Home > News > Columnists > Swapan Dasgupta
Where did Digvijay go wrong?
December 02, 2003
An adept wordsmith, Law and Commerce Minister Arun Jaitley drew a few sniggers from the World Economic Forum meet in New Delhi last Tuesday when he referred to the delights of speaking over a satellite link from Bhopal.
At least, he said, "I have the reassurance that I will not be heckled by those who can best be called social entrepreneurs." The reference was to the attempt, two days before, by a small but voluble group of self-publicists professing allegiance to NGOs, to prevent Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi from speaking. 'Would you invite Hitler to speak?' asked one
of the placards.
The protestors were obviously overstating their feigned indignation. Hence, there is a strong temptation to view them as slightly dotty but well-meaning idealists. At the same time, because of their formidable media connections, the social entrepreneurs are treated with wariness by the political class.
As antagonists they can be a nuisance -- as Modi knows only too well -- and contribute to dollops of adverse publicity. When co-opted through liberal grants from the state exchequer, they can, however, be transformed into publicity agents for astute politicians.
Congress leader Arjun Singh showed the way in the early-1990s and the baton has passed on to his successors in Madhya Pradesh.
Unfortunately, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh is unmistakably beleaguered these days. Almost every single opinion poll shows him vulnerable to the winds of change blowing through the state. He is battling hard for his political survival.
Yet, look back at the image of Diggy Raja a few months ago. He was lauded in the media for reshaping the dynamics of governance in Madhya Pradesh. Praised for his empowerment of the grassroots and his audacious Dalit agenda, he was regarded as more than just another chief minister. Clever, articulate, decent, suave and, needless to say, incredibly secular, he was the darling of the social entrepreneurs and the Great White Hope of a post-Sonia Gandhi Congress. He had almost every editor, intellectual stalwart and jholawala eating out of his hand.
Digvijay reciprocated the adulation. Bhopal became the New Jerusalem for the NGOs. There was hardly a group or an activist who didn't find a place in the state government's elaborate publicity machine. At grand seminars and tastefully organised conventions, they heard Digvijay and Digvijay heard them out. Even when the Narmada Bachao Andolan had to agitate against the state government, it did so grudgingly and Digvijay ensured the famous agitators were treated with utmost courtesy. The NGOs and Digvijay forged a symbiotic relationship.
To say that Digvijay was undone by the underlying sycophancy of adulation, just as Ramakrishna Hegde was in the late eighties, is to do him a grave injustice. He was too sensible and rooted a politician to let fawning courtiers overwhelm his common sense. No, what happened to Digvijay was far more breathtaking. He actually underwent an intellectual transformation. He embraced the ideology of the NGOs and sincerely believed he was ushering a social revolution.
The results are before the voters of Madhya Pradesh. To say that the state has bad roads is an understatement; it has an elaborate network of potholes. The power situation is so pitiable that some 12,000 small scale industries have closed shop and some six lakh workers lost their jobs. With a scandalous 25 per cent pass rate in the board examinations, low life expectancy and only 20 per cent children born in medical centres, the social sector has also reflected the overall decline of the state. To cap it all, the UNDP Human Development Index has ranked Madhya Pradesh along with Rwanda, Senegal and Madagascar.
The reason for this grim state of affairs is not because Digvijay was insincere and callous. As was evident from his performance during his Big Fight with Jaitley on television, he was so taken in by the NGO rhetoric of empowerment and social intervention that he forgot that poverty alleviation can stem from a wholesome environment for economic growth. Roads, power and a sensible tax structure can create the conditions for economic activity which in turn can generate the revenues for social investment.
Digvijay preferred an alternative regime centred on handouts and some half-baked notions of empowerment. He tried to replicate what NGOs do locally at a state level. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough to hand out and make a difference. Madhya Pradesh went into a spiral of decline and Digvijay ended up displeasing a bit too many people. No wonder he is being mocked in the state as Sriman Bhantadar.
India's vocal social entrepreneurs can press for an ideology built on romanticism and a selective reading of Amartya Sen. But they have no accountability and have the luxury to move to the next lucrative project if things go awry. Politicians, for all their sins, are answerable to voters. They cannot afford to indulge in flights of whimsy.
From being a politician, Digvijay set out to be a visionary. There was nothing wrong in being a thinking politician. Unfortunately, he settled for the vision of those do-gooders who wallow in the perpetuation of poverty and who have no stakes in India. Digvijay's troubles should be a lesson to the entire political class to keep away from starry-eyed charlatans.
Regardless of his present troubles, Digvijay will recover. Hopefully, he will be a wiser man after his encounters with India's social entrepreneurs.