Can Raghuram Rajan be UPA’s PM candidate? More importantly, is ‘PM Raghuram Rajan’ good for you?
A couple of years ago, while Rahul Gandhi, then the Congress vice-president, was on a tour to American college campuses; basking in the gentle fawning by the Indian media, Barkha Dutt wrote that Gandhi family, like the Clintons, is seen by many voters as an entrenched, entitled symbol of a corroded system. While Barkha could not have been more precise with her words, she did pull her punch.
The fact is Gandhis in India, like the Clintons in USA, remain an entrenched, entitled symbol of a corroded system. Since voters viewing the dynasty with distrust hasn’t exactly been a new phenomenon, it should occasion no surprise that the Congress found a solution by appointing Dr Manmohan Singh as the prime minister when it returned to power in 2004.
The fact that the dynasty retained control of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is an open secret, but having someone with reputation for intellect and domain knowledge as its face, helped the party immensely in returning to power in 2009. In 2014, facing a Modi wave, Congress drafted Nandan Nilekani in a potentially similar role, though back then it proved too little too late.
Fast forward to 2019, with former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan making numerous public appearances, ostensibly to promote his book The Third Pillar, but in reality to let the powers be known about his availability and eagerness, as well as display his liberal credentials by calling majoritarian Hindus and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as threats to liberal India.
For an ill-prepared Congress that neither has the alliances to challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) electorally, nor a credible issue to attack the government on, an articulate, urbane man with the right resume, and an ideological alignment to the party might look like a godsend. The voters however would do well to exercise due scepticism. Can Raghuram Rajan be UPA’s PM candidate? More importantly, is ‘PM Raghuram Rajan’ good for you?
The idea of someone with no political experience but an eminent track record from another field being considered for a top political job has been finding more mainstream acceptance across political ideologies and countries. Psychologists attribute this to various cognitive biases, the most prominent among those is called the ‘halo effect’, where upon seeing one positive quality in a person, we tend to attribute other, often unrelated qualities to them as well.
There is another bias at work, namely fundamental attribution error. We tend to overlook factors like privilege and background while evaluating successful people and attribute all of the success to some mythical qualities within them.
In a country like India, the prime minister, apart from working on the economic direction for the country, is also expected to perform many other duties from managing allies to keeping the country safe. While a single stint as RBI governor does not equip R3 for any of these jobs, the halo effect would ensure that a section of voters will see him as credible.
There is more bad news for such voters though. As incredible as it sounds, good economic policy does not require good economists. As Dr Ha-Joon Chang shows in his ’23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism’, the East Asian experience, where many East Asian economies grew exponentially in the 2nd half of 20th century, tells us that those who are running economic policy need general intelligence rather than specialist knowledge of economics.
The author claims that most of the key economists in Taiwan in that era were engineers and scientists while Korean government had a high proportion of lawyers in key economic roles. Close to home, when the UPA 2 got mired in corruption and policy paralysis we saw that Dr Singh’s vast domain knowledge wasn’t particularly helpful in moving the needle.
The bigger issue, to me, however, remains this particularly troublesome notion that a person who qualifies to the western standards of eminence is automatically assumed to have the moral superiority to preach (and convert) the unwashed masses. The disturbingly colonial overtones aside, the fundamental concept of eminence, especially one achieved through academics, automatically conferring morality and impartiality upon a person is deeply flawed.
A person with R3’s academic and work track record is just as prone to prejudices and biases as you and your neighbour. However, the elites in mainstream media and academics have made a concentrated effort to draw an ‘equal to’ sign between elite beliefs and morality. Since a corollary to this means disagreement with the elites is automatically treated as a sign of moral rot, it is easy to see why the masses have such intense distrust for the elites.
In his outstanding book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, American moralist and historian Christopher Lasch was severely critical of the new meritocratic class, often comprised of those who control international flows of capital and information, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus fix the terms of public debate.
According to him, this group that had achieved success through the upward mobility of education and career, and it came increasingly to be defined by rootlessness, cosmopolitanism, a thin sense of obligation and diminishing reservoirs of patriotism. Globalisation has turned many such people into tourists in their own countries. The class of so called ‘World Citizens’ does not accept any obligation that citizenship traditionally implies.
Moreover, international culture of work, leisure and information makes many of them indifferent to the prospect of national decline. Needless to say, charging such person/s with the guardianship of the masses is a prescription for disaster.
That R3 is a card carrying member of the above class is beyond debate. By giving his implicit endorsement to Rahul Gandhi’s largely unworkable minimum income guarantee scheme, he has demonstrated his willingness to use his eminent reputation as a bargaining chip at the high table of power. With the mandatory lip-service to the danger posed to India by majority Hindus, he has signalled accommodation towards his worshippers in mainstream media. The stage for Raghuram Rajan the politician is set.
It is up to the audience to decide if a bureaucrat with no political experience and an intense distrust of their basic decency is the one to lead them towards the light.
Note: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly mentioned Ha-Joon Chang as a Nobel laureate. The error is regretted and has now been corrected.