( Those who advocate less-government in India miss the woods for the trees; what India needs is more and better governance).
By Sanjay Jha
The Mumbai Literature Festival held in the first week of November 2012 generated unexpected fireworks before Diwali; a precursor to incendiary heat, amidst plentiful smoke. Girish Karnad , noted theatre specialist lambasted the alleged soft intimacy of Nobel laureate VS Naipaul towards saffron clad die-hards. All hell broke lose amidst the heavenly tranquility of NCPA. I too had a close proximity with the polemical Naipaul but in a different context.
Not too far away from the exciting hullabaloo , I was anchoring a panel discussion on Harvard University grad and Rhodes scholar , well-known columnist Akash Kapur’s critically acclaimed India Becoming , described by Pico Iyer in TIME “ In his clarity, sympathy and impeccably sculpted prose, Kapur often summons the spirit of V.S. Naipaul “. Kapur’s book traces the changing rural landscape amidst disruptive economic growth near his home-town of Pondicherry and South India. But more on that some other time.
I was intrigued if not altogether nonplussed by the title of my well-known scholarly co-panelist Gurcharan Das’ latest book India Grows at Night; my first impression being that it was about our underworld economy, sleazy deals of the hawala variety in a subterranean parallel universe where hard cash rules. But the erudite Mr Das both foxed and flabbergasted me; the title artistically concealing the missing link; India Grows At Night……” while the government sleeps” . Smart suffix indeed! Quintessentially, Mr Das represents the consecrated breed of dyed-in-wool capitalists who believe that market mechanism is the best judge of scarce allocation of resources, with minimal governmental intervention. They also see the state in standard colorful stereotype; slothful bureaucracy, crony capitalism, innumerable leakages and rampant corruption. Most will agree, and so do I, that these fractures aren’t fanciful fabrications, there is justifiable anxiety amongst well-wishers of India, but yet is the condescending dismissive disposition justified? Is everything state-enabled a gravy train, a messy quagmire or an abject flop show? The truth is extraordinarily eye-popping and prodigiously enlightening.
Government –bashing in the cacophonous, ear-splitting post-Anna Hazare India has assumed a fashionable brand status; the political establishment has been painted like a ghoulish congregation, pregnant with evil designs, insidious men in white on a plundering spree and private profiteering. It is as if for five years parliament practises hedonistic excesses, everyone a master criminal under a constitutional mandate. It is an absurd, illogical extremity that pervades thanks to incessant assaults in weekly press conferences followed by interminable hours of verbal warfare on prime time television. It has hardly helped that shallow political opportunism by desperate parties has accentuated the perception-deficit of the Indian neta. Expectedly, when Mr Das ridiculed the state, the well-mannered crowd burst into rapturous applause. But behind that specious response is blinkered thinking bordering on inchoate wisdom of India.
Advocates of free enterprise and deregulation live in a fool’s paradise. The biggest threat to world peace is not a Third World war, but rising income inequalities across the global stratosphere. The Western world , particularly the most apposite apostle of laissez faire, the Unites States experienced a rude awakening with an ill-tempered temporary remonstrance called Occupy Wall Street last year . Insubstantial in size, but what is germane is its symbolic significance. The reelection of the “ supposedly pseudo-socialist” Barack Obama who has consistently attacked Mitt Romney’s 47 per cent faux pas is a clear message that when societies face either severe economic turmoil , job loss or grave uncertainty, the answer is not enshrined in Wall Street but encrypted in the White House. If it wasn’t for General Motors and Chrysler bail-outs, Obama would not have won Ohio and Michigan. Ann Romney would have been the First Lady.
To expect a lopsided economy like India’s to even remotely survive without sufficient state intervention is an atrocious hypothesis. MNREGA has covered 80 million people, re-energizing rural lives, boosting psychological self-confidence , creating a social security net where staring at a barren thatched wall was the only available occupational alternative earlier. Free medicines, education subsidy, minimum support prices, infrastructure investments, provision of law and order, a judicial system, RTI, and essential ingredients like road, water and electricity are government-funded programs. Private –public participation in social schemes has had mixed results; micro-finance a classic example of ruthless blood-thirsty capitalism exploiting even the marginalized poverty-stricken for shareholder value. There are organized racketeers , middle-men , who exploit the complex web through which beneficiaries obtain their economic subsidy; it is this that needs correction. India’s problem is faulty execution, which exacerbates inequalities and has become an embedded feature of our lives. It ‘s atrophied our social fabric, making us despondent, desperate; thus, the increasing violence both in the rural hinterland and glass-exterior urban ghettos.
The fact that our industry bigwigs needed long sermons from Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to make reasonable contributions for corporate social responsibility tells you the cosmetic confabulation of the super-rich is usually amidst caviar and truffles. Corporate India is not necessarily Citizen Can. Can a country with 400 million people requiring a massive daily dose of calories for survival really forsake the gargantuan state-role and rely on demand and supply forces to reduce poverty ? Private corporate sector has often been described by left intellectuals as a menacingly expanding “ stationary bandit” which grows exponentially even as democratic governments change at election time , till it one day it is like a mammoth bully that subsumes policy –making and even cabinet formation. Can a for-profit competitive business entity really create economic value for the marginalized sections? The recent example of “ social entrepreneurship” of a leading political personality is both unnerving and amusing.
Private sector seeks a return on capital, but the government has to also focus on equity through a deft combination of GDP growth and economic redistribution. Mr Das and several other critics of the Indian political system are right; there is a need for greater transparency, robust execution of social welfare programs and encouragement of local talent, skill-building, eliminating graft, and ecological balancing. That is where the automation of the world’s largest retail operation ( over 4.97 lakhs fair price shops) is a significant landmark. Or Aadhaar, where electronic delivery of commercial transfers could be the big story, interestingly driven by an IT entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani working like a state apparatchik. What India needs is an accountable, savvy bureaucracy, governance reforms and speedy decision-making on issues that affect ordinary people. Building public opinion that supports government services , especially police and judiciary , is critical to credibility.
The global financial meltdown that ended up crippling the real economy in the worst global recession since the Great Depression of 1931 showed us the limitations of unchecked free-enterprise capitalism. Paradoxically, it was the active intervention of G-20 leaders and their state apparatus that limited damage and resurrected a sinking worldwide economy. Capitalism has been completely redefined post 2007-08 ; the polarized definition that contrasted it with state-socialism in the pre-Cold War era before the fall of the Berlin Wall is now tattered history. The world needs a new luminous hybrid capitalism that India itself first expostulated as “ reforms with a human face”. We need to adhere to it.
India is a country with 56 billionaires ( US dollar denominated ) and 56, 000 slums. It grows in the night, for sure, but largely in the day.
Good day and good night!