The Afghanistan Syndrome
Back in 2001, when NATO forces, invaded Afghanistan in the search of Osama Bin Laden, apart from the other obstacles which they faced was the lack of information system. As they say, in war, truth is the first casualty and information becomes priceless. Apart from weather, terrain and terrorists, lack of information was their biggest enemy. So, they did what most forces do. They put out a huge reward for any information on Osama bin laden. The money was one million USD. Going by any rate, this was a big sum. Yet, there was no information. Clueless, the forces kept increasing the sum yet there was no response. Ultimately, they figured out what the real problem was.
The real reason behind the lack of response was not Afghans’ love for Osama but the fact that, one million USD didn’t mean a thing to Afghans. They were clueless about what that means, and it never fit into their value system. It was like vegetarianism for 12th century Mongol. In tribal Afghanistan, value system denominations were livestock, rather than paper money. Then, they announced reward of livestock, actually costing less than a thousand USD each, and information started coming in, however inaccurate they may be. This was termed as an ‘Afghanistan Syndrome’ by communication & marketing researchers as a study of the value systems.
This brings us to India of 2012, and the political turmoil that the country is in. The Congress led UPA has been brazening it out for quite some time now, but the latest revelations and SC strictures have been the last straw. Almost the entire urban India is aghast at the manner in which Congress is not only committing scams and crimes, but also covering it up. Perhaps, brazenness is an understatement, to describe the behaviour of the government. It seems they don’t really care. They don’t care for Supreme Court, CAG, CVC, opposition parties, or even the people, and people are drowning into the sense of helplessness, unheard of before. They see the country being robbed, they see the culprits getting away with it, and they also see the ‘ulta chor kotwal ko daante’ (the thief punishing the police) and they can see, but do nothing.
Yet, beyond the urban outrage, hyperboles and euphemisms, there is another India. India that lives in villages works in fields or is engaged in other occupations that make up for only a part of what rising inflation is taking away. They don’t feel flabbergasted at brazenness; they don’t feel wretched at subversion of democracy. They don’t get angry at the fact that Maldives is belittling India, or that Sri Lanka is pushing us, or that China is nibbling away Indian Territory. Their value system is simple: The government that helps me is good government. Their perception of help is tailor made as well.
Recently, Karnataka elections took place, and social media was abuzz with chatter, rumours, sharp opinions and hyperboles. Amidst all that, one ‘tweet’ stood out. The tweet described how the tweeter’s maid was gloating on the Election Day, not for the fact that she voted, but because she was paid Rs. 500 per person to vote for a particular party. That is the Afghanistan problem of India.
In 2004, when India went for general elections after 5 years of NDA tenure, everyone was confident of their victory. In 5 years, they had transformed the economy, infrastructure and its standing in international forum. Per capita income had doubled in 5 years, and GDP growth rate was close to 10% for the first time in the history of independent India. NDA regime had pumped in the enthusiasm and dream of a superpower India. BJP led NDA was synonymous to development oriented politics. Their policies were fiscally prudent, emphasised on assets creation, and made India an investment magnet. Yet, they lost, and in the most surprising manner, Congress led UPA came into power.
It was the Afghanistan Syndrome which really worked for Congress then, and it will be the Afghanistan syndrome which will work for Congress again. Even in 2013, after 67 years of independence, the Congress party is confident of victory because of the fact that ‘good governance’ doesn’t fit into the value system of rural India.
This is mainly because of two reasons (A) Good governance and fiscally prudent economic policies are long term products and don’t show their results in immediate span, unlike entitlement based policies and (B) much of India still doesn’t know what ‘good governance’ is meant to be. Like Afghan tribes and million USDs, rural India has no place to fit ‘good governance’ in their value system. They are pretty much comfortable with the idea that scams happen, and cover-ups happen too. They’ve somehow conceded that corruption is part of Indian lives. Their value system operates on what they see on the ground, what they can feel in their hands, i.e. a paper with Mahatma Gandhi on it.
Congress seems so confident in spite of everything that is happening; because they realise it’s always been the rural India, which decides the fate of us all. And rural India is least bothered with subversion of institutions, scams, cover-ups, stand-offs with CAG or fight with Supreme Court. For them, there’s always some new chef’s special by the Congress party. Last elections, it was NREGA, this time, it will be Food subsidy Bill & Direct Benefits Transfer. In addition to that, Congress is distributing entitlements like advertising pamphlets. There’s right to food, education, home, employment, and even information. The speed, with which India is becoming a welfare state with a million rights, is alarming. It’s creating a mess for both the economy and the future of polity of the country.
Yet, it doesn’t matter for rural India, which is discovering they have new rights every day. They, and their parents, grandparents, have known mai-baap government that adopts every poor of this country and virtually gives them power of attorney with all the rights. They have not the slightest idea, what ‘good governance’ means, and how important it is.
If any party is to fight this Afghanistan Syndrome, it will have to incorporate the elements of the value systems of the rural India. In 2004, NDA regime did the mistake of assuming that rural India understands what 10% GDP growth rate means, or what is being current account surplus state. They didn’t know, and they didn’t care. In contrast, Congress went to them with a million entitlements, mingled with the charm of the Nehru-Gandhi name.
Congress identified that 5 years were not enough to show what good governance is all about, and how it will change the lives of millions. They knew that rural India, accustomed to mai-baap government, will instantly find vacant spots for Congress’ promises in their value systems, and they managed to pitch their case in the right manner to the right people.
If any political party has to win, and win decisively, they will have to address the Afghanistan syndrome, and make their pitch with the livestock rather than a million USD. It will be burdensome on the economy, but if one has to do away with it completely, it will have to be phased out, and assuming that having heard a million, an Afghan tribal will think of Ferrari or a vacation at Tahiti, they will only commit a self-goal like NDA did, in 2004.