Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

India needs freedom from politicians


ndependence Day usually inspires me to write in a reflective mood. Like all birthdays it provides a chance to do some book-keeping. A chance to tot up promises unkept and list achievements and failures. This Independence Day finds me in especially reflective mood since I am writing from Thailand and see Bharat that is India from the perspective of gentle distance. An additional reason for my being in a reflective mood is an article I came upon on my second day here by Singapore’s mentor and senior minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee Kuan Yew is, in my view, one of the greatest Asian leaders of all time, and in the article, reprinted from Forbes magazine in one of Bangkok’s English dailies, he makes this very heartening prediction. ‘‘Both India and China are integrating their economies with those of their neighbours; together they will pull Asia into an era of dynamic growth.

‘‘The inevitable surprises will occur, but both China and India are on course for a revival of their glorious civilisations. By 2050, the world’s economic centre of gravity will have moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian oceans.’’

In India, marooned in Mumbai’s flooded streets or travelling down one of our pre-historic roads, I often find it hard to believe that we will overcome our grim problems but distance makes the heart grow kinder and so I find myself totting up achievements before failures.

Our biggest achievement is that we are what Natan Sharansky calls a ‘free society’ as opposed to a ‘fear society’. Sharansky, a former refusenik from the Soviet gulags who has since been a minister in different Israeli governments, believes democracy is the greatest inoculation against tyranny.

In his book The Case for Democracy he analyses with extraordinary lucidity the importance of freedom and free societies in the fight against tyranny and terror.

He defines a free society as one in which you can speak your mind in a public square, have the liberty to practice your faith and have the right to be a dissident. India passes on all three counts and democracy is our greatest strength. There are a few morons in our political class (generally of Nehruvian socialist disposition) who blame democracy for our inability to grow our economy as fast as China and the East Asian tiger economies have. This is rubbish. If our economy does not grow fast enough, it is because of stupid economic polices and an addiction to failed ideologies. Democracy has saved us from total ruin and could be the reason why in the long run India overtakes China, which definitely falls into the ‘fear society’ category.

Our other strength is the remarkable enterprise that the average Indian exhibits in the face of the most daunting odds. I speak not just of the businessmen, who constitute India Inc, but of the children who somehow manage to survive in the mean streets of our cities, of the hawkers and pavement entrepreneurs who routinely lose everything they have because of the brutality of our municipalities and routinely manage to rebuild their lives and livelihoods again from scratch. If only we could have one Prime Minister who had the vision to invite ordinary Indians to his Independence Day address from the Red Fort instead of the dreary bunch of politicians and officials who pass as ‘dignitaries’ at the gathering.

Mention of the political class inevitably invokes in my mind failure rather than achievement. So, let’s talk about failures. They are nearly all economic and nearly all on account of the myopic vision of our political leaders.

India, in my ever humble opinion, would already be ahead of China if the political class had upheld its side of the contract. Indians have kept their side.

Indian scientists, academics, doctors, musicians, writers, film-makers, businessmen, journalists hold their own among the best in the world. Our political class and our bureaucrats do not. In the old days, the only Indians who got past the barriers of P-forms and foreign exchange were politicians and bureaucrats and they were an embarrassment abroad. Nearly always they came with begging bowl in hand, whining about our poverty. When I travel abroad these days it makes me immensely proud to see how well Indians are doing in whatever they are doing. Does it make our political leaders and policy-makers proud? No.

Just observe what goes on at our international airports if you want to see the contempt with which officials treat our hard-working workers whose remittances have gone a long way to swelling our foreign exchange account. I have seen workers harassed over gold rings and TV sets as if they were Dawood Ibrahim himself. Our biggest industrialists are not spared either as can be seen from the list of those arrested for not paying duty on some insignificant foreign purchase or other.

In our ‘free society’ our biggest problem lies with politicians and officials who remain nostalgic for the days when in our slavish emulation of the Soviet Union we were nearly a ‘fear society.’ They long for the days when they could control every aspect of economic activity, when television was totally controlled and when freedom was restricted to the right to vote.

Thousands of officials who should be employed to build roads, power plants, schools and hospitals continue to be employed in doing the most useless, controlling jobs.

When they are more gainfully employed we will come closer to winning our fight against extreme poverty and closer to realising our full potential as the world’s largest ‘free society’. Meanwhile, Happy Independence Day.

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