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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Incredible India

Going to Hell in a Hand Basket

Everywhere I turn, India is screaming and shouting. Mayawati has done this; Mulayam has done that; Karat is posturing as he may have done in his days at Jawaharlal Nehru University; the cricket guys are in a huge cacophony; and Bollywood is in your face. The business lot is putting out news releases about buying this or that company in the world. Gimme peace, already!

That’s why I retreat to my place in Goa and sit out late at night on my upstairs verandah, contemplating the cathedral of giant coconut trees surrounded by a curia of chickoo and mango. There is a choir sounding softly in the night; a harmony of gentle sea breezes rustling through the palms, like a quiet drizzle of rain.

For the past 28 years, I have been intimately involved in the public affairs of our great country. I thought we could do things differently. Certainly, since I came here from the United States in the late 1980s, things have changed dramatically. People are buying and doing things they never did before: toiletries and cosmetics, refrigerators, air-conditioners, washing machines, cars, houses and, in the upper reaches, designer clothes, yachts and even airplanes; in the realm of doing is the explosion of public transport, telecommunications, vocational education and computers.

India is enjoying the benefits of globalization. There are more choices, more opportunities, more hope. As I sit, contemplating the silence of my house in Goa, away from the chaos and noise in the public space, I can’t help wondering if we are getting it all wrong again. We admired but never practiced socialism; we practiced but never admired capitalism. We mixed our socialist mindset with a very stiff dose of elitism. Our recipe had ingredients of privilege, prejudice and perfidy. The concoction tasted of feudalism and authoritarianism.

Growing up in the primeval India of the 1960s, I realized that connections ruled. A reasonably talented young person from the middle class could only do what I did: emigrate. We fled socialist India to seek our fortune elsewhere, especially America. Back home, the privilegentsia dragged the country down into the abyss of poverty and pity. It became a basket case, scorned by the world. In the end, in 1991, the government was reduced to sending secret shipments of gold to the Bank of England to demonstrate solvency.

I was back in India when the Narasimha Rao government was left with no choice. In a historic budget, then finance minister Manmohan Singh scrapped the industrial licensing system. Reforms served up in that budget faced several political challenges including the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the rise of Hindu nationalism. Most subsequent measures were undertaken by stealth. Such changes went against the very grain of the culture of bribery and corruption bred by controls. Nevertheless, slowly but surely, the options for the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats declined.

Even today, there are vocal and powerful opponents of reform. The BJP stance is puerile politics. The Left is a dupe of the mandarins in Beijing. Within the Congress there are still several lobbies that feel it has tarnished the party’s self-image as a “pro poor” formation. Then are there are the “others,’ who feed off the trough of government finances: they are insidious opponents of reform.

With such formidable opposition, the government’s initiatives have been stymied except in the most esoteric areas of capital markets. The Indo-US civilian nuclear deal could have major benefits aside from the obvious ones that will bring India out of its pariah status. Sadly, it is on hold because of the Left servitude to Beijing and the infantile opposition of the BJP. Within the Congress, various mindless forces have contrived to sabotage India’s growth story because, like the wily Arjun Singh, they believe in nothing, profess only sycophancy.

The government’s botched effort at handling growth indicates the old mindsets still rule. So if there’s inflation: too much money chasing too few goods, the Congress poobahs would rather opt for the failed solution of demand management when the obvious thing to do is to remove obstacles to the production of more goods and jobs.

But no! We can’t have retail bloom; we will curtail growth in telecoms by all manner of stupidity; we will shackle financial services; we will not remove the barriers to real estate growth and continue to sabotage the crucial education system with rules and regulations set out by the corrupt and inept All India Council on Technical Education (AICTE). We seem to be going back to the starved sixties in a leaky boat whose officers and crew have no clue how to navigate in the changed economic circumstances.

So now we have choice between the devil: the loud, crass nouveau riche India; and the deep blue sea: the old scheming one in which the privilegentsia reigned supreme. With growing prosperity, India’s privileged classes, who wield more power than their legitimate bank balances, won’t have the wherewithal to maintain legions of low-wage servants: maids, bearers, drivers, gardeners, guards and assorted flunkies, all paid for by the feudal government and the rapacious private sector.

At the rate things are going, the nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, activists and fixers will have our country on its knees again, hunting for nuts and berries on the margins of the global mainstream.

copyright rajiv desai 2008