The great India welfare show

The great India welfare show

State-business is a cruel Trade; Good-nature is a Bungler in it," George Savile, Marquess of Halifax, once wrote. That philosophy has never really rung true for Indian politics. As then vice-president Krishan Kant said in 1999, “good nature" has rarely been derided in the country’s political culture. And so, India has embarked on spectacular schemes that have promised social and economic equity for the millions of marginalized in the country, often at the expense of economic wisdom. A massive rural jobs scheme, farm loan waivers, subsidized universal education and food entitlement—these are all symptomatic of our well-intentioned political class.

Therefore, recent reports of slum demolition drives in New Delhi ahead of the Commonwealth Games come across as atypical deviations from this notion of a welfare state. And they raise a crucial question: Is it possible that Savile’s cruel state business and good nature can go hand in hand?

Before we answer that, consider the parallels: South Africa before the football World Cup and Beijing before the 2008 Olympics both saw similar instances of demolitions and evictions—in all these cases, the attempt was to project a bright image of the host country to the rest of the world.

And therein lies the answer: Governments run by rational self-interest seek to garner votes, and have considerable incentives in pushing through popular policies that are nonetheless expensive for the exchequer. On the other hand, for developing nations (as India, South Africa and China are), global perception is a serious matter that affects the amount of soft power they can wield. Good intentions are trumped by political motive.

The irony is that attempts to engineer perception—such as slum demolition—end up tarnishing the very image that they seek to uphold. The costs are steep in India’s case: They erode its credibility as the only true democracy in the region, and infuse an air of insincerity into its political judgements. The first harms its image on the world forum, the second makes its electorate more apathetic.

The administration’s focus should be less on the cosmetic and more on the meaningful— better infrastructure and sensible management of available resources, something that seems to have been overlooked in India’s shambolic preparations for its biggest international sporting event in recent history.

Politics and good nature: compatible or antithetical? Tell us at