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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rousing a sleeping giant without moral authority


By Swapan Dasgupta

Reflecting on the spread of the British Empire to which he was passionately committed, Lord Curzon once remarked that “We have often blundered into many of our greatest triumphs.” Many Indians who cherish a vision of a vibrant India but were nevertheless disappointed by the prolonged drift in public policy could well be wishing that what Curzon held to be true for the Empire will also turn out to accurate for the Indian Republic.

Contemporary India has rarely conducted itself with a sense of mission. The economic deregulation initiated by P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh in 1991didn’t happen because the two were conviction politicians made by the same firm that created Lee Kwan Yew and Margaret Thatcher. India turned its back on an inefficient socialistic path at gunpoint. Likewise, the second wave of liberalisation was prompted by the NDA Government’s desire to offset the possible adverse consequences of the sanctions imposed on India by the West after the nuclear tests of 1998.

If Prime Minister Singh was indeed the great reformer he is portrayed to be, he would have unleashed India’s “animal instincts” immediately after his May 2009 victory when he had little to fear but fear itself. Instead, he waited till GDP growth had fallen below 6 per cent, the rupee was fragile, inflation soaring, the fiscal deficit out of control, politics vitiated by corruption scandals and business confidence at an all-time low. What would have been bold initiatives in 2009, grudgingly digested by a dispirited opposition and accepted by a people anxious for more of the good times, has become a last-ditch, cynical gamble three years later.

The public discourse in India cherishes boldness and decisiveness. To the extent that the Government has been propelled into a burst of activity, there is critical appreciation of the fact that there is more to the Prime Minister than the ridicule that was heaped on him for the past year. Industry bodies have rallied enthusiastically to his support, stock market speculators have given their thumbs-up, the editorial classes are awe struck and even a demoralised Congress appear to have convinced itself that it is better to have fought and lost than not to have fought at all. On the face of it, a sleeping and indolent giant appears to have been aroused.

However, as the old colonials used to remark, for everything that is true of India the opposite is also true. For the past 20 years, market economics has become the new consensus. With the exception of dinosaurs in West Bengal and Kerala and ideologues who nurture a visceral hatred of what they call ‘neo-liberal’ economics, mainstream India is committed to the idea of reform. However, like vocational education which is always good for the neighbour’s child, reform is also expected to be detached and morally uplifting at the same time. In the 1990s, reforms implied dismantling controls and opening up large chunks of a fortified economy to the private sector and global forces. This liberation from Nehruvian dogma unleashed entrepreneurship and put an end to the shortage economy. Some people got very rich but a larger number of Indians moved into the middle class and ceased to be impoverished. It was win-win situation.

Today, the situation is different. The Government is asking people to lower expectations, make sacrifices, to reconcile themselves to the erosion of subsidies and to tighten their belts—all for a larger cause. Unfortunately, for the past few years this larger cause has become both hideous and blurred. After repeated scandals, some involving unimaginable sums, the earlier mood of expectancy has turned to cynicism and disgust. The Government stands discredited; the political class is equated with venality and brazenness; and India Inc. is increasingly being seen as the nesting ground of cronyism and dodgy practices. Almost all the institutions associated with public policy have become objects of disrepute.

In an India overwhelmed by disgust and despondency, the Government’s plea for a sense of national purpose may well end up being viewed as a cruel joke. It has become necessary to refurbish the moral authority of the economic order first. Unfortunately, that is beyond the scope of economists.

Sunday Times of India, September 23, 2012

5 comments:

Agneya Shyamvarni said...

The shameless government relies on the tax collection of 10% Indians (mostly middle class and small entrepreneurs) to support its populist measures/ dole-outs for the remaining 90% Bharat - and everything so that the government can stay in power. And it is this 10% which invariably gets the stick. And the stick is becoming bigger and fatter.

And as you rightly said, the government had to wait for everything to crumble before it initiated its so-called "reforms". Where was the animal spirit then - or do spirits come alive only after 8 PM?

And even then, the so-called reforms are utterly dishonest - the government along with its paid media is painting a picture as if FDI in retail and increasing oil prices are the only way of helping the country and anybody who is against these is to be ridiculed and made fun of.

What about Ministers and the powerful availing 300-500 LPG cylinders per year? What about wasting money by giving free cell phones / washing machines etc to villages and towns? What about the huge doelouts of funds in UP/ AP etc by the government (to the tune of 100s of crores)?

Where is this money coming from? Whose money is it with which politicians make merry? Is it contributing to national growth in any way at all?

This money for dole-outs/ populist schemes, with which politicians fund their stay in power and lavish lifestyle, comes from the taxes of the 10% Indians (middle class and small entrepreneurs), who themselves receive not a single benefit but are instead asked by the government to make more sacrifices in terms of increasing costs/ reservations in educations, jobs and now promotions!

If anybody is to blame it is the middle class Indians who have still not realized what politics and power is all about; and that it is ultimately the 90% Bharat whose votes count and matter. Politicians do not and never have give a hoot about 10% India except for ever increasing tax collections and asking them to make "greater sacrifices" so that politicians can announce bigger sops/ populist schemes for Bharat and stay in power!

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more with your opinions.

On FDI. The same Mayavathi of UP when she was the CM after showing the green flag to Reliance Fresh (retailing of vegetables & fruits) turned her supporters on to go vandalistic & shut down their outlets.

Much has been written about Rahul Bajaj & his monopoly in the name of swadeshi by Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar.

In Tamil Nadu , Nilgiris , Kannan Departmental Stores , Rangachari (Coimbatore) have always had a good reputation. They did not displace small kirana shops at all.

While preparing a sumptuous feast for ex President Abdul Kalam I clearly recall the professional cooks insisting on buying all spices , cereals etc etc from Nilgiris praising their quality. They bought nothing not even salt from local kirana shops.

Anonymous said...

The other day some woman in Coimbatore went into labour. Thanks to the pot holed roads she delivered her child in the ambulance itself.

The readers' comments were overwhelmingly calling her & her new born "lucky , fortunate". Their valid reasoning being- if she had entered the Indian nursing home/hospital the nurses & doctors would have robbed her of her health baby & MONEY also.

Mainstream English media does not expose the real India split wide open. There is a huge demand for babies. Newborns. Many get abducted , killed , exchanged (healthy ones substituted by handicapped/diseased , girls exchanged for boys) WITHIN hospitals with the connivance of ayahs & nurses.

Anonymous said...

I repeat Gujarat is different. The same cannot be said of Kerala, Tamil Nadu & Karnataka.

The fault is certainly not that of CM Jayalalithaa.

Take alcohol banning for instance. Keralites will wage WARS if denied alcohol. Both keralites & Goan converted christians living in Gulf countries brew liquor inside their homes.

Tamil Nadu's kollywood heroines, starlets & models I read use up enormous amounts of alcohol not just for drinking but for giving body to their hair. We need not dwell on unverified exaggerated stories about Cleopatra anymore.

SP.Balasubramanian playback singer is notorious for hosting lavish parties with a free flow of alcohol to induce composers into favouring him & his son.

Anonymous said...

Sanctimonious Indians discussing God & theology , interfaith dialogues makes me go arrrgh.

Take Kuwait for instance. The Government adheres very strictly to standards of hygiene & cleanliness.Arabs are very honest compared to could not care less Indians.

Kuwait Flour Mills sells whole wheat flour that is REALLY whole wheat with bran intact. The dry rotis ( called kaboos) sold by them is very hygienically made (machine made) & no one gets infected.

Whereas in India branded wheat flour sold smells of strong pesticides & has a bleached look. Has no bran at all. The local millers have almost disappeared in India.