Since India sharply altered its economic course and opted to embrace liberalization, privatization and globalization (LPG) in 1991, the economy has been on the ascent registering an average 6% plus GDP till very recently.
What came as a surprise was that these reforms ushered in by Finance Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh found broad acceptance across national political parties barring muted opposition from the Left.
Therefore, after such smooth success, it seems puzzling to a lay reader that the health of the nation and its economy should look vulnerable today. The lop-sided growth and increasing inequalities continue staring at us: number of Indians entering billionaire’s club showing an upward trend and at the same time over 3 lakh farmers committed suicide between 1999- 2015.
Is it because the trickle-down theory so vociferously advocated by business lobby has failed to touch those at the bottom of the pyramid? Do policy makers continue overlooking a simple fact that greater equality is a sine qua non for achieving rapid growth on a long term basis in a country like India?
What about key institutions/systems that too are crying for reforms and without which achieving a just and equitable society will continue to elude us?
It is in this context that a just published book DIMINISHING INDIA: DECADES OF BRAZEN POLITICAL APATHY assumes greater relevance. Written by business magnate B.R. Taneja and corporate executive with experience in development sector Rakesh Duda, the book is an honest attempt to understand the challenges plaguing the country and, in the words of the authors, “find effective solutions that are simple but bold and transformative and require political conviction to implement.”
Published by Vitasta, the book is not only magisterial in scope but also broad in the subjects covered. The authors omit almost nothing: tardy and uneven economic development, clogged judiciary, corrupt police system and a dysfunctional parliament- all are clinically dissected. And yet the authors are modest: “we are corporate professionals who spend working hours analysing plans and performance reports and carrying our mundane business management activities. However, we have more than a hobby level interest in public policy and political economy.”
One is tempted to ask whether it is possible to cover such wide and important areas without being passionate, serious and knowledgeable? Isn’t it commendable that they have been able to pack in so much in 200 pages?
The uniqueness of the book is not in the relevance of the issues but the practical solutions being offered.
Both Taneja and Duda strongly believe that the de-acceleration in the growth prospects is primarily because as a country we have not paid enough attention in promoting good governance. They have identified four critical areas that in their opinion that needs fixing: Legacy of Poverty, Indian Police Under Captivity, Waiting for Justice-Interminably and Diminishing Democracy.
In the chapter ‘Diminishing Democracy’ the authors warn of the criminalization of politics posing biggest threat to our democracy. The number of elected representatives with criminal background is increasing election after election- increased by 2.7 times in the last two elections.
They seem to find merit in Presidential form of government: “Our parliamentary system makes it mandatory to select ministers from among the parliamentarians/legislators to handle the ministries. This makes the choice extremely limited.” The argument they are making is that in a parliamentary form of government inducting outside talent who are not elected representatives into the cabinet face constitutional hurdles. One may ask the authors what is the point of drafting talent into a government unless the ecosystem encourages free and frank exchange of ideas and opinions?
Aren’t we witness to ex-President Trump discarding the sane and sound advice of medical scientists during the pandemic?
Or the way President Erdogan is undermining democratic and secular traditions in Turkey. However, after 70 years as a republic, the nation must now ask what happened to the delivery aspect of politics?
What has escaped the author’s attention is the diminishing role of India’s Parliament/ legislatures in the conduct of national affairs. The government announcing major decisions, accepted without any debate.
No one can miss the note of personal anguish of the authors when documenting India’s poverty.
“At the time of independence, out of total population of 390 million, 273 million were below the poverty line. And today after 70 years the number stands higher at about 400 million.” Indeed a sad story! The pandemic has further accentuated the condition of the poor with unemployment and underemployment reaching alarming levels.
That this dialogue from the film Pyassa (1957) starring Dilip Kumar, Mala Sinha (Dilip is in love with her) and Tuntun – finds resonance with today’s youth tells us something:
Tuntun : “Tum Kis Ki Talash Me Majnoo Bane Phir Rahe Ho?”
Dilip Kumar: “Naukri.”
The employment generation is critical to ameliorate the condition of the poor and kick start the economic growth: “Unskilled and semi-skilled employed under MGNREGA could also be employed to create housing for the poor, construction of proper drainage systems in the villages, internal village roads etc.” Their entire thrust is to bring the poor into the consumption cycle by increasing their disposable income. It is believed that a million rupees spent on roads lifts an estimated 123 people out of poverty, and reduces poverty seven times more effectively than the same spent on anti-poverty schemes. The authors emphasize the need to promote ‘labour cooperatives’ to suit each requirement. What needs to be factored in is that theories can be tidy but realities on the ground are always messy. This is best illustrated by the award winning journalist P.Sainath when he writes that in India we have schools without teachers; we have teachers posted to villages where no schools exist; and when we have both teachers and schools, no teaching takes place?
Therefore any policy intervention for the poor must be subjected to transparent audit by the community.
The authors refer to other institutions that need reforms like enforcement and investigating agencies including CBI aptly described a ‘caged parrot’ by Supreme Court. The police reforms are discussed in great detail including the Supreme Court judgement of 1996 that has mandated that the police be insulated from political interference.
Regarding the judicial system they point out “meaningful court business was conducted only for 21 per cent of the cases on the given date.” We all know that our courts have become the bureaucracy of the law, and often have eyes for the rich and powerful. They lament that the Supreme Court has been passing on the buck to the Election Commission to bar candidates with criminal background from contesting elections.
What emerges from reading the book is that the difference between income levels of the ‘have’ and the ‘have-not’ countries stems from the difference in their institutions ie laws, rules and processes. The reason the authors sound convincing in the argument they make is because they never overstate their case. To arrest India diminishing further, it is essential our ‘vibrant’ democracy transforms into a ‘delivering’ democracy without which 21st century may bypass India as did the previous century. That calls for fostering a more healthy political culture. That can take shape only if leaders of all parties have the courage to engage in conversations on how to address the problems the country faces, and think not of the next election but of the next generation.
(The author works for reputed Apeejay Education Society, New Delhi)