Saturday, January 13, 2007

If good men do nothing, January 14, 2007

Considering that the year gone by was one of our best, it is dismaying that Indians continue to be so down on politics. 2006 was the fourth successive year of unprecedented prosperity. India emerged on the global stage, and its arrival was hailed in part by the Indo-U.S. treaty, which finally de-hyphenated it from Pakistan. Justice caught up with three murderers of high status who had subverted it with rishwat and sifarish. Many states began to implement the Right to Information Act. And the new SEZ policy raised hopes for a true industrial revolution.

Yet Indians continued to believe that their politicians are mostly ugly. For good reason. 25 percent of MPs have a criminal record. In 2006, politicians hit India where it hurt the most. By introducing OBC quotas in education, they cynically continued to divide and rule us, undermining the little excellence that we possess. When they sneaked in the creamy layer, true nastiness was revealed.

It is not healthy for the world’s largest democracy to have such a poor opinion of its political class. It devalues public life. As it is, Indians are mesmerized by the figure of the Renouncer, who stands “tall and splendid, a theatrical figure in ochre robes” as Louis Dumont described the sanyasi. I know too many fine Indians who could make a difference but they refuse to join politics.

Western philosophical tradition also devalued the political life. Plato was the chief culprit. In The Republic, he describes the world of human affairs in terms of shadows and darkness, and instructs us to turn away from it and pursue the sublime life of contemplation. Aristotle, however, tried to redeem politics. The basic fact of human life, he said, is that we are not alone and must learn to live sensibly with others in society. Thus, attending to civic matters was central to his idea of the virtuous life. But Aristotle’s thinking got submerged by the contemplative spirituality of the Christian Middle Ages, until the 14th century when Petrarch found merit in politics, and this marked a transition to the active political life of the Renaissance.

In the 20th century Hannah Arendt attempted the formidable task of rescuing the worldly life from the depredations of philosophy and religion. She had also to contend with Marx, whose politics exalted ‘labour’ at the expense of an equal commitment to all members of society. Communism as practiced by Lenin and Mao did untold harm to the idea of a civic life of mutual respect among equals.

In India, the Gita and later Gandhi rescued the political life. Gita’s notion of karmayoga gave new meaning to the life of the ordinary householder, who has to make a living, look after his family, and live as a citizen in society. Gita tells him to live in this world selflessly with the renouncer’s “attitude”. It’s ideal of a “secular ascetic” was a fitting reply both to the rituals of the Brahmins and the Renouncer’s life.
We find it easier today to nostalgically admire vanished heroes of an earlier generation who had fought for freedom. But the practice of democracy continues to require the same heroic qualities. Decent Indians need to look into their hearts and take the plunge before criminals completely swamp our politics. If the best shun politics, they will leave it to the worst. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, Edmund Burke reminds us.

An Indo-Chinese curry December 31, 2006

My son lives in Shanghai and I recently spent two weeks with him. It gave me a chance to meet and talk to ordinary Chinese people. What came through in my conversations was their passionate desire for business success. They feel that even the poor are gaining from their commercial triumphs in the global economy, and are proud that China will soon become a great, middle class nation.

I also met a local communist leader and businessman, who had recently returned from India. He asked me confidentially, “Is India’s bureaucracy as bad as all that?” He said that Chinese businessmen in India only talked about India’s red tape. He admitted Chinese officials were also corrupt, but he couldn’t fathom why Indian officials put up so many hurdles. He was amused by India’s communists as well. He joked that if you mixed Chinese and Indian communists into an Indo-Chinese curry, it would improve the Indians but it might deteriorate the Chinese.

The evening after I returned to Delhi I turned on the news on television. In two separate programs, I caught prominent leaders of the Left and the Congress talking about India’s future. What came through unfailingly was their deep and fundamental hostility to business and the middle class. Our Leftists did not give two hoots about what would make Indian companies successful. Neither did they care if our entrepreneurs failed or succeeded. Unlike the Chinese, they felt no pride that India had achieved one of the strongest economies in the world. These debates, like so many in India, had a strange 1970s air, discussing issues that were settled in the world long ago with the fall of communism. One of the reasons for our confusion is that none of our leaders has really bothered to explain to the common voter how 15 years of slow but consistent economic reform has changed the lives of our people. And how they have added up to make India one of the world’s best performing economies.

Perhaps the greatest failure of our reformers is that they have not clarified how the reforms are helping the poor. Chinese leaders do not face this problem, but we are a democracy and our leaders need to remember that much of Margaret Thatcher’s energy went not into creating reforms but into educating her constituents that reforms were good for the whole of Britain. I sometimes wonder why Manmohan Singh and his dream team of reformers don’t go on television and educate us similarly night after night. Because they fail to do so, people fall hostage to the bad ideas of the populists. It is not enough to talk of “inclusive growth” or assert that we must grow at 10 percent—you must explain how this affects ordinary lives. Only thus will you create a constituency for thorough going reform. They must also admit honestly that India’s pre-1991 controls and subsidies were the chief causes of our poverty, and there is no point in bringing them back. An honest nation must come to grips with its past.

I am glad that the prime minister finally broke his silence this week about India’s notorious red tape. He realises that the inability to implement administration reforms is the other big failure of his government. As one of the best years in our economic history draws to a close, action on these two fronts would be the PM’s finest New Year resolutions.