Monday, April 25, 2005

Romancing the Arts

Times of India, April 24, 2005

We have had an unusually long spring this year. It is over now, and so is the frenzy of board exams. It is not surprising that thoughts of the young have turned to romance. But not for long for one has to think of a career and making a life. Millions of young Indians as they leave school and head for college, ask: should I study science, arts or commerce? ‘Making a life’ is different from ‘making a living’, and I’ll recount my own experience as I answer that question, not for any other reason but because one person's life, honestly captured, is not only unique, but is the only certain data of history that we possess as human beings.

When I was 16 I got a scholarship to an American college when it was fashionable to go to England, especially to Oxbridge. Like the diligent son of an engineer, I began to study engineering. Inspired by Crick and Watson, who had recently discovered the DNA molecule’s shape, I switched to chemistry. During the summer I came back and saw for the first time India’s grinding poverty. (One has to go away sometimes to notice these things.) Hoping for answers, I switched to economics in my second year. A few months later I was enticed by the humanities–by courses in Greek tragedy, Islamic history, Russian novel, and Sanskrit love poetry. I wanted to study everything, but I couldn’t of course. So, I did the next best thing. I switched to a joint major called History & Literature.

By now my parents in India had begun to despair. My mother didn’t know quite what to tell the neighbours. Adding to her discomfort, I discovered two new temptations at the end of my second year. I was attracted by philosophy, but also by the visual beauty of Bauhaus buildings. So much so that I seriously considered becoming an architect. In the end, two moral philosophers, John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin, prevailed. I wrote my thesis on Aristotle and graduated with a degree in philosophy.

Apart from being a thoroughly confused young man, what this story tells is how a liberal education is a search. One shouldn’t feel that one has the answers. It is enough to know the questions. My unusual college allowed me the freedom to search for what I wanted to be. My parents too were patient and didn’t pressure me to do “something useful”. Our system in India, alas, doesn’t allow for such experimenting. You are called a duffer if you are doing the Arts here–it means you didn’t get into engineering.

My confusion didn’t quite end there. I still didn’t know what I wanted–so, I took a year off and a job selling Vicks Vaporub. And like the man who came to dinner I stayed on. I rose to head the company, and at 50 I took early retirement to become a writer. At first, not having an MBA proved a drawback, but later I discovered, oddly enough, that my liberal education was an advantage. Writing essays had taught me think and write clearly. I had a better understanding of human motivation for I had consumed vast amounts of literature. Stoic philosophy offered a refuge in my many adverse moments. Most of all, my liberal education had given me confidence in my own judgement, and this often allowed me to be innovative. In the end it matters less what one studies in college and more that one acquire the right attitudes. Without realising it I had built a self in college, and I could cope with life’s ambiguity.

Monday, April 11, 2005

China's State Vs India's Market

Times of India, April 10, 2005

The Chinese premier’s visit to India is a good thing because it takes our minds off Pakistan. We really have to learn to ignore Pakistan and heed China. Pakistan pulls us down into an abyss of religious fundamentalism, terrorism, and identity politics. China will lift us up, firing our ambition for better roads, schools and health centres.

Ten years ago I used to either admire or fear China. Now, I am more relaxed. Both our economies are among the world’s fastest, and both are on the verge of solving their age-old economic problem. China’s success is induced by the state whereas India’s achievement is due to its private economy. For 25 years China has been growing at 8 percent and India at 6 percent; hence, China is now 20 years ahead, thanks to a purposive state that has reformed faster and invested in infrastructure. We may have ‘law’ but they have ‘order’.

Our different pasts explain a great deal about us. In the last 100 years China suffered devastating violence while India was spoiled by amazing peace. China’s 20th century opened with the ravages of warlords; the Nationalists followed with their butchery in the twenties. Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in the thirties made our British Raj look angelic. In the forties came Mao’s massacres as Communists took power. Mao’s ambitions sacrificed 35 million in the Great Leap Forward in the fifties and brought more misery during the Cultural Revolution. It was not until 1978 that the Chinese breathed easy. And then they went on to create the most amazing spectacle of economic growth in human history.

Saints, on the other hand, created India (in Andre Malraux’s words) and this happened in the shadows of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Not only did we escape the World Wars, but we became free without shedding an ounce of blood, thanks to Mahatma Gandhi. Yes, half a million died in the Partition riots, but it was not state sponsored violence. Because we were addicted to peace we created the world’s largest democracy. Nehru’s socialism slowed us down for 3 decades, but he did not wipe out our private economy with its invaluable institutions of banks, corporate laws, and the stock market. So, when we broke free from our socialist shackles we had this advantage over China.

This is why India’s recent economic success is driven by its entrepreneurs. The best thing that India’s bungling government is doing is slowly getting out of the way of its dynamic citizens through reforms. India is spawning highly competitive private companies that are likely to become global brand names in the future. Reliance, Jet Airways, Infosys, Wipro, Ranbaxy, Bharat Forge, Tata Motors, Moser Baer and Hindalco are just a few examples. China’s miracle, on the other hand, is based on the success of state enterprises and foreign capital. China’s government is, in fact, suspicious of its entrepreneurs. Only 10% of China’s banking credit goes to the private sector, although it employs 40% of its labour. While Jet Airways has quietly become the undisputed leader of India’s skies after a dozen years, Okay, China’s first private airline just began to fly in February.

We too could grow at 8 percent. We do not because our incompetent governments don’t govern. Democracy too slows us down. If it came to a trade-off, I don’t think anyone in India would give up democracy for a two-percentage points higher growth rate. We have waited 3000 years for this moment to wipe out poverty, and if needed let’s wait another 20 years and do it with democracy. And frankly, life is more than just a race.