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Year 1999, No 5
Stability for Whom?
The theme mainstream Indian parties, political pundits and media are obsessed with
By Utsa Patnaik
Women raise critical issues before political parties in India
The roots of violence in Pakistani society
By Eqbal Ahmad
How Mahajan and his spin-doctors dissect day's news
By Kaveree Bamzai
Conflict and Violence in the Educational Process in Pakistan
By Khurshid Hasanain and A. H. Nayyar
The Concerned Indian's Guide to Communalism
Review of the new book edited by KN Panikkar
By A. G. Noorani
Stability for Whom?

Stability Of Governance

(Author is an eminent Indian economist. She is a Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

The argument is frequently heard that the most important desideratum at the present time is stable government. Political parties vie with each other in promising "stability" if voted to power; "stability" is essential, it is argued, if the economy is to progress; "stability" is Moses and the prophets. It is perhaps worth examining the question of what exactly is meant by "stability" here, and in what sense stability of governance is essential - or if it is indeed desirable at all - for economic progress.

Let us first dispose of the obvious : clearly if a country is politically unstable in the sense of being constantly embroiled in destructive war against another country, or is internally deeply divided to the point of endemic armed conflict between its different ethnic or religious groups, such a level of instability will not be conducive to economic development or the peoples' welfare. But the Indian situation is not an extreme one of this sort: here by "stability", most people understand merely the absence of frequent changes of government at the Centre and the absence of frequent general elections. But why is frequent change of government to be considered undesirable? Is the mere fact of the long duration in power of the same "stable" government a desirable social end, as many people seem to think, without any reference to what such a government does with the stable situation it enjoys or has ensured through its policies ?


Nothing could have exceeded the political stability India enjoyed for a century after 1857. But what was its outcome? When we look back at our own history and that of other ex-colonised countries, it is clear that the answer to the question of the desirability or otherwise of stability of government is by no means as obvious as many people seem to think. The most repressive and exploitative governments have been, generally, the most "stable" governments. Nothing could have been more stable than the powerful colonial state in India, and no society more peaceful - speaking relatively to the situation in other societies - than colonised "native" society.

From the Great Rebellion's suppression by 1859, to the outbreak of the second world war in 1939, there was one long eighty-year period of great stability for British India. But what this stability meant for the people was that there was an equally stable, entrenched and difficult-to-contest process of exploitation and surplus transfer. This stability was highly desirable from the point of view of the government, from at least two points of view. First, it enabled the colonial state to engage in a smooth and uninterrupted process of taxing the Indian people, promoting primary exportables production, and siphoning off a large part of state revenues via an export surplus of commodities which were paid for to local producers out of the revenues they them selves had contributed as taxes. At the same time the foreign exchange earnings from India's merchandise export surplus, which had reached massive proportions by the turn of the 19th-20th centuries (being second only globally, to that earned by the USA), was used to enable the ruling country to import more and more goods from, and invest more and more capital in, the regions of white settlement without itself facing any balance of payments problems, thus stabilising the entire capitalist system.

Secondly such a long period of stable rule, itself meant a continuous process of consolidation of imperialist hegemony over other third world countries. Imperialism needs stable economic bases outside its own Northern national boundaries in order to effectively engage in global policing and the maintenance of an international system organised and regulated for its own benefit; India at that time provided such a base. Did such a long duration of stability and integration in an expanding trade system under conditions of a completely open economy, on the other hand, contribute to the Indian peoples' welfare? One index is what happened to their consumption of basic necessities like foodgrains. We know that there were repeated famines both local and generalised in the late 19th century as land was diverted to exports, and we know for certain that food availability per head of population actually declined by a quarter between 1900 and Independence. Stable government was a hunger-inducing and eventually, famine-inducing government for the mass of the people.


All this is history, it might be argued; and is it at all germane, it may be asked, to present conditions when our peoples enjoy universal adult franchise and elect their own government, which can decide on the economic policies which would best serve the national interest. What is often forgotten however is that democracy however long established can never be taken for granted, and the autonomy of third world countries' economic policies are constantly under attack by imperialist forces whose basic agenda of making use of third world resources and inducing a transfer of surplus, remains unchanged even when these objectives, in today's world, are pursued not under old-style blatant forms of political control, but under newer forms of debt-conditional or client-state control. Imperialism welcomes above all, in a third world country, a stable government which is willing to integrate the country's economy in a subordinate position into that international division of labour which is most conducive to imperialist interests. Democracy can be jettisoned, but from the imperialist point of view stability is imperative. Without stability and the economic climate of "confidence" it generates, international finance capital, that global excrescence with its omnivorous appetite for poorer countries' assets, will not feel free to extend its delicate tentacles to the third world economies.

After General Suharto had completed one of the most bloody and comprehensive massacres of Communists in history in Indonesia in 1965, he presided over a stable government for more than thirty years, with the ardent blessings of the imperialist powers. Leading economists in Northern Universities extolled until barely two years ago, in the most glowing terms the high rates of growth and fast modernisation of the Indonesian economy which provided just that stable and welcoming climate finance capital requires for its free operation. The fact that the Indonesian regime was autocratic, repressive, corrupt and contaminated by continuing human rights abuses particularly against its minorities, mattered not a jot to them. It is only after the collapse of the Indonesian economy - arising largely from the very volatility of the international capital flows it had hitherto welcomed - that Northern economists have suddenly discovered the internal weaknesses of the system, as they search for new, reliable horses to back in the current fluid political situation induced by economic crisis in that country.

After Independence in India, for more than a quarter century there was political stability under the hegemonic rule of Congress governments at the centre. No doubt in many spheres particularly in building up an industrial base, substantial progress did take place, but it is also true that this stablity was quite consistent with deepening inequalities of assets and incomes, rise in landlessness and unemployment, continuing high levels of illiteracy, and no impact whatsoever on the incidence of poverty which remained at an average of around 45 per cent for the population even three decades after Independence. A minority of the population benefited greatly from a stability which enabled it to consolidate its grip over the economy. It is only when the complacence of the traditional ruling groups was shattered by dislodgement from power in 1978 that, after an interval in the political wilderness, the same political formation was induced to undertake some expansionary policies in the decade of the eighties especially in rural areas, which impacted on poverty for the first time in a substantial way.


Stability per se thus means nothing in isolation from the policies which are pursued in the period of stability. On the contrary, the absence of this type of stability, namely the possibility of withdrawal of the peoples' mandate, is a necessary part of those curbs on arbitrary or opportunist government, which is the essence of the exercise of democratic rights. When mandates are misused, the people will naturally express displeasure at such misuse of mandates, and this represents not a negative fact but is a positive deepening of democratic processes. The people of very few third world countries outside India, have enjoyed this right even after independence from colonial rule decades ago; they are struggling to attain it for the first time, as in Indonesia. Indeed, many countries far more economically advanced than is India remain remarkably backward in terms of political democracy. It is indeed a paradox that rather than cherishing our democratic rights, sections of our educated population are today falling prey to the fallacious "stability" slogan without really thinking through its implications, particularly the fact that it is being used to argue for an effective curtailment of democracy.

Thus when it is put forward as a desideratum today by a political formation like the BJP, the slogan of "stability" becomes doubly dangerous because it is fundamentally undemocratic and is being linked to a change to a Presidential form of government. What is being said is that the present form of parliamentary democracy, because it leaves open the possibility of hung parliaments and frequent elections, should be jettisoned. The first step in doing so is the pernicious idea of a Presidential form of government - a form which would centralise power very considerably and leave open the possibility of the arbitrary use of such power. What is left unsaid but is obvious enough, is that coalition government greatly increases the importance in national politics of the left and democratic movements, without whose support governance is not possible today for centrist formations. Needless to say, such an increased role for the peoples' parties is anathema to imperialism, which would like to see a curtailment of democracy in India, so that the right-wing social forces which have already shown their subservience to imperialism, can provide the "stability" it requires for the pursuit of its agenda.

(Source: People's Democracy)

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