People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 46

November 18, 2007

The PM On The “Fractured Mandate”


Prabhat Patnaik


POLITICAL parties have their own distinct ideologies, on the basis of which they draw up their programmes. With these they go to the electorate for garnering support, and do so in varying degrees. When the electorate does not support them to the extent that they think it ought to have, they feel let down by the electorate’s incapacity to appreciate their worth. They wait for the time when the electorate will become aware of the virtues of their particular programmes. All this is natural. A degree of impatience with the electorate on the part of a political party when it does not get the electorate’s support is natural. Confidence on the part of a political party in the worth of its own programme is natural. But the recent disquisitions of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which in effect blame the electorate for giving a “fractured mandate”, i.e. denying a clear majority to the Congress Party, transgress these natural boundaries.


Manmohan Singh was, of all things, addressing the McKinsey board in India. Why he should have been doing so in the first place is itself a mystery. Prime Ministers of the country do not go around addressing boards of particular multinational corporations. It is so improper for the head of a government to hobnob with individual MNC heads or individual MNC boards that one of the first acts of the Hu Jintao government in China, which was also much appreciated by the people of that country, was to debar explicitly all such meetings. In India no Prime Minister has done so in the past. Meeting MNC heads in a group is one thing, but meeting any one MNC head or addressing one particular MNC board is quite another. But Manmohan Singh had no qualms about doing so.


What he said at this meeting is that “given the nature of competitive politics and the very fractured mandates given to governments, it has become difficult sometimes for us to do what is manifestly obvious” (HT October 23). Manmohan Singh in short argued that the agenda he wished to pursue was not just “manifestly obvious” to him or his Party. It was “manifestly obvious”in general, i.e. “manifestly obvious” to all. The hurdle that stands in the way of this agenda being implemented is “competitive politics”; what exactly that term means is not clear, but obviously the inference is that other people than himself and his Party have such vested interests that they even prevent the implementation of what is “manifestly obvious” for carrying the country forward. And since the electorate, to whom also the correct path should be “manifestly obvious”, obstinately refuses to brush aside these political parties playing “competitive politics”, and hands out a “fractured mandate” instead, it must also take the blame for preventing the nation from going forward!


This, as mentioned earlier, is more than just an expression of impatience at the lack of understanding on the part of other parties or the electorate, at the whole messiness and tardiness with which “correct ideas” gain ground in a parliamentary democracy. The “correct ideas” are “manifestly obvious” to all. It is the perversity of the people that prevents their being put into effect. Manmohan Singh’s ideas are “correct”, and it is “manifestly obvious” that they are. It is the perversity of the people who insist on handing out a “fractured mandate” that prevents these ideas from being implemented. One is reminded here of Bertolt Brecht’s poem written after the Berlin workers’ uprising in the mid-fifties: “The government it appears has lost the confidence of the people. Why doesn’t it dismiss the people and elect another?”


What we have here is not just an instance of magnified self-righteousness, that Singh alone has the “manifestly” correct ideas and the honesty of purpose for carrying them through, while all the rest are contemptible practitioners of “competitive politics”! What his remarks indicate is in fact a contempt for parliamentary democracy itself. They represent a reification, of the sort that Jean Paul Sartre had satirized in the context of the post-war Hungarian regime of Rakosi: “Budapest’s subway is in Rakosi’s mind; if the subsoil does not allow it then the subsoil must be counter-revolutionary!” The correct path for the people’s forward movement is in Manmohan Singh’s mind; if the people do not vote him to follow it, then the people must be perverse.


The essence of parliamentary democratic praxis, indeed of any praxis, is a respect for the people. Even when one is absolutely convinced about the correctness of one’s own position, if the people reject this position, then instead of blaming the people, one has to ask the question: why are they rejecting this position? To do so may lead to some productive self-criticism. But, not to do so, and to blame the people instead for handing out a “fractured mandate” that prevents the implementation of “manifestly obvious” ideas for the nation’s progress, belongs conceptually to an authoritarian agenda.


To assert this is not to make any personal aspersions about Manmohan Singh. A conceptually authoritarian agenda in the realm of the polity is an integral part of a neo-liberal economic agenda. The “manifestly obvious” agenda for carrying forward the nation that Manmohan Singh was referring to is the neo-liberal economic agenda. While this agenda has been introduced in large measure, several components of it still remain to be acted upon, such as “labour market flexibility”, “financial sector liberalization”, privatisation of profit-making public sector enterprises in areas belonging to the “commanding heights” of the economy.


Likewise, while the neo-liberal agenda has been introduced, it has not yet been insulated against political processes that give rise to changes in government. The Indo-US Nuclear Deal which could have been one instrument for ensuring such insulation, by making any Indian government susceptible to energy blackmail by the US, and hence forcing it to toe the US line not just on foreign policy, but on economic policy as well, is now facing insurmountable opposition. No insulation of the neo-liberal policies against government changes has therefore yet been put in place.


The panic that this would generate in international financial circles in the event of a government change was briefly visible when the NDA had lost the last election. The Wall Street Journal had even asked the question: why should countries like India have such frequent elections? And the same newspaper had published an article at the time which had argued that the outcome of elections in countries like India should not depend solely upon the people of those countries but should also take into account the views of all “stakeholders” including foreign investors.


The need for an insulation of the neo-liberal economic agenda from democratic political processes therefore is very real. But this insulation itself is tantamount to a negation of parliamentary democracy. Since international finance capital does not know what the next government would do, it must ensure either that there is no next government at all, or that the next government is so hamstrung that it would willy-nilly pursue the very same policies that the present government has been doing. Either of these amounts to a negation of parliamentary democracy, to a negation of choice before the people, and hence to a de facto authoritarian system. This has still not been achieved in India, which is the cause for Manmohan Singh’s pique. Singh’s remark, that the pursuit of economic policies, whose soundness is “manifestly obvious”, is hindered by a “fractured mandate”, is in an encoded language. The decoded version would say: the institutionalization of an unbridled neo-liberal regime is thwarted by the fact that we have a multi-party parliamentary democracy where the people vote for a whole range of parties, not all of whom can be rallied behind a neo-liberal agenda. Thus the very strength of our political system, the fact that it gives space to a whole range of regional and sectional aspirations, and thereby retains the unity of a country that is marked by extraordinary diversities, and the fact that it prevents, precisely because of these very diversities, a hegemonisation of its economy by internal finance capital, is seen by Singh as its weakness. The strength of our parliamentary democracy, instead of being a matter of pride, becomes for him a hurdle. And that is symptomatic of the authoritarian conceptual universe of neo-liberalism mentioned earlier.


Singh’s disquisition continued when he inaugurated the 4th International Conference on Federalism. Here he lamented the fact that “narrow political considerations, based on regional or sectional loyalties and ideologies can distort the national vision” (The Hindu Nov.6). And this according to him happens when parties with varying national reach, and many with a very limited sub-national reach, form a coalition at the national level.


Let us leave aside the propriety of a Prime Minister debunking his own allies, (without whose support he would not last a day as Prime Minister) - debunking in public, and that too in front of an international audience. Let us look at the intellectual merit of the argument.


In practical terms what Singh is asking for is that only parties with a “national reach” should form governments at the national level. But it is difficult to decide which party has a “national reach” when no party gets more than a quarter of the votes in any election. Singh may want that only those parties which get more than a certain percentage of votes should be allowed representation in parliament, but this, quite apart from being a regurgitation of the old and obnoxious idea that there should be a two-party system at the national level, consisting of the Congress and the BJP, does not even solve Singh’s problem, since the regional parties can come together to form a front, like the present “third front” and emerge as legitimate contenders for power at the national level.


The vacuity of this entire chain of reasoning arises because of two deep flaws in it. First, it is based on an abstract metaphysical notion of the “nation” separated from the people. Not surprisingly, it is so palpably anti-people. The fact that in the national elections people choose to cast more than 50 percent of the votes, i.e. a majority of the votes, for parties that according to Singh’s perception “distort national vision”, is not just an expression of utter contempt for the people; it is a forcible disjunction between the “nation” and the people that is almost reminiscent of the BJP’s “India Shining” campaign in the midst of peasant suicides. Second, while dissociating the “nation” from the people, and apotheosizing it as standing above the people, it implicitly associates it with the interests of international finance capital. What after all is the “national vision” according to Singh? The institutionalization of a neo-liberal regime, and associated with it a strategic alliance with the US. The “nation’s” interests in short are those of international finance capital.


There is a sense of déjŕ vu about all this. Exactly a century ago, Rudolf Hilferding in his opus Das Finanzkapital had identified as the ideology of finance capital the glorification of the Idea of the Nation. This was manifest during the period around the first world war and reached its extreme limit under fascism. The fact that neo-liberalism promoted by today’s finance capital, which is anti-people, should talk in terms of a “nation” that stands above the people but is actually identified with finance capital, should therefore come as no surprise. The fact that an intellectual and well-meaning Prime Minister should be articulating such ideas only shows how strongly-rooted ideas are in their material basis.