All politicians in modern day democracies suffer from an acute sense of vanity at some point in their career. It leads them to believe that their participation in the body politic makes an enormous difference to the lives of the masses in just the same way beauty pageant contestants believe in advancing the cause of world peace. The naïve ones and socialists suffer the delusion earlier in their careers whereas the more cynical ones catch this disease towards the fag end of their performance.
But there also exist a few handpicked men and women whom fortune places in such circumstances from the vantage of which these rare personalities enjoy a clear view of the socio-political trends of the era. These are leaders who by virtue of their position and awareness are able to significantly advance or reverse the ideas that shape the lives of massive chunks of humanity. These politicians defy the stereotypical self-effacing humility and vacuousness that passes off for leadership in our modern age. Leaders of this hue embrace the idea of power. Their unapologetic pursuit and application of political power is wholly inconsistent with rhetorical conventions of populist politics.
Narendra Modi the man thrice elected to be the Chief Minister of Gujarat is precisely one such politician. Modi is aiming to become Prime Minister at a time when an utterly ambitionless UPA has run the socio-economic indicators of the country down to the ground. As Modi himself put it there is ‘no thought, no action plan, no leadership and no political will to take the country forward’.
Modi’s credibility as a governance champion, his charisma and the right electoral strategy should make it possible for him to replace Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister. That Modi could ride on the twin horses of his record as Chief Minister and the popular resentment of the UPA government to effect a regime change is a definite possibility. But if Modi were to limit his political agenda to just these two themes it would foreclose a lot of historical opportunities that a Modi Prime Ministership opens the doors to.
Project Modi is an opportunity to attempt a dismantling of the left-liberal establishment and its nefarious influence that pervades almost every aspect of the people’s lives through branches of the government, academic institutions, media outlets, NGOs and other assorted busybodies. Properly planned it could be independent India’s most ambitious political project; indeed it could be the first time that the post-independence Nehruvian consensus would be subject to a serious challenge on all fronts.
Such a project has been attempted before and history views it as an astounding success. I refer of-course to the eleven years of Thatcher administration that revolutionized the political landscape of Great Britain and rolled back many decades of socialism. The Thatcher parallel is relevant because of the similarities between the circumstances of Thatcher and Modi.
The iron lady of Britain had inherited a nearly bankrupt British state that was used to profligacy and reckless encroachment into the domains of society and the individual. Nationalization of industries, incompetent public services, soaring inflation and outdated Labour laws had stifled private enterprise and public morale. Britain had come to resemble a basket case by 1978-1979 when the government’s pay policy provoked a nation-wide trade union strike bringing the country to a complete standstill. It would be for Thatcher to shriek and shake the British out of their socialist slumber.
And yet for all her potential the Conservative party had not really bought into what would become the ‘Thatcherite’ agenda. Thatcher was a bit of an outsider in the party – a self-made woman from a lower middle class background amidst a near monopoly of upper class men with inherited access to wealth and status. To the old guard Thatcher was always the grocer’s daughter. Modi like Thatcher is an outsider within the Sangh in the sense that he defies the stereotype of a pracharak-leader who allows his identity to be big-footed by that curious phenomenon of collective leadership. Nagpur is yet to reconcile to a mass leader who will not suffer the ignominy of self-effacement in order to please vested interests.
By the time Thatcher was running for leader of Conservative party the Tories had reconciled to increasing collectivism in public affairs and thought it unthinkable that the socialist zeitgeist of post-war Britain could be challenged. The situation of the Right in India today is slightly similar in the sense that the party is intimidated from boldly committing itself to undoing the damage that is being caused by large remnants of license raj. Indeed if the BJP’s fumbling over the NREGA and other populist measures is any indicator then it appears the BJP is reconciled to permanently ceding ground to statism.
Outside the party circles Thatcher wasn’t a favourite amongst the dominant Keynesian economic school in her time as PM. The episode of 364 economists writing to a paper attempting to establish that Thatcher’s monetarism had no basis in economic theory demonstrated the haughtiness and intellectual dishonesty of the British academic establishment. In India too alleged intellectuals and academics have wasted entire forests to produce the paper on which they pen their assaults on Modi’s governance model. But for their astonishing certitude and conviction (some would say brazenness) the established Leftist outposts would have easily hounded out both Modi and Thatcher.
In carving out a niche for themselves amidst old party grandees and in their contemptuous treatment of faux-intellectualism that sustains socialist avenues Thatcher and Modi share similarities in their pre-Prime Ministerial days. Superficial though such similarities maybe we must acknowledge the direction towards which our present circumstances will lead us to. The Thatcher parallel offers a historical precedent and a political benchmark which can certainly be of aid in charting the course of the Modi Project. But this call to learn from Thatcherism should not mis-interpreted as a call to imitate Thatcherism in its every detail such as Labour laws and privatization.
While privatisation and Labour law reform remain perfectly valid starting points for deconstruction of our socialist state the important lessons of Thatcherism are not the specific reform measures. Nor is it the application of the efficiency argument. Rather it is the articulation of the most fundamental reason to oppose socialism. Claire Berlinski in her seminal book on Thatcherism called ‘There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters’ explains:
It was that socialism itself—in all its incarnations, wherever and however it was applied—was morally corrupting.
Socialism turned good citizens into bad ones; it turned strong nations into weak ones; it promoted vice and discouraged virtue; and even when it did not lead directly to the Gulag,..
…it transformed formerly hardworking and self-reliant men and women into whining, weak and flabby loafers. Socialism was not a fine idea that had been misapplied; it was an inherently wicked idea”
Thatcher was aware of the importance of winning the efficiency argument. The electorate must after-all understand that socialism is a extremely inefficient system. But she would remind her readers:
“…the real case against socialism is not its economic inefficiency, though on all sides there is evidence of that. Much more fundamental is its basic immorality”
Her objective was not to limit her political agenda to addressing the economic challenges and undoing the damage 20th century socialist measures had wrought upon Britain. Hers was a more ambitious plan.
“…By contrast this society would evidence concern for others, law and order, justice, fairness, honesty, integrity, openness, courage, a preparedness to take risks for fair rewards, enterprise, invention, intelligence, thoughtfulness, freedom, good sense, concern, knowledge, underlying convictions, mature restraint, self-confidence, loyalty, responsibility for others, self-respect, pride, vision, vibrancy, patriotism, inspiration and interest.
Above all, a willingness to support one’s country, the best for oneself and one’s family.
An optimism, a sense of fulfillment, a desire to reach maturity so that one is at peace with oneself and the world, and in a natural state of grace.”
The above extract from ‘Stepping Stones’ a pre-election strategy document written by John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss is an example of the underlying imagery and ethos that Thatcher chose to project.
John Hoskyns had argued that in order to sustain a reform program lasting many years all policies should be woven into a single overall political strategy. Equally important was that the execution of this political strategy must occur in a certain order. And in Hoskyn’s order of things the first thing was to convince Britain of the undesirability of socialist policies based as much on moral repugnance as on economic efficiency. Hoskyns wanted the electorate to consciously reject socialism and to get them to do this he suggested that the public be made to feel ‘a deep moral disgust’ with the Labour-Trade Union alliance.
Exposed to John Hoskyn’s analysis Thatcher would remark in her memoirs that for her party to win the next general election would not be enough ‘if the only basis for it was dissatisfaction with Labour’s performance in office since 1974’. She would have to win the argument on moral grounds as well. Thatcher did precisely this by capitalizing on the series of strikes that crippled Britain in the months before the general elections. She engaged in the argument over the role of socialism in Britain and aided by a blundering Labour government won it handsomely.
Some would say that Thatcher’s circumstances were completely different from that of Modi’s and that it would be pointless to seek replicable themes from so many decades in the past; from a country very different from India. However the point is not to look at Stepping Stones for specific ideas and action items that can form part of the political strategy for 2014. Rather Stepping Stones can be seen as one of the templates offering important insights that can guide the process of evolving Project Modi’s own themes.
Stepping Stones itself would soon become the blueprint of the Thatcher Revolution. Impressed by Hoskyns and Norman Thatcher would set-up a Stepping Stones Steering Group and a ‘Policy Search’ Group to sketch out a more fuller reform agenda based on the original Stepping Stones paper. Working in tandem with main participants in her Shadow Cabinet the Stepping Stones Steering Group would come out with detailed strategies for particular ministries. These would be dual – political and governance.
Admittedly there is a lot in Thatcher’s plans that failed to see the light of day. Caught between political expedience and her party’s divisions she would go slow or fully bury important reforms. But there is a lot that did see the light of day and the Thatcher revolution became what it was thanks to many months of diligent strategizing, policy research and communication plans. Reading through her memoirs one is astonished at the number of man hours invested in carefully studying a particular issue and formulating a response that ties in with the overall political philosophy. The Conservative Research Department (a permanent party unit that is dedicated to policy research and supporting leadership) and the Stepping Stones initiative provided Thatcher a very effective mechanism to produce focussed, actionable research.
Given the gargantuan challenge that governing India would be it is simply unfathomable why the biggest opposition party has failed to invest and help sustain a policy research unit within the party. This is not to say that policy research is non-existent but ad-hoc research and zero capability building for the years ahead is worse than no research. In a fairly exhaustive post written two years ago CRI Editor Prasanna had clearly articulated the need for precisely such a research unit
The BJP can benefit immensely by learning lessons on how party organizations that operate in mature western democracies have evolved inner party mechanisms to meet the ever expanding challenges of information and research.
political formations operating in the opposition space in parliamentary democracies are left with no choice but to invest necessary capacity building to come up with alternative policy formulations that differentiate themselves from the ruling party in clear and cohesive manner. This can be done only if political formations have the necessary wherewithal and mechanism to conduct long-term policy development.
For Modi the need for institutionalised research capability might be a relatively easily replicable theme from Thatcher and the Conservative party when compared to replicating the British habit of constituting a shadow cabinet.
At the political level the institution of the shadow cabinet allowed Thatcher’s colleagues to be trained in the immensely grave task of running a ministry in government. With each individual’s responsibilities more or less made clear it is possible for the whole team to carefully analyse, respond and reflect on the issues and areas they ought to be concerned about. Support in the form of research and communication plans is available thanks to institutions such as the Conservative Research Department.
Given the political reality of a faction-ridden BJP the constitution of a shadow cabinet is simply out of question. In fact vested interests may very well prefer to go to polls without announcing a Prime Ministerial candidate. It is this vacillation and delinquency that one perceives from the BJP ‘high command’ that ruins the possibility of offering a cohesive alternative both in leadership and governance agenda. But to discuss on the settlement of pecking order amidst the BJP leadership would be to digress.
Returning to the lessons of Thatcherism it is clear that Modi is not oblivious to his position and potential. Unlike other staid straight-jacketing leaders Modi definitely seems to demonstrate imagination and a knack to arrive at a very accurate diagnosis of an issue.
His picking up of themes such as the rise of the neo-middle class, the increasing rurbanisation and even the arrival of a newly synthesised kids popular culture are signs of a politician who perceives the subtle but important changes. But there are many more miles to go. Governing India and more importantly reforming our state would require many years of arduous labor. Battle will be joined on multiple occasions and sabotage would be common. To come out winning it is essential to build capability, institutions and above all a narrative that goes beyond simple economic prescriptions. These are the lessons of Thatcherism.
- The Path to Power
- The Downing Street Years
- There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters
- “Stepping Stones” Report