that the government, using its monopoly on violence, can get him. For example, if he wants land for a factory, the government can use eminent domain to get it cheaply from villagers and hand it to him. Three, he may want soft loans from a Public Sector Bank, which he otherwise may not get from a private sector bank that has different incentives and does due diligence.

Contemporary examples of this abound. Consider the interest groups that benefit from any government policy, and you can follow the trail. You may oppose FDI in retail, for example, because small traders form a large chunk of your donor base, as is the case with AAP (and the BJP, until recently). You may allocate natural resources to favoured cronies, as the UPA was alleged to have done with coal and spectrum.

All of these, you will note, amount to a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, from us citizens to moneybag interest groups. This is how Power provides RoI to Money.

Needless to say, you don’t make money only for those who fund you, but also for yourself. (This might even be the prime personal incentive for wannabe politicians.) Our system of big government is especially lucrative. Wherever there is power, there is discretion, and there will be corruption. And our government is designed to give enormous amounts of power to those in charge, which makes immense corruption inevitable. This is not a function of the party in power, but of the incentives in play.

And now, to votes. In our democracy, elections are the process by which we decide which of the competing mafias will get to rule us for five years. There is just one way for these mafias to win our votes: by bribing us. The party in power may hand out immediate sops. The parties in opposition will promise them.

In the political marketplace, just as in any other marketplace, every brand does not try to woo every customer. (Unlike in a regular marketplace, of course, there is usually only one winner.) Parties will have vote banks that they will nurture over time, and reward when they are in power. The immense power of the state makes patronage politics lucrative.

For example, you can promise reservations in government jobs to a group of your choice. Or, even without explicit promises, you can make sure the state favours the groups you are wooing, either by giving them jobs or contracts or looking after them in other ways. (This is analogous to how a mafia rewards and protects those who give them hafta, except here it is legal.)

Or you can just bribe them directly, with free biryani or pressure cookers. This can become a vicious circle. For example, everyone wants farmers’ votes, and once one party promises farm loan waivers, every other party has to follow suit. Loan waivers are a temporary anaesthetic that perpetuate the problem, but politicians do not have the incentives to make the deep structural changes that are required in agriculture. Those will take years to play out, much beyond an election cycle – and parties need votes now.

The great tragedy of Indian politics is that all our politics is identity politics that centres around state patronage. All parties are guilty of this. Smaller regional parties nurture their own caste vote banks. The Congress pandered to minorities for decades. The BJP caters to the worst bigots among us – and there are enough of them now to make the party a force. They also manipulated the caste politics of UP masterfully in 2014 and 2017. As for AAP, they have pandered to Khalistanis and Kanwariyas alike, and a prominent supporter of theirs was made to apologize to a Jain Muni for the reason that Jains were a powerful vote bank for AAP.

All this is inevitable. What can a party do without votes? What can a party do without money? The imperatives of our democracy make politics morally corrosive. To get to power, you must privilege the means over the ends. And even if your ends were noble to begin with, by the time you are done, your only goal is power. You become the monster you might have tried to fight.

What could change this? Well, if the state had less power, it would offer less RoI to investors. There would be less money and less patronage for parties to bribe voters with. Imagine a limited government that existed just to protect our rights and nothing else. The incentives would change. It would have so little power that those who lust for power would be forced to look elsewhere for career options. (Maybe they’d join the mafia.) Interest groups would stop funding politicians because politicians would not have power to do something in return for them. Voters could not be induced with short-term sops or goodies.

Can that change in the design of our government ever take place? Who will have the incentives to make that change? Not the moneybags and the interest groups, that’s for sure. But what about the voters? If enough citizens demanded reform, the government would have to listen. Supply has to obey Demand.

Andrew Brietbart once said, ‘Politics is downstream of culture.’ This is exactly right. Before we change our politics, we must change our culture. This is as noble a battle to fight as the one our great freedom fighters fought against the British empire decades ago. Will new leaders emerge to fight it?

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