Monday, January 01, 2007

Annus Mirabilis

This article on India's wonderful year that was.
Published in Hindustan Times December 27, 2006

'It's been a good year, arguably the best since we became an independent nation. We have never been as well off as we are today.' This is how our long-standing columnist and well-known author Khushwant Singh wrote in Hindustan Times last Saturday.

Despite his brief infatuation for Sanjay Gandhi and the Emergency, Singh is no court historian. His work, both as columnist and writer, spans the country's history since Independence and his telling of the fads and foibles of our leaders and politicians have won him a legion of fans.

Remarkably, this latest pronouncement comes from a 91 year-old whose leitmotif could well have the 'good old days'. In his piece, Singh led off with the quintessential 2006 phenomenon that has so warmed the cockles of the middle class's hearts -- the judiciary's message to the rich and powerful that no one is above the law.

But at the core of the good times lies that other phenomenon powering the country's self-confidence - economic growth.
With three years of 8 per cent plus growth, there can be little doubt that the country's economy is now on a sustainable fast growth path.

With almost all domestic constraints, barring infrastructure, more or less eliminated, India is poised for a manufacturing revolution which should be able to make a bigger dent on the poverty and unemployment front. Our economics have perhaps changed the quality of our relationship with neighbours as well.

In the past years, we have witnessed political upheavals in three neighbouring nations - Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka - and India has not been named as a malevolent meddler by any of the significant parties.

Indeed, New Delhi's subtle handling of the Nepal crisis exemplifies this changed situation. To begin with, there were scores of alarmist reports about how the Nepalese and Indian Maoists making common cause to destabilise the country.

But India persisted on the middle path and, if Nepal follows the current trajectory, there will be little to worry about in the future. Scare-mongering on a large scale accompanied that other great foreign policy achievement - the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Some see the nuclear agreement as an Indo-American thing aimed at undermining our nuclear weapons programme. The facts, however, are that the Nuclear Suppliers Group - made up of the P-5 members of the UN Security Council and all significant industrial nations - has more-or-less accepted India's nuclear weapons as a given, and are moving on to get India to join their club.

For this process, the NSG has made the US the lead negotiator: the Indo-US agreement is the key that was needed to open 45 doors. Contrary to some perceptions, the decision of the world's hegemonic power to stand its nuclear proliferation policy on its head is not an event.

It is a process through which a rising power is accommodated at the high table where nations that effectively run the world are seated. Their interest in doing so is both altruistic and expedient - they want to ensure that India's rise does not disrupt the world in which they have a great deal at stake, as well as to seek out opportunities for profit, both political and commercial.

Much the same process took place with regard to China in the Eighties and Nineties. Celebrating the good times is also a time to reflect on the bad ones the country has gone through.

The bad times have been many -- the bloodbath of Partition, the Kashmir wars, the assassinations of the Mahatma, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, the Bihar famine, political breakdown leading to the Emergency in the mid-Seventies, the terrorist movement in Punjab, the Kashmir insurgency, the economic crises of the mid-Sixties and of 1991 and so on.

In the scale of bad times, nothing could be worse than the November of 1962. The defeat of the army at Namka Chu was inevitable, given the location of the Indian positions, but the subsequent disasters of Se La and Bomdi La is something the country will not forget in a long time.

Its ripples were felt across the country and the resulting panic led the army and the civil administration to abandon upper Assam for a brief moment. Tezpur was evacuated, the prisoners in its jail freed and its treasury emptied into the Brahmaputra.
In New Delhi, the architect of non-alignment, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote an abject letter to the President of the United States proposing a military alliance. Those were indeed bad days.

But so were those in 1990 and 1991 when the country was in the grips of social turmoil, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and economic crisis led creditors to demand that we fly our gold reserves to London. At the time the writ of terrorists ran across the most prosperous state, Punjab, and the Kashmir rebellion was at its peak.

Today, separatist insurgency still afflicts Kashmir and the North-east and the Maoist cadre has the free run of large tracts of territory in central India. Yet, all those fighting the Indian State know they have little or no chance of ever prevailing, even locally.

With a limited number of nuclear weapons, India also has the ultimate weapon against external threat and blackmail. We may not be the strongest military power around, but we are not that badly off either, and we have shown that we are a great deal more resilient than many countries around the world.

One reason why there is a general air of caution over celebrating the good days upon us is the 'Shining India' effect - the hyperbolic tendency to irrational exuberance that grips the middle-class to the point of excess. Even today, large parts of the country and its people continue to live in the thrall of poverty, illiteracy and disease.

A recent Unicef report pointed out, for example, that India's maternal mortality ratio (MMR) could be as high as 300 per 100,000 live births, with some states like UP and MP recording more than double that figure. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one is that not many women, especially in rural areas, receive skilled medical attention during childbirth, and they don't get this because there is no infrastructure of rural healthcare across large swathes of the country.
The persistent MMR problem is only one manifestation of the deep rooted illiteracy-disease-poverty cycle that afflicts the country. In the past 50 years, an enormous amount of money has been spent to break this cycle, but to little avail. In great measure the problem has been managerial.

Both the state and Union governments have failed to provide the kind of leadership - political and bureaucratic - needed to deal with the situation. They point to one key area that the country needs to do something about - the quality of its urban and rural management.

It has already become apparent in India's teeming cities that the colonial-era administrative structures and styles are unable to cope with the complexities of the challenge they face. Yet, none of the recent governments have come anywhere near reforming the system.

Every government claims that it is doing so, yet ground realities, especially chronic problems like MMR, show that things go on as before. Yet, the good news is, and Khushwant Singh is its privileged harkara, that the country may have arrived at a critical mass of people - call them middle-class if you will - with a level of education and income that can sustain the chain reaction of growth and prosperity.

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