Sunday, February 22, 2004


Times of India, Feb 21, 2004

An approaching election has this disadvantage — it is difficult to concentrate on anything else while waiting for it to take place. And so we are and shall be in a state of confused distraction over the next two months, disinclined to apply our self to anything serious affecting the realm.

Going by the reports so far, there seems to be a significant change in the rhetoric and behaviour of the political class. Amidst the usual scramble for seats and alliances, there is healthy silence on religion and caste this time.

The strident rhetoric of Hindu nationalism seems to have died, and even the talk about Sonia's origins lacks conviction.

The turning point seems to have been the four state elections in November and December, whose lessons are painfully fresh in the political memory.

Every politician who has been interviewed in the past six weeks has stated without fail that the outcome of these state elections was decided on economic issues.

Thus, "bijlee, sadak, pani" has entered our political lexicon, and has replaced, for the present, "mandir, masjid, and mandal". If this endures, then we may be looking at the most dramatic change in the Indian political mindset in fifty years.

Even the recent conclave of industrialists with Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh in feudal UP was more about development and less about donations.

Reliance's commitment to invest Rs 10,000 crore in a 3,500 mega power plant in UP should be taken seriously — not only because Reliance usually means what it says, but because regulatory circumstances have changed, thanks to the new Electricity Act 2003 passed by Parliament last year, and UP government's quick follow-up to it with a new state power policy.

If this is truly a turning point in our national political life, then we should expect politicians to soon begin to campaign for better schools and primary health centres, safe drinking water, clean streets with lights, and uninterrupted power.

From here, it is only a small step before politicians and voters realise that to have these things will need money, and money will only come from the sale of state enterprises and the reduction, if not the removal, of today's crippling subsidies.

Apart from reallocating the government's spending from subsidies to infrastructure, the voters will force politicians to focus on better governance — for policemen to be responsive at the SHO, for honest and quick judgements in the lower courts, for teachers to show up in village schools, etc.

Once this happens, the path will be paved for the second stage of reforms to be implemented by whoever comes to power.

And that in turn will empower the winning party to look for reformers to man the key ministries of power, agriculture, labour and education, with persons like Arun Shourie, Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Suresh Prabhu, etc, and to get rid of non-performers and non-reformers, who only have one populist mantra, that of raising subsidies.

This hope for a new, virtuous politics depends in the end on us, the middle class, the readers of this newspaper. Citizenship cannot be passive, and we must awaken to our civic responsibility.

In ancient Greece , those who did not participate in civic life were called idiots (which is indeed the origin of the word idiot). In the next few months, we must engage our candidates at neighbourhood meetings, insist that they spell out how they will improve our daily life.

The ball is in our court, and if we stay away, as we have always done, then we have lost our right to complain about our politicians.

Monday, February 09, 2004


Times of India, Feb 08, 2004

About three weeks ago, somewhat to my surprise, I found myself at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, where 100,000 persons were gathered, including 15,000 from abroad, to discuss how to lift the poor out of poverty. Now what could be more important than that, I said to myself, as I sat down to hear young and colourful speakers talk articulately about Dalit rights, education, child labour, water and labour issues. Their over-arching theme was the failure of ‘‘neo-liberal globalisation to provide equitable and sustainable development’’, and speaker after star-studded speaker got up to rail against the evils of global capitalism and urge on India an alternative model of development.

I listened patiently, but soon I felt like getting up and crying out, ‘‘Don’t you realise we have already been there?’’ For forty years after Independence , we lived through the nightmare of this alternative model of development when we closed our economy, discouraged foreign capital, practiced import substitution, and had the highest tax rates in the world. And where did it take us — into a dead end street. Today, our economy is doing well only because we abandoned those lunacies in 1991.

I believe in free trade not because I am fond of multinational companies but because all countries that have succeeded in the past 50 years, including those in East and South East Asia, have done so on the shoulders of global economy. Beginning with Japan in the 1950s, followed by South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and China from the 1980s and even India’s IT success in the 1990s — they all prospered by exporting vigorously.

In his fine book, Imagine There’s No Country, the economist, Surjit Bhalla shows that between 1960 and 1980, before globalisation began, per capita incomes in poor Third World countries grew 2 per cent per year (whereas they grew 3.4 per cent per year among the rich First World countries). However, between 1980-2000, during the globalisation decades, the poor countries grew 3 per cent per capita per year, while rich countries grew 1.5 per cent. As a result, about a billion people in China and India have seen their incomes rising significantly for 20 years. In India , more than one per cent have also crossed the poverty line each year.

Now one might debate how much of this miracle is due to globalisation. It is also true that export-led growth has not succeeded everywhere — Latin America nations have also liberalised and privatised but have failed to replicate East Asia’s success. Moreover, there are losers in globalisation — workers in America and England, for example, are losing jobs everyday to lower paid workers in India. But the big news that Paul Krugman, the eminent economist, recently celebrated in the New York Times is that ‘‘more people have seen material progress than ever before in history’’, and we are no longer ‘‘condemned to live forever on a planet where only a small minority of the global population has a decent standard of living’’.

The World Social Forum turned out to be a lot more fun than the World Economic Forum. It had younger, idealistic, more colourful and honest people (rather than the usual collection of old white males in Davos), but I must confess, uncharitably perhaps, that this kumbh mela of do-gooders was also the world’s largest gathering of misguided and bewildered souls ever assembled. Rather than attending these circuses, they would do far more good if they helped solve our real problems — how to reduce teacher absenteeism in village schools, for example, or how to better target subsidies.