Friday, October 24, 2008
Staying ahead in bad times
Two gentlemen came to meet me last week. They were from a former superpower, now a small European country with a big trading profile. From our conversation I gathered that they were trying to get a measure of India of 2020. There was no sinister purpose in their activity, but world powers, even defunct, get into the habit of looking ahead. Practical, short to medium-term studies are the staple of their think tanks and foreign ministry planning departments.
This is a good time for Indians also to think about the future, because it is clear that we are in a cusp of sorts. Globally, the economic system is undergoing a dramatic change, within the country we have reached a nadir of sorts insofar as our politics and health of our governing institutions are concerned. Yet, economically we are doing well. So what is it that will strengthen our strengths and check our weaknesses? There are always, of course, two options—the high growth and the low growth, or the high road or the low.
Take the lows. Parliament, the high altar of our system is dysfunctional. It is likely to sit for a mere 50 days this calendar year and this is the norm rather than exception. In the 1950s-1970s, the norm was well over 100, often approaching 150 days in the year. The issue is not merely the expenditure that the country incurs on the Members of Parliament and the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha establishment, but the work the MPs are supposed to do — scrutinise expenditure of public funds, legislate laws to run the country.
Shubash Kashyap, the former Secretary General of the Lok Sabha says the problem is not just the issue of sittings, but the composition of the body where some 125 of its 435 members have criminal records. Today, it is not the political class which fights dowry deaths, custodial torture, caste and communal violence but civil society institutions and the media. Legislatures and other institutions like trade unions were meant to mediate the concerns of the people. But all of them are in decline and that is why the retrenched Jet Airways staff ran to Raj Thackeray in their time of distress.
It is not that laws are not being passed. The UPA has got some good, and even path-breaking, legislation through the Forest Rights Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and the Right to Information Act. The issue really is the ability of our legislatures to serve as representative institutions that are able to deal with the changing needs of our people not only in terms of appropriating revenues but providing the legislative leadership that equips the country to deal with its future.
The infirmities of Parliament and the state legislatures has led to an implosion of governance and its institutions. The police and administrative machinery has ceased to function except for the purpose of pandering to the ruling party’s VIPs. Across the country there is a mood of defiance and truculence. Demands are sought to be addressed with a first-recourse use of violence, rather than its use as a last recourse. In this kind of society the weak get trampled underfoot and the strong get what they want, upholding the "philosophy" of might being the right.
The consequences of the failures of the police forces are too manifest to recount, though Kandhamal and Mumbai are good examples. The administrative failure is an even grander scale and manifests itself in the persistence of illiteracy (38 per cent), hunger (India has more hungry than any other country in the world) and maternal mortality. These clearly have structural causes, and must be blamed squarely on the IAS-dominated management system of our governance.
What are the highs? Well, the overall self-confidence of the nation, and the skills of its businessmen, administrators, diplomats, managers, and, in all honesty, some political leaders. The talents have been honed in recent years when the country went through a stressful period when it transited from a closed to an open economy, even while battling serious internal security challenges and a world in which its principal anchor came apart. I am talking of the 1990s when India came close to default, Punjab and Kashmir were in rebellion and the Soviet Union collapsed.
Today, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh goes to a G-8 meeting, he is not there as a token outreach invitee, but the leader of a country of increasing substance, one which could within a matter of years be on that platform as a matter of right. The economic growth of the past 15 years has had its own strategic consequences. It has also provided certain capacities to the country— modern manufacturing and IT industry, agile banks and, above all, human resources.
The huge surge of revenue has enabled the government to invest ever larger sums on rural infrastructure regeneration, agriculture, education and public health, even though it has not managed to reform the distribution system to ensure that this reaches the needy.
So at one level we have institutional decay and failure, and on the other a growth of capabilities and capacities. Extrapolate them to 2020, two outcomes loom: The growth of an authoritarian system where the people are coerced into compliance, or anarchy. As it is, anarchy is what prevails in parts of Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa. As for the authoritarian model — Modi's Gujarat is an example of how a section of people can be coerced into second-class citizenship.
There is a third option — an urgent repair and overhaul the country's political and governance system. But that requires a consensus which seems difficult to locate in the current era of coalition politics. As it is there is a sharp difference in the concept of what an Indian is in the minds of those who support the Congress and those who back the Bharatiya Janata Party.
But these parties are declining in strength in Parliament. Regional satraps like M. Karunanidhi, Jayalalitha, Chandrababu Naidu or Mulayam Singh Yadav do not have a national perspective other than that related to their area of political influence. Then there are the more opaque personalities like Mayawati whose Bahujan Samaj Party’s perspective is purely tactical.
But a common political perspective towards the nation and its future is important if we are to capitalize on our strengths and overcome our weaknesses. If the recent economic crisis shows why it is necessary to have expertise to deal with complex issues, the Chandrayaan project shows that we do have pockets of excellence within our bureaucracy-ridden government system.
If the country is to move ahead in the coming years, it needs to be far more competent in handling its internal security challenges on one hand, and its social welfare mess on the other. Reforming the outdated IAS-dominated bureaucratic system which refuses to recognize that professional expertise is an absolute must. You cannot be the head of the Delhi Jal Board one day and the Defence Production Secretary another.
Clearly, however, politics is the key. Can our politicians deliver a system that meets the physical needs of the people for good and even expert governance, as well as cope with their rising expectations? Slogans and coercion alone cannot achieve success as Mao learnt during the Great Leap Forward.
We need a society where ideologies are cast aside and pragmatism and professionalism allowed to flourish. India has abundant talent for both. But our biggest problem seems to be the inability of the political class to work out an accomodation with each other, whose bare minimum requirement is an honest acceptance of an election outcome.
This article appeared in Mail Today October 23, 2008