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Tuesday 21 January 2020

Slow Boat To India

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]rom the West, in the days when China was a very long horse ride away, a phrase for the slowest metaphorical journey was invented. It involved a slow boat to China.

There was even a popular song about it by Frank Henry Loesser, a famous composer for Broadway musicals involving the inveigling of a love interest to come take a very, very long journey together. This was in the post war haze of 1945.

As of 2015

But the original boats to China, what were they? Maybe they were oar-drawn, like the Greek fleets of the Illiad, or the one in which Jason and the Argonauts went looking for the Golden Fleece. They might have been rafts to take advantage of sea currents.

Then came sailing ships and Sinbad the Sailor, and the Marco Polo days were suddenly over.

And afterwards, in accelerating sequence — steam, diesel turbines, and air travel. The Middle Kingdom got out of its induced opium stupor and promptly overthrew all and sundry. It turned communist and, later still, the best capitalist-totalitarian state of them all.

This institutionalised capitalism via state policy grew formidably successful — they could have been, and were, before surpassing its arch-rivals Japan. That is another country that turned its sense of regimentation to good purpose, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of WWII!

China still holds the title of Communist-Capitalist No.1. It proves the exception to the rule of oxymoronism, but perhaps not for too much longer. Its communism might well survive because there are hardly any contenders left — maybe, if they can keep the lid on.

But the export/manufacturing/infrastructure building capitalism is losing, perhaps has lost for good, its MGM lion roar.

This is because the export paid for all of the rest; and since most of it was labour-intensive, low-end product, dependent on volumes; when the US and Europe took a sharp tumble from a surfeit of debt in 2008, so did Chinese exports.

India, the world points out, is now the fastest growing major economy in the world. And this despite the fact that formulation of plans takes a month of Sundays here, and the pace of implementation wouldn’t show up a snail.

But why? Are we innately inefficient? Is it the bureaucracy — that million legged centipede of babudom? Is the government bureaucracy, high and low, taking advantage of its permanent tenure, determined to maintain the status quo in which they reign supreme?

Are our elected politicians, inept at everything, except for winning elections, and the sundry arts of graft, corruption, intimidation and extortion? How much time do they spend thinking about the development of this country?

How then, can an ascetic Narendra Modi use this system to transform India, unless he makes a few incisions?These cuts to the side of the gargantuan bureaucracy, steeped in an arcane language, an impregnable bureaucratese of its own, would perhaps be like letting in a breath of fresh air.

Singapore, tiny and efficient as it is, draws its bureaucracy from various walks of life in addition to the careerists and the tenured staff. America sweeps clean after each administration, though the Senators and Congressmen in the Capitol operate according to their own terms of office. It is legislatively tough for the chief executive there too, particularly if he does not have the numbers in both the houses of Congress.

Yet bipartisanship is held up as an ideal, and used lightly but tellingly where it counts. The hard fought electoral rivalries prevent more than that, and the electorate expects to be represented the way they voted it.

The American story of late
The American story of late

But because the executive branch can sweep in a whole contingent of own men, generally from the campaign trail and support bases, the US is sometimes criticised for its lack of continuity in policy, both foreign and domestic. And this, without necessarily intending to take up the contrary position vis-à-vis the outgoing government. And, of course, it also takes the new set of operatives from the president downwards, quite a bit of time to get the hang of Washingtonese.

The fact is, no system is perfect, and any one of many can be made to serve, given sufficient political will. Of course, legislatures are tenure based too, and may not agree to be amenable. This can and does slow things down in any democratic set up.

But in India, there is little clarity on where the nation wants to take itself. Many regard the country essentially as a poor one, with the government entrusted principally with alleviating conditions for its poorest and the least privileged. This means, to its votaries, a tsunami of welfarism, tempered only by a better monitoring of the delivery systems and greater inclusiveness.

The health of the economy is secondary in this scheme of things, and huge deficits incurred in the pursuit of such laudable objectives are well worth it. What is the point of enhanced GDP if it does not benefit the ‘people’, goes this argument?

There is nothing particularly wrong with the essentials of this argument in a country of over 400 million very poor people, but an aversion to taking steps to enrich the country as a means to this very end is the problem.

Also, is welfarism the best way to alleviate poverty? Is it not the old give a man a fish versus teach him how to fish conundrum?

The other thinking, one that India is yet to fully commit to, after decades and decades of the former strain of socialist thinking, is that growth is the panacea that can make all dreams come true.

And no, it will not just be a case of the rich getting richer to the exclusion of, and even at the expense of, the poor. This is standard communist propaganda after all, and even the communists have had to jettison it in favour of some form of capitalism in order to survive.

Those who didn’t, like oil-rich Venezuela, under erstwhile populist leader Chavez, have structurally ruined their economies, to the extent that it will be sometime, and take much austerity, before a revival can be engineered.

India can't change unless they change
India can’t change unless they change

Now, coming back to an Indian political class and bureaucracy that are either ignorant of the demands of capitalist growth, or averse to it, what can be done? The key commonsensensical approach should be the injection of fresh blood of the right kind, and perpetual change.

Communists too have often harped on the dangers of entrenched thinking and vested interest. They have generally dealt with it via bloodletting and purges.

A democratic alternative could be a manning of at least a third of the key posts in the administration via the induction of private sector talent, those drawn from the Indian diaspora, and experts from other countries who can help us.

In addition, much of the swadeshi and self-reliance thinking has left us seriously behind the times. Attempting to reinvent the wheel is doubly fraught when we demonstrate no talent for applied research and development, or even innovation beyond the ingenuity of jugaad (quick-fix).

Sadly, even if we look around the south Asian and south-east Asian neighbourhood, we are 50 years behind most others by way of modern infrastructure, and that is at the very least!

We should therefore welcome expert foreign collaboration to speed things up, as we are just about beginning to at a policy level.

It would be best if the entire political and bureaucratic establishment backed by the intelligentsia and the media got over their split-personalities and backed the prime minister’s vision of vikas as the tide that will indeed raise all boats.

Is this too much to ask for? If it is, then it becomes the entrenched and principal reason for our inability to realise our national potential.

Gautam Mukherjee
Gautam Mukherjeehttp://ghatotkachseriesthree.blogspot.com/
Commentator on political and economic affairs

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