French elections and the Indian political debate
The election of Monsieur Francois Hollande as French President brings with it the promise of Europe taking an interesting new turn in its thus far faltering, if not failed and chaotic, bid to deal with the problem of debt – the result, in the first place, of American-style light-touch regulation of the financial market.
Hollande’s election is set to galvanize the coming debates over economics and politics in Europe and possibly beyond.
Unfortunately, the debate over how best to manage capitalist economies while protecting our freedoms (which is what the whole thing boils down to) is one that has, for the large part of the past decades, been missing from the Indian political discourse, which remains strongly divided along ancient party political lines. For decades now, much of Europe – historically and still the home of political thought and movements – has been refining its thinking on political organisation and systems.
Ideological lines, common in India, have been steadily blurring in Europe, despite increasing political rhetoric. It was the labour finance minister Gordon Brown in Britain who took regulation to its light touch extreme. And Blair acknowledged his debt to the free market champion Maggie Thatcher.
Across the ocean, too thoughts have converged. The American solution to the debt crisis is really a European-style Keynesian solution. Unemployment fell during Ronald Reagan’s first term largely due to a policy of fiscal expansion. Ditto with Obama.
You can argue that all political thought goes hand in hand with economics. So in many highly developed Scandinavian countries you will find political scientists who will argue that there is no working class in their country. Conversely, in India, beset by an unacceptable level of wealth gap, there’s a raging battle with armed Maoists over the control of natural resources. But is it entirely unreasonable to expect a more sophisticated political debate in India?
In France, political thought has a long and proud history – it is a tradition that is cherished. Even our worldview of America is shaped by the observations of a Frenchman. You’d be hard pushed to find a more incisive commentary on America than Alexisde Tocqueville’s 19th century classic, Democracy in America.
In it, De Tocqueville warns (in the manner of a visionary – and not entirely unlike Rabindranath Tagore in tone) of the prospects of despotism appearing in democracies. At the bottom you’d have “an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavouring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.”
Ruling over them would be “an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.”
“For their happiness such a government willingly labours, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare the mall the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”
This is De Tocqueville’s critique of attempts at enforcing equality. What makes Hollande’s victory interesting for anyone with a passion for political thought is that one of his tasks in tackling debt will be to balance that line between protecting individual freedoms while trying to make his country less unequal.
In the process, he might encourage a more grown-up debate about politics in India.