Monday, July 28, 2008

Go beyond Left and Right, July 27, 2008

On July 22, the Congress led UPA won a vote of confidence in Parliament over the nuclear deal. Despite the murky moments I truly enjoyed the debate. I got a sense of how our MPs think, feel and view the world. There were great moments in the speeches of Lalu Prasad, Rahul Gandhi, Omar Abdullah and others. Suddenly, it was all eclipsed by the stomach turning sight of bundles of currency flying about.

The debate showed how much our political landscape has changed after 1991. Both the right and the left are exhausted. The left, which earlier stood for idealism and change, has lost all common sense. It defends the status quo in voices from Jurrasic Park, forgetting that it too is a victim of vested interests. The right, which in India means the Hindu nationalistic right, finds less and less takers for its Hindutva ideology. The Congress is in deep trouble, unable to shed its traditional attachment to statism. It fails to grasp that the Indian mind is now unbound, and the young want to take charge of their lives.

Ideology is also exhausted in the rest of the world, where left and right matters less and less. In the West the left tries to conserve the welfare state. The liberal, economic right wants to dismantle it. Beyond that, the distinctions are blurred. The right has accepted transfers to the poor but it wants them to be efficient. The left no longer wants government to run businesses. Few oppose the market--the debate is on how to regulate it wisely.

If people don’t care about ideology, how will politicians win elections? Human beings want the same things everywhere--a safe, place to live; good schools and hospitals; clean air and water; be able to ply one’s trade without having to bribe; a judge to resolve disputes speedily. The amazing thing is that our politicians will do everything but deliver these. When we throw them out after five years, they blame ‘anti-incumbency’. Some of us have heard of an obscure railway official named Erapalli Sreedharan, who is quietly building a world class Metro for Delhi. If he were candidate for the Prime Minister, we would vote for him. His ability to execute projects has nothing to do with capitalism, socialism or Hindutva. The Chinese politburo has this advantage over our cabinet—its leaders have Sreedharan’s abilities.

Indians have been raised on a steady diet of Mahabharata, and so we are pragmatic. The Yudhishthira, who made the reluctant decision to go to war, was following a practical, achievable dharma. He was aware that while ahimsa, non-violence, is the ideal way to act, violence is sometimes inevitable. In politics, protecting the state’s interest is the path to justice rather than seeking human perfection. When ideology becomes the driving force of politics, room for compromise disappears. The Congress Party has just learned this lesson in the most painful way from its Marxist allies. As a general rule, the ethic of perfection appeals more to those who are far removed from public office.

The history of the twentieth century is littered with the graves of ideologies, all of which had some great and benign aim. This was the faith of Lenin, of Mao, even of Hitler, and who knows, maybe even Pol Pot. In India, we escaped these tragedies, but our modest experiments with Fabian socialism led to statism, and we are still trying to shake off that yoke. Our politicians should learn from history—shed ideology, acquire implementation skills, and focus on the real needs of people. This is the way to beat ‘anti-incumbency’ and win the next election.

One cheer for Mayawati, July 13, 2008

On July one, 86 lakh children in class one and two began to learn English in government schools of Uttar Pradesh. It fulfilled a long standing demand of parents who believe that they have lost two generations to Hindi chauvinists. They know that a child who learns English by age 10 has a natural advantage for the rest of its life. Shortage of English speakers is one reason why software companies, call centres, export oriented industry has been slow in coming to UP and the caricature of the ‘bhaiya’ persists.

Mayawati’s decision on English was hailed by Dalits, and for good reason. A study in Mumbai shows that among Dalit women, those who learn English rise economically and socially by marrying outside their caste. 31% of Dalit women who knew English had inter-caste marriages compared to 9% who did not know English. This makes sense. Knowing English gives a Dalit woman a chance to work in call centres and other modern jobs where there are fewer caste barriers. Is Mayawati finally realizing that there may be more votes in meeting people’s real needs than in erecting statues to Ambedkar? She has also ordered toilets for girls in 90,000 primary schools.

It must have taken some courage to challenge the teachers’ union and the Hindi establishment. So, why do I offer only a single cheer to Mayawati? I would give her three cheers had she attacked the basic disease of teacher absenteeism. The famous Kremer-Murlidharan report shows that one in four teachers is not present in school, and one in four present is not teaching. As a result, 53.1 % of UP’s children in Class 5 cannot read a Class 2 text, according to ASER surveys. 67.2 % of children in urban UP and 29.1 % in rural UP are now in private schools.

What is the answer? Quite simply, the government should fund students and not schools. When a child reaches age 5, the government should give parents a voucher (like a scholarship), which can only be exchanged for education at a school of the parent’s choice. Since all parents want a good school for their kids, vouchers will create competition among schools. As vouchers will be the only source of a school’s income, and as teachers will be paid salaries only from vouchers, teachers will show up and even teach with inspiration. Teachers will have an incentive to perform. Good teachers will be able to earn more thanks to higher voucher income earned by their school. Teacher morale will thus rise. They will be accountable to parents rather than remote officials in the state capital.

Competition for vouchers will improve both government and private schools. Bad schools will close down, good ones will flourish. The poorest parents will be able to send their child to a quality school. The ability to exit their children from a bad school is hugely empowering—it is like having “voice” in a democracy. The rich have it because of their money power. Vouchers will give them purchasing power and “voice”. A poor child will get the same opportunity as a rich one to rise in the world, and we will progress to our dream of equality of opportunity.

Mayawati used to be a teacher. So, she will appreciate this public-private partnership. Teachers unions will oppose her, of course. She will be scared of losing lakhs of teachers’ votes, but she must remember that she will gain crores of votes of grateful parents. I’m convinced that more and more sensible policies will come from Dalit/OBC leaders who have fewer vested interests to protect (like teachers’ unions).