Belmont Club

The Tiffin Party

Although the NYT’s recent article on the political awakening of the Indian middle class  describes it as the “Hazare movement”, many might be forgiven of thinking the words “Tea Party”. The NYT describes the sea-change in Indian politics.

A generation ago, the Indian middle class was smaller and centered around civil servants who lived in government housing and sent their children to government schools. Today’s middle class is a creature of the economic reforms of the 1990s and is tightly wedded to the private sector. Its success is celebrated in Bollywood movies, and the Indian news media serve as a bullhorn for its views.

If the earlier middle class saw some politicians as heroes, idolizing Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, this middle class mostly regards politicians with contempt, placing more faith in business leaders or, in some cases, in nongovernmental organizations. Government is no longer regarded as a provider or enabler, but as an obstacle.

“This middle class is less about ‘what the state can do for me’ than ‘the state is preventing me from doing what I want to do,’ ” said Devesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.

The shift from a middle class based on civil servants to one founded on the private sector is fairly recent. Civil servants in India were practically as rare as hen’s teeth 65 years ago. In the heyday of the Raj the Indian civil service numbered just over a thousand.  It ruled with a light hand. But Jawaharlal Nehru, who called it the “steel frame” of India, then proceeded to expand it. By 2011 there were 10.5 million bureaucrats in Indian federal and state agencies and it had become a world unto itself. The former “steel frame” had become a tangle of barbed wire which regulated everything; and it became the basis of the “middle class” and perhaps not so coincidentally, the foundation of Indian one party rule.

Leland Hazard, an American academic writing in the Atlantic, circa 1965, described the India he saw. “India is said to be the world’s largest democracy, 480 million people, increasing 10 million per year, one seventh of the world’s population. But one party of the politically elite, the Congress Party, which Gandhi and Nehru dominated during their lives, rules India — despite some permitted minority parties — as completely as the Communist Party rules Russia.”

It will be said that there is nothing wrong with India which cannot be cured by a 5 or 6 percent annual growth rate. That is like saying that there is nothing about war which cannot be cured by brotherly love, but how to get the growth rate or the brotherly love remains unanswered. …

First, the Indian economy should be more fully decontrolled. It is now subject to a hodgepodge of price and other economic and bureaucratic controls which make fruitless jobs for acres of clerks, create innumerable bottlenecks — often ultimately broken by graft — and provide power-seeking bureaucrats with opportunities for maintaining their own private pen-and-pencil armies. Even Russia uses price and competition as methods for allocating goods and for getting efficiency in production and distribution more than does India.

The old-line bureaucrats are as confused about Nehru’s “socialistic pattern” as middle-aged mothers watching their sons in a football game. Many of the civil servants have said to me, “Since in our government-owned enterprises we do not have the profit motive as a stimulus for efficiency, we must maintain tight supervision and control.” What the criteria are for the supervision and control they do not say, for the good reason that valid criteria do not exist. Control means control from Delhi, in a country where it takes hours to get through a telephone call over but a few hundred miles, and sometimes days for mail to travel the same distance. (There are some teletypes, but they are too often out of commission. Sections of transmission wires in India are cut and stolen for sale in the black market — one of the aspects of the controls.) Of course India’s government-owned plants must be in business for profit. If not, then who but the taxpayers will pay the losses?

Decontrol the economy. Get the taxpayer off the hook.  Be in business for profit. It is well that Hazard was writing about India in 1965. Had he lived today he might have been accused of ghostwriting for Herman Cain.

Eventually the Indian rising middle class noticed their chains and took notice.  The NYT describes how a the protest of a woman called Hazare became the subcontinental equivalent of the Rick Santelli rant. It was insignificant in itself but it caught fire because it touched a chord.

The Hazare movement rattled India’s political establishment because it offered a glimpse of what could happen if the middle class was mobilized across the country. Professionals and college students provided the organizational spine, and money, that brought hundreds of thousands of people of all backgrounds onto the streets in what many described as a political awakening. …

“Here” was Jantar Mantar, the famous protest site near the Parliament building in New Delhi, where Anna Hazare was waging his initial hunger strike against corruption. Mr. Roy had not been paying attention to the news and knew almost nothing about Mr. Hazare. That night, he turned on his television and saw thousands of people rallying as Mr. Hazare, 74, campaigned against the government. He was jolted. …

Mr. Hazare’s April hunger strike forced the government into negotiations over a proposed anticorruption agency, known as the Lokpal. After those negotiations collapsed, Mr. Hazare, who is based in the western state of Maharashtra, returned to New Delhi in August for a new hunger strike, sparking demonstrations across the country. This time, Mr. Roy and his friends rushed to support him. Mr. Hazare fasted for 12 days before the government accepted some of his key demands. Mr. Roy rejoiced.

Suddenly there emerged in India a political movement that rather than expecting help from government hoped it would get out the way when its interventions were unnecessary.  This marked a reversal from the post-war conventional wisdom and a challenge to the established cultural and political elites.

Like the Tea Party, there is a debate over how far the Indian rebels can go. “The question now is whether the middle-class activism is merely an outburst of discontent or the makings of a movement. … The disagreements underscore the movement’s lack of ideological coherence: Some critics have been suspicious because of the support given to Mr. Hazare by right-wing Hindu groups.”  There are also questions about the competence and honesty of the rebel leaders. But they have posed the question. The cat is out of the bag.

But though the names may never coincide, the concepts do.  Ross Douthat of the NYT, though he never uses the ‘Tea Party’ word, clearly echoes some of their ideas in his latest opinion piece, probably because they are so obvious as to be almost self-evident.

The public-sector workplace has become a kind of artificial Eden, whose fortunate inhabitants enjoy solid pay and 1950s-style job security and retirement benefits, all of it paid for by their less-fortunate private-sector peers. Some on the left have convinced themselves that this “success” can lay the foundation for a broader middle-class revival. But if a bloated public sector were the blueprint for a thriving middle-class society, then the whole world would be beating a path to Greece’s door. …

The story of the last three decades, in other words, is not the story of a benevolent government starved of funds by selfish rich people and fanatical Republicans. It’s a story of a public sector that has consistently done less with more, and a liberalism that has often defended the interests of narrow constituencies — public-employee unions, affluent seniors, the education bureaucracy — rather than the broader middle class.

The similarity of the Indian response to the condition of overgrowth in bureaucracy to that of the American Tea Party calls to mind the principle that “form follows function”. Similar problems will create similar solutions.

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.

Ironically the globalized economy may create the equivalent of a general model of governance, but not the kind that pundits had expected.

For many years after the Second World War it had been supposed that like Jawaharlal Nehru’s “steel frame”, national governments would grow until they encompassed everything, culminating in Global Governance which would supervise individual power until a kind of lasting peaceful stability was achieved. It was less apparent then that the price of such a control mechanism would be a kind stasis and corruption that would choke everything; perhaps to the point where it would endanger everything including the life of all it was supposed to protect.

What may actually happen, if “form follows function” is that governments will fall to an equilibrium level that roughly corresponds to what societies can actually afford.  In the end the most successful societies will have as much of a “steel frame” as they need, and no more.

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