Sunday, November 14, 2010

In search of America’s liberty and India’s dharma

It is one thing to win power, another to wield it. Two dispirited leaders met in Delhi this week. President Obama was chastened by dramatic electoral losses in the US Congress and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh disheartened by never ending corruption scandals. Both seemed to have forgotten the fundamentals of what created their respective democracies. Just as one cannot understand America without the concept of liberty, so is India inexplicable without the idea of dharma. At the end, their spirits did lift but both leaders have much work to do to restore confidence in their ideals.

John Boehner, the new speaker-to-be of the House of Representatives and an architect of the Republican recapture of power, explained Mr Obama’s fall from grace. He said that President Obama had ‘ignored the values that have made America—economic freedom, individual liberty and personal responsibility’. It does not matter if Mr Boehner is right; half of America believes it. Every nation is an ‘imagined community’ and what voters ‘imagine’ is what counts. America’s image of itself is a land of opportunity and entrepreneurship—it is not a European style welfare state with a culture of entitlement. Mr Obama forgot liberty in is his pursuit of equality, say his critics.

Just as America’s founding fathers were obsessed with liberty, so were India’s founders deeply attached to dharma--so much so that they placed the dharma-chakra in the middle of the Indian flag. The Congress party still does not realize how much it is diminished by the relentless series of corruption scandals. People insistently ask, ‘where is dharma in our public life?’ This is a sad because we placed so much hope in a prime minister, who is personally honest and who promised good governance as his primary goal in his first three major speeches when the UPA first came to power in the middle of 2004.

The ideal that exists in the Indian imagination is of a ruler guided by ‘dharma’. In this context, dharma does not mean ‘religion’, which is a recent usage that emerged only in the 19th century Bengal when Christian missionaries claimed that ‘Jesus’ path was the true dharma’. Hindus countered their challenge, claiming that theirs is sanatana, ‘eternal’, dharma. The meaning of public dharma which inspired the makers of our Constitution is ‘doing the right thing’.

Although the economic circumstances of India and America are different, the answers to their problems are surprisingly similar. America is a rich country which is stuck in a jobless recovery--wages have been lagging for decades. Its best and brightest prefer to work in services and its industrial base is fast eroding. India is poor but rising rapidly. Like America, its high growth rate is driven by services, not by industry. In our euphoria over India’s growth we forget that we still have to create an ‘industrial revolution’. Only through low tech, labour intensive industry will we be able to create jobs for the rural masses.
Both India and America have to get their best and brightest to go into industry rather than glamour jobs in finance.

Instead of creating bogus jobs through employment guarantee schemes, India needs to create genuine jobs through private enterprise. To do this we need to reform our labour laws; pass the land acquisition law; remove ‘inspector raj’ which encourages bribery but discourages entrepreneurs; and push massive skills training through public private partnerships. Our present high growth will only take us to a middle income status--$5000-$7000 per capita income. After that India will get stuck like many Latin American states, unless we improve governance and create an industrial revolution. ‘Let us not take high growth for granted’, says the respected economist, Ajay Shah.

India should also emulate Mr Obama’s obsession to improve the ‘quality’ of primary education in order to build our industrial base. He is the first Democratic president to say that ‘bad teachers should be fired if they can’t train kids to succeed’. India’s problem with government schools is much worse than America’s. One in four government primary school teachers here is absent and one in four is not teaching. Yet, our new Right to Education Act is silent on outcomes. Mr Obama’s courage to take on teachers’ unions in America should inspire our leaders to also speak out about the ‘dharma of a teacher’.
Mr Obama’s visit ended on a high note and two politicians have since been sacked. The real work must now begin. To restore dharma in public life, Dr Manmohan Singh must drop corrupt members in the UPA cabinet; push civil service reforms to make officials (including school teachers) accountable; enact labour reforms and the land acquisition bill; stop the dangerous Food Security Bill, which holds the potential for becoming the biggest corruption scandal in India’s history. Only then will he begin to restore dharma and make India deserving of ‘great power’ status.