Sunday, February 06, 2011

Is it Criminal to think small in India?

There are two spaces in the politics of India. And one of them is empty. The two spaces reflect the classic division between those who look ahead and aspire versus those who look back and complain. Our political parties cater to the second--to the victim in us through their politics of grievance. The present gridlock in the parliament is also symptom of the same dispirited politics—no party is sufficiently hungry for reform to break the logjam. No one reflects the spirit of a rapidly growing India. Nor is anyone thinking big--and it’s criminal to think small in India. Until the second space is filled, our politics will not be whole.

Congress appeals to the victim in the ‘aam admi’ with an ever expanding menu of job guarantees, food, gas and kerosene subsidies, and more. The BJP panders to the sufferer of historical Muslim misrule and to Congress’ minority vote-bank politics. Mayavati and caste parties focus on the historical injustice to Dalits and OBCs. The Shiv Sena gratifies the injured pride of the ‘Marathi manoos’. All of this is about the politics of grievance and injustice.

India, however, is changing dramatically. It is nothing short of a miracle that it has become the world’s second fastest growing economy in the midst of the most appalling governance. With high growth, mobility, and a demographic revolution of the young, Indians who aspire will soon overtake those who see themselves as victims. Pew surveys show that a majority of Indians believe that they are better off than their parents and that their children will do even better. The person who got the 750 millionth phone number last month was a village migrant whose dream keeps slipping as his calls keep dropping partly because A. Raja corruptly handed out the 2G spectrum. India’s 100 millionth internet user in 2013 will have information which only the most privileged could access twenty years ago. No one in India’s political life captures their hopes.

China’s politicians do a far better job. While we debate if growth is pro-poor, China talks about growing rich. It understands that performance is a function of expectations. Those with higher expectations get higher performance. China no longer thinks itself a Third World country—it is challenging America today. In India, only a few politicians-- Nitish Kumar, Sheila Dixit, and Narendra Modi--appeal to the aspirers. They speak the language of governance, roads and schools. But we need many more of them.

When I put this to a powerful Congress politician, he said that ‘India shining’ had died in the 2004 election. I gently reminded him that India’s high growth economy had delivered 300 million into the middle class; another 250 million had been lifted out of poverty since the 1980s. So, a total of 550 million aspirers are surely worth fighting over. ‘Ah, but there are still another 550 million whiners, and their votes are more reliable than the shiners!’ he said. If poverty were to magically disappear in India, the Congress party might lose its reason to exist.

Could the BJP become a party of aspiration? Vajpayee tried this when he unleashed the telecom and IT revolutions. His ‘India shining’ slogan did not lose the 2004 election—in fact, it was the defeat of key NDA allies in Andhra and Tamilnadu. But even he could not shed Hindutva. There is no one today in the BJP who has the courage and vision to discard the old baggage and convert it into a classical right of centre, secular party that stands single-mindedly for reforms and good governance.

Aspirational politics would tackle our problems differently. Take, for instance, food inflation. The politics of grievance applies short term bandages--it tries to catch hoarders, stops forward trading, forbids export of grains when the country has had a bumper rice harvest and expects a record wheat crop (while ignoring Rs 17,000 crores of grains rotting under the tarpaulins of FCI). The politics of aspiration would recapitalize and reform agriculture and raise long term supply—it would allow competition against FCI in the warehousing of food, permit foreign investment in retail to establish cold chains, and allow farmers to lease their lands in order to raise productivity.

Who will fill the empty space in Indian politics? None of our parties understands that we live in a time of revolutionary change. Could it be Rahul Gandhi? But so far he hasn’t given any hint that he thinks big. India has doubled its cotton crop in the past five years; yet there have also been suicides of farmers in the cotton growing areas. Both facts are correct. Rahul Gandhi has chosen to focus on suicides. The future, however, will be built by those who focus on the first, who think big and give young Indians a sense of limitless possibilities.


Unknown said...


Prosperity of India competes with the poverty of India.

Which so ever may win would decide the future of india....

Yayaver said...

All of the political parties shows growth in their election expenditure only.

BJP is too narrow minded in thinking of the INCLUSIVE DEVELOPMENT and no one is there to take place of A B Vajpayee. And it thinks of ultra nationalism.

Congress has grown on poverty removal slogans and the leaders for whom loyalty to leader carries more weight that service to the people. All one person has to show for his qualifications for that task is his loyalty to a particular family.

For the people, it represents the ultimate devil-and-deep-blue-sea choice...

The Chef said...

I think a lot of rot will be cleaned when aspirers enter politics even if reluctantly or as a last resort and it is bound to happen , though in a chaos like us it cannot happen quickly and smoothly

Once this happens, they will start making impact at national level in terms of policy as well as governance. IN the slow evolutionary cycle of nationhood , we have only spent 18-20 years in anything worthwhile. But i am hopeful that it is changing.

windwheel said...

The problem is rent seeking vested interests using specious populist arguments- e.g. Indian publishers saying 'foreign textbooks may rise in price, that too ten-fold!, because of the Copyright Amendment Act.
Interestingly, Mr. Gurcharan Das is supporting the vested interests in this instance.
No doubt, the Mahabharata is to blame.

Anonymous said...

There are two factors:

1. potential loss of something is far more galvanizing than potential gain of the same magnitude. Thus politicians would always focus on the loss factor.

2. The poiticians know that most of their voting numbers come from BPL population. (overall voting is 40%). So they do not worry about the middle class and upper class.

The combination of the above two factors means the politicians will ALWAYS focus on loss (present/historical) to the poor. Also, any such drives occur only just before elections; to maximize the returns.

No politician has quietly built a grass-root movement that lasts after elections.

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sandspace said...

Silence is Golden! - someone said.
May be Prime Minister believes in it very STRONGLY!

Indians are great followers of proverbs - alas! mostly in a WRONG context. Prime Minister seems to be no exception.

Ayurvedic Hepatitis Treatment said...

It is sometimes not seen at the time but with time things change. Who would have thought in 1990 that India will have a place at the world table. Unless we mess up big time the way things are going we will have a political reform too soon.

Banoth Redya said...

u have forgotten Chandra Babu Naidu responsible for the development of hyd in league of N Modi, S Dixit & Nitish k.

rahul g .... my god ... :P does he have the intellect to even know the gravity of the problem ... let alone solving it?

Ritesh Bhagwat said...

Pls start writing for some better newpaper than TOI so that at least thinking audiance can also read your articles...I hope you know who reads TOI today :-)

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Raji said...

Great insights.. I particularly want to comment on suicides in the cotton belt that you mentioned in passing... Cotton production has gone up and yet there are some cotton growing farmers who choose to end their life.. So, the problem is clearly elsewhere, either he has not chosen his inputs correctly or he has been forced to fall into the clutches of moneylenders. I suspect the latter to be the case for suicides apart from the fact that this district is prone to such events for over 100 years... Study of suicides seem to be far more complex that just drawing co-relations with the crop they are currently cultivating

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