Sunday, April 12, 2009

Young India, old politicians

Not a single politician has explained to us during this election campaign why India has risen to become the world’s second fastest growing economy. It did not happen because our leaders gave cheap rice, reservations, employment guarantee schemes, loan waivers, or anything else on the mind of our political class. Hence, a suspicion has grown that our country may be rising despite its politicians and the economy grows at night when the government is asleep. The best that our leaders have done since 1991 is to gradually get out of the people’s way.

If one did manage to find a stray neta who understood the reasons behind India’s success, it would probably be a younger one. For it is young, self-assured Indians, whose minds are decolonized, and who are confidently scripting India’s success story via the private sector. This is unlike China, whose success is being orchestrated by a purposeful state. This too makes sense for three fourths of China’s politburo consists of young technocrats. In comparison, almost one fourth of India’s greying legislators have a criminal record.

If India can rise despite the state, it would seem to matter less and less who wins this election and which coalition comes to power. The ability of politicians to do real harm (as they could during the ‘licence raj’) has diminished. What is remarkable about India’s history is not what happened in 1991, but that every government after that has continued to reform, albeit in a slow, halting manner. Even slow reforms have added up to make India a high growth economy. That it has happened in a chaotic democracy in which Mayawati aspires to be PM is the real triumph.

The political reason for our success is that every government had a few young reformers, who understood that a nation prospers not by giving people fish but by teaching them to fish. In 1997, Chidambaram delivered a ‘dream budget’ when no one was looking; Arun Shourie had the determination to push through the privatization of loss making state companies against opposition within his coalition; BC Khanduri had the will and the skill to push forward an ambitious highways program; Lalu Prasad had the good sense to leave it to young Sudhir Kumar to stage the greatest turnaround in the Indian Railways; Suresh Prabhu did wonders in electric power until his envious, ageing boss cut him down. These were young men in a hurry. Compare them to the sad, elderly Arjun Singh, who fell asleep during meetings and cussedly refused to reform our education system.

The Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, is unique in engaging with the world of politics and it has a lesson for our rulers--learn to behave your age. The classical Indian life is lived in stages. The first is brahmacharya—the period of adolescence when one is a celibate student; in the worldly second stage, grihasthya, the householder produces, procreates, provides security for the family and enjoys the world. At the third, vanaprasthya stage, one begins to disengage from worldly pursuits to have time for rest and reflection; and in the final stage, sanyasa, one renounces the world in quest of spiritual release from human bondage. This is how to live a flourishing and balanced life. The Mahabharata reminds us that the second stage is the indispensable material basis of civilization, and this is the time for politicians to become statesmen. Our weary, old politicians have got it all wrong—they are trying to hold on to power at the wrong stage of life. The epic would approve of Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to bring the young into our political life.
Because of high growth, prosperity will now spread in India but happiness will not unless we fix governance. Every political party has promised cheap rice, more schools, more hospitals and more everything in its manifesto. But 80% of the rice will not reach the poor, 25% of the teachers will be absent from schools and 40% of the doctors will not show up at primary health centres. A few, younger MPs have understood the Indian voter’s deep despair over corruption in the delivery of public services. Hence, they have rightly concluded that our first priority must now be not economic reform but governance reform.

The Mahabharata also had a problem with the self-destructive, kshatriya institutions of its time, and it had to wage a war to cleanse them. We too, I fear, will have to wage a Kurukshetra-like battle against our corrupt government institutions in order to bring accountability into public life. Like Yudhishthira in the epic, we shall have to struggle in order to recover dharma and a meaningful ideal of civic virtue. Fortunately, a few younger netas understand this and it is they who will write our future and not the tired old men who are trying desperately to hold on to power while pretending to rule us.
The writer’s forthcoming book, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma, interrogates the Mahabharata in order to answer the question ‘why be good?’


Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

In many of your recent comments, you have indicated that china is growing because of its state's efforts.

Why India didnt reached anywhere under state supervision for 40 years initially? Your views on why state controls failed in India are requested.

many thanks

Anonymous said...

i am i4 years old and i have a debate coming up in school so while searching matter on the net i came across this and my opinion on these statemeants will be that , i being the future young citizen of india will try my best to develop the nation economically and by reducing poverty the main reason india dindnt reach anywhere is because more than 40 million people are still under the poverty line and a strong nation is formed only when it invests on human the poor children are going to be its future......!!

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