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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Opportunities in Meltdown Crisis

It is the yearning of most middle class Indians to send their sons and daughters to go to Harvard Business School. That’s not surprising, given the Indian obsession for job-oriented training rather than a liberal arts education. When your children get into elite business schools, you feel you’ve fulfilled your dharma. After that, they get lucrative jobs in Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers and what have you. There they work with men and women from around the world whose Arjun-like focus is to make piles of money: an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a spectacular beach house in the Hamptons, a skiing holiday in the Alps, a summer place in the south of France, a villa in Tuscany, an apartment in Paris or a great hotel in London.

Well, just as American assumptions about finance have been upturned by the dismal reality of economics, your idea of dharma is about to take a beating. The chickens have come home to roost. Twenty-eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unlamented demise of Soviet communism, we are witnessing a massive assault on the skewed capitalism unleashed by global finance. When a bunch of ambitious yuppies is given the run of the markets, you should expect immature behavior. A thousand points up, a few thousand points down: the masters of the universe thought they were invincible.

We’ve seen this in India in the first four decades of Independence. Young people with means and connections attended elite schools like Oxford and Cambridge and returned to high positions from where they pushed the intellectual ideas of the day. The result was Fabian socialism that created and favored the elite. The Leftish intellectuals who ran the country advanced distorted notions about egalitarian growth from positions of privilege. They pushed weird ideas: a ‘commanding heights’ public sector; restrictions on private enterprise; outright nationalization of ‘core’ sectors deemed vital to the country; ‘development’ banking, subsidy populism.

The entire edifice came crashing down in 1991 when the government went bankrupt. Slowly and painfully, a new structure arose in its place: a tentative reform regime frequently held hostage to mindless moffusil politics practiced by con men and goons, bigots and activists who fill party offices. One thing is obvious; the old elite have had to make way for ambitious interlopers, whether in politics or business. Their next generation largely opted out of public service and made their homes largely in the global financial community: in New York, London, Hong Kong and Singapore.

This is where the story becomes intriguing: at the intersection of the next generations of the Indian elite and the world of global finance. Once a secure and lucrative place, it is now the center of the meltdown. If the recovery is long in coming, these young men and women will most likely head home. As they pour in looking for elite perches, they will encounter the crass interlopers who now occupy such positions. It could make for an interesting political turn. In alliance with modern-minded politicians found in the Congress and in some regional parties, they could power a new equation in the country’s politics.

The global financial bust could actually re-invigorate politics. The moffusil mafia that now holds the Indian state to ransom could face a challenge. Chances of overcoming the current anarchy could improve dramatically. As things stand today, civil society (not the jholewallahs but the real thing: a middle class with civic values) is under assault. All manner of low life, including criminals, assembles under a ‘leader’ and wreaks chaos and mayhem in cities, towns and villages, without let or hindrance. You have Hindu bigots killing tribal Christians in Orissa and Karnataka; street hoods enforcing a chauvinist agenda in Bombay; Mamata Banerjee forcing the Tata Nano venture from Bengal; a regional party playing to its ethnic base by seeking to influence Indian policy in Sri Lanka; the Left playing ideological games to strap a government they were in alliance with; a BJP that is desperate for power and will go to absurd lengths as it did with displaying wads of cash during the vote of confidence in Parliament; a Congress that cannot shake off its nostalgia for Indira Gandhi and therefore remains unconvinced about economic reforms.

These distressful events are taking place at a time when the economy is notching up record growth. The minuscule middle class has grown to a critical mass and can irreversibly transform the country into a stable, modern democracy. Sadly, no political party speaks for this emergent group. Virtually all political parties are preoccupied with caste, religion and populism. It is a measure of the narrow worldview of the political leadership that no one has been able to grasp the significance of this demographic event. The closest any leader came to recognizing the growing middle class is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This much was clear from his relentless advocacy of the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. He fought the odds and emerged triumphant and the middle class applauded. Can he persuade his reluctant party to solicit the support of this vital new constituency?

Meanwhile, at ground zero in the global financial markets, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy have demonstrated their leadership by pursuing an intelligent response to the crisis. The much maligned British premier, in particular, has won plaudits in his own country and around the world. In the US, a fading George W Bush failed to rally his own party around a flawed bailout package put forward by his lightweight Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson.

Interesting possibilities lie ahead. For instance, the crisis has steered the debate in the presidential campaign to focus on crisis management capabilities of the candidates. As such, this has favored the unflappable and analytical Barack Obama, with his cool temperament and level head, over the more mercurial John McCain. In the next few weeks, US voters will have the chance to send a powerful signal by selecting their President. A President Obama has a better chance of restoring sanity in fearful and avaricious global financial system.

an edited version of this column appeared in education world, november 2008