I have tremendous respect for Tavleen Singh's espousal of economic reforms and her relentless focus on the leftist drivel that the Congress shoves down our throats in the mistaken attempt to buy votes.
However, the notion that we can take politics for granted while we push towards economic reforms by whichever means possible is questionable. Frustration with the slow pace of reforms has led some to argue for a dose of "strong leadership" by an authoritarian figure like Narendra Modi to push the polity towards reforms that at first take are distinctly unpalatable.
The necessary hike in petroleum, oil and lubricant prices to cut subsidies or the need to rationalise agricultural product marketing and distribution to debottleneck the sector through foreign direct investment are two typical examples. However, in a very basic sense, such an argument is deeply flawed.
The domain of validity of economics begins where politics ends. In other words, economics assumes you have already created the political conditions in which all members of the polity in an economy are able to participate in its processes with rational objectives.
This is so basic to economics that we tend to overlook this fact. Take Punjab of the '80s or Kashmir of the '90s. Did it even make sense to talk of economic reforms in those two states when the politics there had been so vitiated? Society has some buffer against divisive politics. But whether it was in Assam, Punjab or Kashmir, there is a point beyond which divisive politics fractures society, making any kind of economic progress difficult before the fires have been put out and normalcy restored.
A full third of India's districts are affected by Maoist insurgencies that have stretched our security forces. Do we need more divisive politics? Can a polity polarised by such deeply divisive issues like caste and creed actually achieve a consensus around economic reforms?
How can secularism be a sterile issue if its existence is threatened through polarisation along religious fault-lines? The fact is, secularism is the bedrock of our Constitution. We fought for secularism and had to see the country torn into two over the issue. What is the difference between Pakistan and us in one word? Secularism, yes. The concept is deeply embedded in our Fundamental Rights when it guarantees them to every citizen irrespective of his or her personal faith, religion or whatever.
It doesn't really matter how you define secularism. So long as those Fundamental Rights are enforceable, the secular character of our polity is beyond question. Tavleen Singh's contention that secularism arose in the context of the West's struggle with the Church doesn't make secularism irrelevant to us. How many of the ideas in the Constitution, including the notion of equality irrespective of caste, are indigenous to us?
The fact is, secularism is a necessary prerequisite for our existence as a multi-cultural society. We take peace and normal politics for granted when it is present. When it is challenged, as is being done by Hindutva forces to mobilise its cadres, the issue becomes central and everything else, including reforms, recede into insignificance. Secularism doesn't guarantee reforms. But how do you focus on anything else in politics when that very sheet anchor is swept away by raising communal storms? Championing Hindutva to promote reforms will be utterly self-defeating.
How Modi's "success" in Gujarat translates into Hindutva per se being conducive to economic reforms remains an unexplained mystery. On the face of it, the notion that an antediluvian movement that seeks to glorify a mythical past by selective embellishment can promote modernity is highly questionable.
On the other hand, the example of our neighbor shows that mindless talibanisation of faith leads to total chaos. Yet we have some intellectuals promoting the notion that the Hindutva forces promote reforms? The notion is incredible.
The second aspect of the matter merits even deeper study. Modi has done well in Gujarat. But has the BJP, and by extension Hindutva, done well as well in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka or Chhattisgarh? Why is Hindutva singled out only in Gujarat? Furthermore, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bihar have done better than Gujarat without fudging accounts and in the absence of Hindutva. What accounts for their good performance vis-à-vis Gujarat?
The fact is, Hindutva is largely irrelevant to reforms. It is being conflated with good governance and economic performance in a determined bid to promote Modi's brand of polarisation in order to garner votes. Hindutva has nothing to do with economic reforms.
It is relevant here to scan the social base of the BJP while examining its credentials to promoting further reforms of the sort we need. In the socialist era, the licence permit raj promoted by the Congress adversely affected the trading and merchant classes through a plethora of controls that made them vulnerable to extortion by babudom and politicians. Think of rationing, trade and credit restrictions to wholesale trade, fair price shops and the like. This made the trading and merchant classes pro-BJP because it espoused their cause.
Likewise, big business was tied down and thwarted by legislation like the MRTP Act etc that denied them the opportunity to grow. They too weighed in with the BJP for reforms. Once the Congress removed those restrictions as part of the reforms package, does the BJP's core base still want reforms? The record is very patchy.
Fact is, support to reforms will always be issue-based.
The very base that wanted the trade and other restrictions of the licence permit raj to go now opposes FDI in retail and reforms in agricultural product marketing and distribution because it hurts its narrow business interests, farmers be damned.
That very support base of the BJP that opposes expansion in subsidies to the poor such as NREGA also opposes removal of subsidies on diesel and petrol.
The very businesses that rail against open-ended subsidies and doles oppose removal of fertiliser subsidies that flow into their coffers even though they are meant for farmers.
If you look at the broader picture, reforms 2.0 that we need are necessary to promote more competition among businesses from local and foreign partners and to end subsidies that actually flow to businesses. Both these type of reforms are anathema to the BJP's base, which is why reforms have stalled.
Which is not to say the Congress supports these reforms. There is plenty of reason to believe that internal opposition to reforms 2.0 in the Congress is holding them up. Be that as it may, the need for reforms is being used to subtly push forward the Hindutva project and not the other way around. We need to focus on such unwarranted conflation flowing out of the Gujarat hype.
There is need to carefully examine why people assume that we need an authoritarian figure like Modi combined with the storm-troopers of Hindutva to promote economic reforms. Tavleen Singh is absolutely on the mark when she asks the leftists in the NDA to show what they are going to do to ease power shortages, lick the education system in shape or repair healthcare.
It may well be that secularism is a ploy used by the leftists in the NDA to derail the BJP's ambitions. But that doesn't mean that either Hindutva or authoritarianism promote economic reforms and/or growth.
It doesn't mean politics of polarisation is needed to build a momentum for change.
Last but not the least, it doesn't mean secularism once achieved becomes irrelevant. We don't come into the world hardwired for secularism. Quite the contrary. Secularism is therefore something you promote as an ideal through education and acculturation.
You cannot hold a large, diverse society like India together by regimenting everybody into some ill-defined notion of Hindutva that even its proponents cannot pin down. The only way forward is through secularism, and if it's a dead issue within the NDA, it will be very much alive and kicking if the BJP were to lurch towards the Modi brand of polarised politics.
Sonali Ranade is a trader in the international markets