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Akshay Alladi @akshayalladi
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Alert- Extremely long thread: What would an agenda for Indian conservatism look like? My response to this thread by @shrikanth_krish which has an interesting diagnosis and some innovative and eccentric solutions
Firstly, a clarification on the definition and context: By conservatism I don't mean right wing. There may be areas of convergence with the right wing, but I arrive at these positions very differently
The core context for what I am referring to as conservatism is the insight that society is a complex, adaptive system. And hence any set of policy positions adduced solely by reasoning from first principles is ineffective since it has unintended consequences
Complex, adaptive systems are best changed by "evolution" rather than "intelligent design". Any set of human designers will lack the knowledge to shape society without having unintended and usually harmful consequences
It is that temperament for evolutionary change- that is incremental, slow and local ( as opposed to radical in scope and pace) that allows for adaptation and building on what exists already that underscores the conservative impulse
In that sense it is in temperament on sharp contrast to the "right wing" especially in India, which also seeks a radical change, just in an opposite direction to what the liberals seek
Conservatism values implicit and tacit knowledge embedded in existing institutions, traditions and patterns of society. Since it has lasted for a long time, it must be playing a valuable role even if not discernible through reasoning from first principles
After that preamble about conservatism broadly, a discussion on the two unique challenges that Indian conservatism faces: 1. The 3 big disruptions of Indian history 2. The nature of the Indian constitution
Unlike in the UK and the US, Indian conservatism faces a challenge of being far less coherent due to the three major disruptions in Indian history - 1. Islamic rule 2. British rule 3. The liberal independence struggle and national movement
These pose a difficult question to Indian conservatives- that is what exactly do you wish to conserve? The widely varying answers to this make a conservative agenda in India fraught with internal incoherence and splintering
The current right wing for instance seeks a revival of (a somewhat imaginary) pre Islamic Hindu "glory". Apart from being very simplistic (and ahistorical) it is also impractical and non-conservative in not building upon what exists
British rule introduced its own disruptions- socially, culturally and in politics and administration.
The national movement was also remarkable in that it was not just focused on independence from foreign rule, but equally focussed on the iniquities of Indian society -especially the treatment of oppressed communities
This then leads to the second challenge of Indian conservatism -that is the conceptualisation of the Indian state as an agent of "social revolution" (as described by Granville Austin) as codified in the Constitution
Unlike the US Constitution which have limited and enumerated powers to the Union government, the revolutionary scope of both colonial rule and India's own national movement meant that a powerful state with an agenda for social change was created
When the most powerful entity (that is the State) has a social revolutionary agenda sanctified in the Constitution, then a conservative agenda faces very strong headwinds
Now, with that context of the unique challenges for Indian conservatism, moving on to the next part- what are the key challenges or stresses that the Indian republic faces, and the policy agenda that conservatism can have to address them
@shrikanth_krish has listed three key stresses in his thread 1. Marginalized communities 2. The Hindu right and 3. Lingual and geographic. I partially agree, but would look to refine and substantially enhance this list
On Stress 1- of marginalized communities, I would split this into Dalits and tribals on the one hand, and Muslims on the other. These are fundamentally different both in terms of current constitutional order, and likely future stresses
The recent work on educational mobility (and by inference economic mobility)) has shown that Dalits and tribals have made substantially more progress than Muslims have, whose economic mobility (relatively) has actually declined
While there is a very very long way to go for an inclusive India that provides sufficient opportunities to Dalits and tribals, the existing Indian constitutional order does provide an impetus with reservations as the tool both in political representation and the economy
In contrast India has failed quite miserably not just in bettering the economic conditions of its Muslim citizens, but in the right political arrangements
If you think of the original India, that is pre-partition, the failure becomes even more stark. Most political innovations to secure Muslim interests- have failed, none more so than the hare-brained please, which has left Muslims worse off in both India and Pakistan
Even in the modern Indian republic with a strict (and justified) prohibition of reservations on religious lines, Muslims have sought different strategies for political representation, with very limited success
One part to note, which I will come to again in the solutions, is that Muslims, like Dalits and tribals, are a geographically spread out community. The current Indian constitution does a solid job of representation of geographically concentrated groups e.g., linguistic groups
However the Indian democratic structure given FPTP in geographically delimited constituencies is weaker in providing political representation for "spread out" support. See the BJP getting a majority with negligible Muslim support and no Muslim MPs
That is the case with "Dalit" parties also to some extent- e.g., BSP was the third largest national party in terms of vote share in 2014, but with zero seats in Parliament! But in the case of Dalits and tribals at least reservation ensures that there is minimum representation
Moving on to the next stress mentioned- that is that from the Hindu right. Here I disagree with the diagnosis and the quirky solution offered by @shrikanth_krish - that of a tricameral legislature with the third house having representatives of the Hindu priesthood among others
I don't think the fundamental issue with the Hindu right is one of representation. In fact the current Indian constitutional order, if anything, is highly amenable to Hindu majoritarianism from a political representation standpoint
To the extent that Hindu cultural conservative interests are not represented (causing stress to the republic) that is not because of lack of appropriate representation but rather due to the social revolutionary character of the Constitution
This provides the state with the tools to intervene in the religious and cultural affairs of Indians in general, and Hindus in particular
The third stress mentioned was that of regional and linguistic forces. This is well documented and to some extent mitigated by the formation of linguistic states
To this now refined list, I add my view on a few more stresses to the Indian republic, some of which are related to the ones already mentioned
One is an intra-regional stress. That is, the stress on India, especially going forward, will not just be Union vs States (as on Stress 3), but Region vs Region
Correction: Inter-regional stress. This is especially going to be the case since the regional disparity in India is not just large, but sometimes widening. The top 3 states in India have three times the per capita income of the bottom 3
This disparity will lead to both inter state fiscal transfers mediated by the union, and internal migration, both of which will lead to political backlash which the Indian union will have to contend with
The next stress that I see is that of cities vs rural India. Or rather the right focus on urbanisation to allow the current rural population to be absorbed into more productive cities.
The current Indian political structure is just not geared towards rapid urbanisation and the need to create public goods on cities that allow that. The political logic is self-reinforcing leading to inadequate focus on urbanisation
The next stress is a subtle one- that of inadequate economic development and potential fiscal irresponsibility. With a large, young population economic development and employment generation is even more critical for the Indian republic
Under-delivery on economic development is a stress by itself. Also, it is likely to be addressed through palliatives such as populist giveaways which places a debt burden on future generations
Conservatives should be particularly concerned about this given the conceptualisation of society not as a social contract, but as a trusteeship that links the past, present and future generations
The next stress will be on gender. Women empowerment will (and should) gain importance, and an Indian republic that is insufficiently responsive to that will lose credibility. This will lead to more "revolutionary" solutions that will be worse than the disease
The last stress I can think of is of India's external security. India has done reasonably well on external security so far, but our own expanding interests and the changing global order pose new stresses
The nature of external security management, that requires long term decision making with no immediate discernible payoff, is also not adequately addressed by a 5 year long government
With that rough sketch of stresses, what would a conservative agenda look like for India to mitigate and manage these stresses while building on what exists.
Here is a non-comprehensive list, not necessarily of specific policies but of the conservative movements, institutional reforms and changes in constitutional structures that will be needed. This is mostly one level higher than specific policies
1. A legal conservative movement to roll back the social revolutionary state 2. Federal devolution to BOTH states and cities 3. Rajya Sabha reform to represent state, and sectional interests 4. An FRBM- NGDP target dyad for fiscal and monetary policy 5. A defence spend commitment
Firstly, a legal conservative movement. This is to incrementally chip away at the social revolutionary state, and empower the civil liberties of the individual and social groups via a vis the state
This doesn't require a change in the Constitution. Merely a legal movement that stresses textualism and a narrow interpretation of laws such that it provides very little latitude for the state to interfere with the lives of citizens
Unlike the US, originalism and stare decisis (legal precedent) will need to be emphasised less and it needs a novel, but still textualist narrow reading of the Constitutional powers of the state
This would substantially address the stress faced by the Hindu right, of non interference by the state in religious affairs and in equal treatment of all religions
For example, such a reading of the Constitution would look askance at the state takeover and administration of temple trusts etc.
It would also reorder the legislative priorities on cultural issues more towards the kind of "core" issues that the online Hindu right espouses as opposed to issues like the Uniform Civil Code
The second set of solutions will be on greater federalism, decentralisation and devolution of power both to states and to cities.
This requires a confinement of the Union government to the Union list, and most topics in the concurrent list being left to states. The 42nd amendment passed during Emergency should be the prime target to reverse
Faithfully implementing the 74th amendment to empower local self government for city municipalities will also provide the right framework for urbanisation to reduce that stress
The mechanism for fiscal devolution would continue to the Finance Commission, but with explicit fiscal devolution to cities as well as states
Direct taxes on the other hand, could largely be left to the States and cities, thus providing the competition between them, and political contestation on traditional left-right lines
The next set of solutions is on Rajya Sabha reform. One obvious point here is to make it a true Council of States with equal representation for all states irrespective of population
But the additional points here are Direct election by the people instead of by the state legislators. But the means of election being proportional representation rather than FPTP
Not only would that build a strong voice for states in the Union, and act as a crucible for statw wide political talent, but could be a neat way of accommodating sectional, especially Muslim interests
If every state has 3-5 or 10 Rajya Sabha members elected through proportional representation across the state then it is very unlikely that a "spread out" community like Muslims will go unrepresented.
Gender balance on the other hand will need the "reservation" of a proportion of such Rajya Sabha seats for women
Th next set of solutions is on the economy - where I propose that the over-arching framework is an FRBM- NGDP target for fiscal and monetary policy
FRBM- will provide a legislative check to ensure fiscal responsibility. An NGDP target for monetary policy (as opposed to an inflation target) not only provides a better guide to deal with supply side shocks (oil prices and monsoon) ...
But also gives predictability on debt repayments, with the right back pressure on Governments to undertake productivity enhancing supply side economic reform, without which the RBI's NGDP targeting will result in high inflation and slow growth that loses elections
This dyad will lead to greater fiscal prudence, and the right political conditions for second generation economic reforms
Finally, on the external defence of India. Here we need a commitment of defence spend (say of 3 percent of GDP) that is codified in law like the FRBM. With the funds carrying over from one year to another even if unspent
How that money is spent can and should be a matter of political debate. But it provides a semi-permanent and reliable commitment for the security of future generations without being a victim of the current electoral cycle
With that in place then the role of the Rajya Sabha can be expanded to even passing money bills with some caveats
With this most of the stresses mentioned can be addressed , but undergirded by a conservative orientation. That's it for this thread for now!
I meant the hare-brained *Partition in this tweet
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