Vantage point

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Maratha Machiavelli

Often while talking to friends from outside Maharashtra, I mention Sharad Pawar as one of the few sane voices in Indian politics. A rare regional leader who has a vision that is on a national scale, and not just on a regional scale. He also has a strong mass base, and speaks the language of the common man with the same erudition that he speaks the language of the TV-studio-host. The reason Sharad Pawar is so much more pragmatic than other regional eaders like Lalu, Mulayam, Jaylalitha or Karunanidhi is that he wasn't always a regional player. Having spent most of his life in the Congress, he thought like a national leader. In fact after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, I remember that the general feeling in Maharashtra was that within a few years, Pawar may become the Prime Minister, because no other Congress leader had as much mass base as him. But then the riots happened, Khairnar happened, he lost power in the state. Then Sonia Gandhi kicked him out.

But at heart he still remains a leader with a national vision. And a rare politician who can actually speak free-market-ese and pragmatism in a language that everyone can understand. His "home base" of Baramati is not built on just muscle-power, as is the case with many other politicians. He has truly transformed Baramati and improved the lives of the common people there. He wins elections in Baramati easily not because he has instilled fear in the hearts of the voters, but he has done work to improve their lot.

I am not saying he is an absolute angel. There are negatives related to him as well. But by and large, I think Sharad Pawar is among the best politicians in the country.

Read this transcript of Walk the Talk with Sharad Pawar. (Link via Amit Varma)

It pains me how misunderstood free market economics is. Bleeding-heart-liberals feel that the poor villagers in our country, who are moslty farmers, are also "weak". A lot of compassion flows from these bleeding hearts about how Indian farmers need to be protected from the cruel market, and how the "maibaap" government should do it.

Sharad Pawar however doesn't take this "bleeding-heart" line. He understands that it is overdependence on the "maibaap" government that has shackled farmers, and that free market policies will actually help them. In fact on most issues, he has a position which is easy to agree with. A few excerpts -

On Farmer's problems - Farmers, in fact, don’t want subsidies. The farmer today wants basic infrastructure. If anybody is ready to provide him assured water, good quality seeds, infrastructure for the processing industry, effective marketing facilities, I don’t think the farmer wants anything more than that. Unfortunately, we have neglected all these.

On free market - I believe, basically, that the world is changing very fast and unless we open our economy in all areas, we will not be able resolve the basic problem of the poverty of this country.

On disinvestment - Q - Sharad ji, if I may remind you, you also said that there were two more things you would do. One, you said you would privatise the public sector if you had a full majority-and, second, you said you would wind up many government departments starting with the PWD.

A - In fact, there is tremendous scope for that. In the good old British days, there was no infrastructure. That’s why the government set up many departments, which are not required today because our country now has its own entrepreneurs. In those days, entrepreneurs were not available, technocrats were not available. That is not the case today.

On US-India relations - For years together, we took an anti-US stand. But, you see, those days are completely gone. It’s alright-once upon a time we were very close to Soviet Russia, but that Soviet Russia doesn’t exist today. We have to protect our own interests. Without association with the United States, I don’t think we will be able to resolve many of our issues.

On Indo-US join exercises and the left's opposition - one should never forget, the total base of the Indian army, air force and navy was essentially Soviet-we were totally dependent on the Soviets for our defence technology. Now, the Soviet Union is no more, there are serious problems. We have to select the best technology that is available in the world, whether it is with America, whether it is with the French.

Whatever benefits the country’s interests, we should go ahead with it. If you are going to bring politics and our old political ideology into it, I think we are going to unnecessarily weaken the country.

On English-Medium education(contrast with views of Mulayam and Babulal Gaur) - it’s surprising the students essentially come from rural areas and in the villages, they want English medium. So, in the last five years, we have had to set up five English schools.

I reiterate the opinion I have expressed to several bloggers and friends before. That Sharad Pawar is one politician that Libertarians can "do business" with. It's not just because he is a politician who has pragmatic views on economics and foreign policy. All parties are full of politicians who know what is right. But Pawar is one man who openly stands by those ideas, and is still able to command support from his largely-rural mass base. He is one guy who can actually "sell reforms to the masses".