Next week the world enters a new decade, the second of this millennium. Because the years to come belong to the future, there is always an uncertainty as to how they will unfold. In the last decade, the one that will end on December 31, India has clinched three key issues. First, it has more or less eliminated all the constraints on the Indian economy. Second, the politics of caste that so debilitated the Indian polity since 1990, have reached their finite limit. And third, Indian foreign policy has come out of the restraints that had been placed on it by the United States and the developed world.
The decade beginning 2010 can be what the period after 1990 was for China. Having suppressed Tiananmen in 1989, China launched a blistering phase of political consolidation and economic growth that has yet to slow down. Beijing saw the opportunity and seized it with both hands. Can New Delhi do the same ? True, China has certain advantages, not in the least being the single-mindedness and focus of the Communist Party of China, and its principal pillar, the People’s Liberation Army. It also has a generous measure of pragmatism, discipline and foresight, special qualities of the Sinic civilisation.
India began the 2000s with the slow meltdown of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The party met its Waterloo when it became clear, in the wake of the post-Godhra Muslim massacre in Gujarat in 2002, that it was not willing to change its medieval view of India. It was not just that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was undermined thereafter, but so was his effort to shift the party away from the thralldom of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh, an exercise that has been marked by failure since.
The poor performance of the great Yadav chieftains of the Gangetic plains—Mulayam Singh and Lalu Yadav—in the 2009 general elections indicates that the Mandal tide has at last turned. Ms Mayawati’s inability to break out of her Uttar Pradesh bastion, too, has signaled the limits, if not the dead-end that the politics of caste have reached in the departing decade. The UPA has skillfully reappropriated the mantle of being the party of the poor by coming up with important measures of social welfare such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act which is the closest to a social welfare net that the tens of millions of Indian poor can get.
As for the economy, it has been ticking along at a handsome pace of about 7 per cent growth in the decade gone by. In the last two years, the economy has also weathered one of the worst downturns that the world economy has seen, and yet the rates of growth dipped only to 6.7 per cent in 2008-2009 and hope to reach 8 per cent in the current fiscal. There is every indication that the Indian economy goes into the new decade with considerable optimism. Barring infrastructure, almost all constraints—savings, investment, policy—have gone.
In the area of foreign policy, the most successful outcome has been the Indo-US nuclear deal. The nuclear issue was the pill stuck in the Indian throat. We had to either wash it down or swallow it. The nuclear tests of 1998 set in motion a complex train of events that finally persuaded the US to come to terms with India. The result was a far-reaching agreement whose main achievement is to remove a splinter under India’s fingernail that gave great pain in our relations with the developed world. A major side-effect of the agreement is that we will be able to sharply ramp up our nuclear power capacity through import in the coming decade.
If India holds true to the trends of the decade past, the period beginning 2010 should see decisive developments in the country’s economy, its global standing and its fight against poverty and disease. Take the area of defence, for example. The induction of a number of big ticket items—aircraft carriers and nuclear propelled submarines will compel us to rethink our oceanic strategy in a qualitatively different fashion. There are important gaps, such as the modernisation of the army and filling dangerous gaps in the Air Force, but things will have moved ahead in the coming years.
But there is nothing foreordained about what will happen in the future. While significant achievements in the economy, politics and foreign policy in the past ten years have opened a window of opportunity, it is for the country to collectively seize it.
As it is, there are certain major problems that the policies of the decade gone by have merely touched. The first relates to quality education in the country. While people tend to focus on top schools like the IITs and IIMs, the ability to address the opportunities of the coming decade rests vitally in a comprehensive overhaul of the government run primary and secondary school system, and the extensive network of universities across the country, some run by the Union government, the others by the states.
Their condition today is pitiable. There is not a single university of any value between, say, New Delhi and Kolkata. In an area peopled by hundreds of millions, universities are producing millions of unemployable young men and women who are nothing but cannon fodder for the Maoists—their paper qualifications are of little practical use, but their partial education makes them self-aware and angry about their plight.
The second major failure has been in the area of health. It is well known that private health systems account for an unconscionably large proportion of health expenditure of Indians. The state and union government run systems are, predictably, in a shambles and they do not even pretend to cover even a fraction of the population. A country which vies to be a world power of some standing cannot do so by having the highest rate of maternal and infant mortality in the world.
Everything will eventually rest on one key issue—leadership. China’s great success, beginning 1990, was the manner in which the CPC managed an orderly leadership transition and the high quality of leadership that the country received. India cannot replicate an authoritarian system, but it needs to do something about the increasingly dysfunctional political system of the country. Incoherence at the political level cannot but have the most serious consequence in the area of governance.
One of the major unfixed problems has been Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s inability to reform the civil service, something he promised early in the UPA’s first government. Some cosmetic changes have been put forward like external assessment and so on, but there is need for deep and fundamental reform of the civil services to ensure that they do not fail the country in the way they have in the last fifty years or so.
Perhaps the most significant development of the last decade has seen the resurgence of the Congress party and the decline of the BJP. As the decade wore on, the Congress has become stronger and has skillfully expanded its agenda to undertake what it says is “inclusive growth”—that is privileging market-led growth over sham socialism, even while taking serious steps to address urban and rural poverty.
The last decade has set the leadership lines of the Congress party as well. Rahul Gandhi, the leader in training, will have to take the helm at some point in the coming decade. He has shown himself to be sensitive, caring and unafraid to break the mould. But his and his generation of politicians’ real test is ahead. The consequences of success are obvious, but the price of failure would be unimaginable.
This article appeared in Mail Today December 25, 2009