A shorter version of this was published as the 22nd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
‘I’m not conceited. Conceit is a fault and I have no faults.’ Imagine this quote on an internet meme, alongside a picture of Narendra Modi, looking dapper in that famous pinstripe suit, or maybe a trademark Modi kurta. It would surely get thousands of shares on social media, many from bhakts impressed by the prime minister’s modesty. Don’t rush to share it, though: as one tends to do on the internet, I just misattributed. Those words were not uttered by Modi, or even Oscar Wilde or GB Shaw. The man who said them is former Van Halen singer Dave Lee Roth, with his back against a record machine. But Modi could have said them, could he not?
Please don’t think I am picking on Narendrabhai alone. All politicians are vain. Indeed, one could argue that in politics, vanity is a feature and not a bug. Politicians come to power by selling specific narratives about their excellence; and they can sell it most effectively if they believe it themselves. Success in many fields often begins, comically and ironically, with self-delusion. But politicians have consequences, and there’s nothing comic about that.
One reason that India is still a poor country is the ‘fatal conceit’ of our founding fathers. Jawaharlal Nehru, and his minions and successors, believed that economies were best planned from the top down. An economy is a complex thing, the poor and ignorant masses of India surely could not be trusted to perform this task by themselves, and needed to be directed by wise and benevolent planners. Those who have studied economics or paid attention to history know that this was foolish and wrong.
Economies, like languages, are products of “human action but not human design,” in the words of Adam Ferguson. They function brilliantly on their own, with millions of individuals pursuing their self-interest, and thus increasing the value in the lives of others, for that is the only path to profit. Planning is not only not required, it is an impediment. A central planner can never get a grasp on the huge amount of dispersed knowledge in an economy, and any intervention is bound to lead to a loss in efficiency. This hurts the poor the most: as I illustrated in a previous column, every intervention in a free market amounts to a distribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.
Nehru suffered from a disease that Friedrich Hayek called the Fatal Conceit. His coining of that term was inspired by the following passage in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “The man of system […] is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”
People are not chess pieces, of course, and Nehru and his successors ravaged the economy with their well-intentioned interventions. I won’t recite the litany, but here’s the thing: 68 years after we became independent, 24 after the Soviet Union collapsed, we are still enslaved by a failed philosophy. And we’re still suffering because of the fatal conceit of flawed individuals.
It amuses me sometimes that Modi is considered a right-wing politician. He actually embodies the worst of both left and right. Like his party, and the ecosystem of religious nutjobs that sustains it, he is right-wing on social issues; and left on economic ones. Basically, he is against individual freedom in every domain possible, and thus the exact opposite of me. If you put Modi and me in a test tube, the resultant explosion could blow the earth off its orbit, or at least result in a good rap album. But that is a digression, and it is possible that you have your mouth open because I called him an economic leftist. Well, if a man is to be known by his actions and not his public image, what else can we call him?
I know many economic liberals, bald because of six decades of tearing their hair out, who thought Modi would be a free-market messiah. My ass. Tell me this: exactly what reforms has he carried out that increase our economic freedom? When Modi took over, India was ranked 140 out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index: it has since slipped to 142. He has not reformed the labour laws that, for decades, have prevented us from being a manufacturing superpower. The license and inspector raj remains what it was under his predecessors. A litany of what he has not changed would be the same as a litany of what was wrong with our country before he took over.
I have friends in high places who tell me that the system doesn’t allow him to act. But the truth is that Modi suffers from the same fatal conceit that Nehru displayed. He believes the economy needs a top-down manager. He would rather reform a public sector unit than sell it off. When he talks of ‘minimum government and maximum governance,’ as that catchy slogan went, he is speaking of making government more efficient and not at eliminating it entirely from areas where it has no business existing.
His conceit isn’t limited to his economic thinking, though. Look at how the man struts! He may not walk the walk in the sense of governance, but he certainly does in a catwalk sense. Once he was denied a US Visa; now he travels the world meeting the high and mighty. I wonder if he realises, though, that these global leaders give him importance because of the position he occupies, and not the man he is. I suspect he has actually drunk his Kool Aid, and believes the Modi Wave narrative of the last elections. He may be headed for a fall if so.
Look at the numbers from the 2014 general elections again. Our first-past-the-post system made it seem like a wipeout, as the BJP got 6.4 times the seats that Congress did. But they got just 1.6 the vote share of the Congress. It was 31% to 19%, and a 4% swing away from them next time could easily result in a hung parliament. They delivered outlier performances in states like UP, MP and Gujarat, which seem statistically impossible to repeat. And the following things are certain: Since the election, they have not won more supporters than they have lost; the turnout of their supporters is bound to be less the next time around; other parties, clear about what they are up against, will make smarter coalitions to consolidate the non-BJP vote; anti-incumbency will be a factor now that some of the Modi sheen is gone.
Modi behaves like the prime ministership was his destiny and he will win again easily in 2019. But if he doesn’t get his act together, reforming the economy and constraining the lunatic fringe in his party, he could be in for a surprise. India could choose another delusional politician over him, and 2014-2019 could be remembered as The Selfie Years.
Also read: ‘Lessons From 1975.’