Showing posts with label liberalisation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label liberalisation. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bet Big on India with One Big Caveat

“A person who brings out the greatness of his friend himself gains importance.”
-Rig Veda 

Anyone who has spoken with me recently will likely be tired of hearing me say how there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this next decade belongs to India, BUT depending on how India chooses to traverse it, will decide if the next century is also ours. It is true that I have always been among India’s most vocal cheerleaders, the eternal optimist and jingoistic patriot. I believed in her potential even when I was in the extreme minority during the lowest ebbs of our license Raj. I never stopped believing in her despite the tremendous odds and the contrary viewpoints of many an expert. Today, the landscape is far different, and I imagine few people will challenge my views based on the last decade of economic data.

First, let’s discuss why I am optimistic before I spell out the major caveat. The reason for my optimism lies in two parts: one has to do with forces within India, and the other a set of external factors which squarely benefit us. It is true that in the 21st century, no country can thrive on its own because of our global economic interconnectedness and interdependence. These connections will only grow deeper in the next century and serve to further isolate economies like Russia, Iran, North Korea and others that pursue isolation over smart dependency.
Indians want innovation over idol worship and 
paycheques over pogroms

We can all agree that we owe a debt of gratitude to the Congress Party for ushering in an era of liberalisation, without which we would not be among an elite group of economies, the third largest in the world. However, I also believe the greater debt we owe them has to do with the unmitigatedly corrupt, greedy and dystopian second term they presided over. Their unchecked gluttony is directly responsible for shaking the lethargy of the Indian public; we would not have seen the rise of Narendra Modi onto the national stage without it. As a direct result of our frustration with the Congress, the majority of Indians were willing to give Mr. Modi a chance, and not based on his Hindutva philosophy. This combined with his promise to beat China and provide economic development for all Indians. It is why the youth voted for him in large numbers, the same youth that carries no baggage from 1984 or 2002 - a generation born on WhatsApp. Mr. Modi would do well to recognise and remember this because if he is seen to pander to the vocal minority within his base, the same winds that ushered him in will push him back into regional oblivion. Indians want innovation over idol worship and pay cheques over pogroms; they do not want a Hindu nation. 

The second factor that helped put the wind in India’s sails (around the time of Congress’s demise and Mr. Modi’s rise) had to do with the course that the other much vaunted BRICS economies took. In a word, they are all in the shit hole with the exception of China, which is a little different. I don’t need to spend time explaining how Russia has faltered, but will point to one thing worth nothing with regards to Brazil's and South Africa’s demise. Without question both suffered from poor leadership, institutionalized corruption and flimsy economic policies that were based on riding the global financial bubble, not on investments in domestic growth. We can argue that India had many of the same problems with corruption and lack of strong leadership under Manmohan Singh, but there is one major difference; we have a much stronger democracy. One that can withstand medium-term failures, and has the ability to course correct when things go deeply wrong. Look no further than the decimation of Congress, the rise of AAP and the BJP wave.

The fundamentals of our democracy are strong, not just in terms of people and ideas but also civil institutions, our judiciary and bureaucracy. We are better equipped to withstand bad government for a term or two and bounce back than any of the other BRICS. China is the only other BRIC standing, and here I will argue that it is our democratic values that will help us win the day against them. While China’s economic growth has been sputtering of late, I believe the final drain on their storied growth will come from a social implosion. Simply put, you cannot give people a little taste of capitalism and then expect to continue to control their thinking and freedoms, certainly not in a world where there is a world wide web and the ability to travel. Once people taste freedom of thought and expression, they tend to want more, not less.

There is no question that the demise of the BRICS has been another major gift for Mr. Modi. Now he must make sure he does not waste it. Their demise has made us the cynosure of all global investment for the foreseeable future. This, before Mr. Modi did anything to prove himself, or have time for his policies to have a substantial impact on India’s economy. It has provided him with a one-term carte blanche of sorts but he now very quickly needs to start putting this foreign investment where his development (mouth) is.
Capitalism is driven purely by great ideas, not by ideology

Now the big caveat I mentioned. What made America the greatest economy and strongest nation over the last century is the fact that the majority of Americans found a way to rise beyond petty politics, religious rabble-rousing and superficial differences, to unite under common cause. As a society they understood that capitalism is driven purely by great ideas, not by ideology. For this reason their leaders have always embraced inclusiveness (slavery aside) and not for some other higher altruistic purpose. It is why they have encouraged freedom of thought, expression and strived to build a homogenous melting pot of diverging cultures and viewpoints.

Diversity makes a nation richer and more powerful, as long it can find a common capitalist cause to rally behind (not a political or religious one). The American motto “E Pluribus Unum” can be found on everything from their coins and currency to their Presidential seal; it means “out of many, one”. Americans have rallied behind this motto and worked hard to attract the brightest and best minds from every corner of the globe; this diversity has paid great dividends with world-beating innovation, and years of economic growth and military dominance.
We need a society that convalescences around education and economic opportunity, not Hindutva
India’s veins are bursting with rich and diverse talent. Mr. Modi must now strive to create an even more open-minded and inclusive society, one that convalescences around education, skill development, economic opportunity and growth, not around Hindutva. Now is the time to stand united, not to divide further. This alone will allow Mr. Modi to deliver on his promise of the Indian dream. However, if he continues to allow the forces of Hindutva to hijack his agenda, then he will very quickly squander the Indian century that is now finally, and firmly, within our grasp.
 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

There is Something Rotten in the State of our Democracy…

"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?"
Mahatma Gandhi

The people’s version of the Lokpal bill was finally debated and accepted by our parliament today. The Lokpal bill has been brought forward and quashed eight times before over the years; and the recent version that this Congress government tried to hurriedly pass had about as much teeth as a newborn baby. While many consider this a great victory for the people, India stands deeply divided on the bill.

Those who argue against Anna Hazare and his movement say that he has used Mahatma Gandhi’s fasting as a tool for blackmail, by effectively holding a gun to our heads and that of our democratically elected government. That his motives are right but his method is wrong; and this is not the way we should tackle this very grave and serious issue. There are others who question Anna’s motives, and say he has a dubious background. They say he has ties to the RSS (the fundamental Hindu wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party). They also say that Anna himself is a corrupt megalomaniac, who believes in his way or the highway. They have posted videos on YouTube showing people talking about Anna’s lies and his shady past. Others argue that the Lokpal bill is worthless because it does nothing to tackle private sector corruption, which has become an even bigger issue in this past decade of liberalisation. Many say that the creation of an extra-parliamentary body, like the Lokpal, is not the answer because it will simply add another layer to the already untenable bureaucracy, and feed the very monster it is trying to kill - by becoming more powerful, further above the law and more corrupt than the establishments that exist today. Perhaps all these people are correct in their accusations, fears and in every argument they make. Maybe there is a better way to do this within the confines of a democratic process. Maybe.

Then there is the other half that supports Anna, his fast and the Lokpal bill. These people feel that they have been shouting and screaming for sixty-four years. They have bribed every official, at every step of the process, and still not gotten their work done. They have voted election after election only to see the number of politicians with criminal records rise each time. One hundred fifty-three of the 543 politicians elected in 2009 had criminal cases pending, including 9 ministers. (source: Telegraph) They see the same old faces and empty promises of fighting corruption no matter which party is in power. On the one hand they feel a great sense of hope when Rahul Gandhi takes the podium and urges more youth to join politics, as a way to rid us of corruption. While on the other hand Sonia Gandhi stands silent even as scam after scam, carried out by her most trusted and senior party members, is uncovered right under her nose. We are told the CBI will investigate; some Ministers are removed from their posts (not one of them has stopped smiling, yet). We all know that the Congress believes this will placate the masses and soon, once the current anger dissipates, it will be back to corruption as usual. It is now an open secret that Praful Patel sold Air-India, our national carrier, to the highest bidder so the Congress and their cronies could fill their coffers with a little more of India’s money that they continue to loot and pillage. We all know this but nobody really cares enough to do anything more than talk about it over dinner, shrug and nod our heads. This is exactly what the Congress was counting on us billion plus Indians to do, yet again.

We are told the Judiciary and Prime Minister should not fall under the ambit of the Lokpal bill because this will make it overreaching and start to erode the fundamentals of our democracy. I was a firm believer in the Indian Justice System until I experienced every corner of our court system, first hand. From the criminal to the civil, all the way up to the high court and I can tell you that not ONE thing happens without paying someone a bribe. You can stand on principle and refuse, in which case you will not even be able to file your paperwork. I realized that the justice system that I was so proud of simply boils down to a race to see who has the deepest pockets and can go the greatest distance in sustaining the bribery to bring their case to conclusion. The courts have a tremendous incentive and the means to drag cases on for years. Of course if you have really deep pockets then you can save everyone the time and trouble by buying the outcome you desire before you ever file a single piece of paper. I have never felt more helpless or powerless in my life.

The Lokpal also wants to merge all the current corruption investigating agencies and bring them under the purview of the Lokpal. This includes the CBI’s anti-corruption wing (Central Bureau of Investigation), which is considered India’s Interpol and premier investigative agency. The CBI is a government agency, its head is appointed by the government and it is controlled by and reports directly to the Department of Personnel and Training in the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pension, usually headed by a Union Minister who reports directly to the Prime Minister (source: Wikipedia). The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) would also be brought under the purview of the Lokpal. The CVC is an autonomous body that does not report to any executive authority. However, it is not an investigating agency and can only present reports and recommendations to the government; unless approved by the government no further action or investigation can be pursued by anybody. In the event an investigation is sanctioned by the government, then only the CBI is authorised to pursue it. The CVC has been publishing a list of corrupt government officials since its inception in 1964; do you recall how many have been convicted? Over the last decade the CBI has come to be known as the Congress Bureau of Investigation.

Today, as Indian citizens we cannot even renew our passports without bribing someone or having a connection in the bureaucracy, really high up. We can pass our driving tests but will not be issued a license unless we are willing to grease a palm. In fact, we have to bribe someone for virtually every basic right we have as citizens of the world’s largest democracy; for our water, electricity, to pass through toll booths on highways, to get a telephone line and even to park our car in a free public parking lot. How many times have we been assaulted or wronged by someone and told that it is better to let it go because the police are only going to create more problems than it is worth? Or that we will end up spending more money than we were swindled out of if we are to involve the local police…the police! A leading, well-respected surgeon in Bombay stopped the father of a friend of mine from being wheeled into the operating room until he was satisfied with the amount he would be paid in “cash” (or black money) for the life-saving operation he was about to perform.

Is this what we cherish, want to protect, and fear that Anna’s version of Lokpal will start to erode?

A democracy is only as strong as the credibility of the institutions that govern it. This credibility comes from the transparency and legitimacy of the public servants elected to administer and deliver it. And it is only as valuable as the basic rights and freedoms we enjoy, the sense of patriotism we feel and the sacrifices we are all willing to make to protect these freedoms. The word democracy comes from the Greek work dēmokratía or "rule of the people". Today, in India, the people no longer rule. Anna Hazare’s cry brought us together and united people from all walks of life behind a common cause and a shared goal for the first time since Independence. Perhaps the Lokpal is the jolt we needed, that first little step in the long and tenuous process of creating a democracy we can all be proud of. It is now up to each one of us to ensure that the Lokpal does not become our worst fear, but forms the fundamental pillar of the democracy that I know we all believe in but some of us gave up on ever achieving.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Open Letter to India

“The accomplice to the crime of corruption is frequently our own indifference.”
Bess Myerson

A social revolution is afoot around the globe. People, who have been stepped on, downtrodden by top-down economic prosperity that never trickled down to them and brow beaten into years of giving up their hard earned wages to corrupt officials and wretched politicians, are saying no more. Granted all the current unrest is restricted to the autocratic and dictatorial regimes in North Africa and the Middle East but mark my words that this phenomenon will spread to India, China, Russia and Brazil. I know people will consider it sacrilege that I would dare to compare the deeply democratic systems of India and Brazil to the shams that mask the authoritarian ones of Russia and China. But I feel compelled based on the extent of corruption that exists in all these countries today. The lack of rights of the common man is equal in all, and justice is an ideal that seems confined to the pages of history books or gathering dust in law journals, for all practical purposes. Today, money can buy whatever kind of judicial outcomes one seeks, if one can pay. I understand that I paint this picture with very broad brush strokes but such is the need of the hour. In my mind this crisis in India is dire, and it is a crisis. Unless we wake up and take control of this cancer, it will destroy our country and everything that our grandparents shed their blood for and died giving us.

I long ago gave up the notion of getting rid of corruption in this world. Where there are human beings there has and always will be corruption. Even the Western world is not immune to corruption. So having corrupt people is not the issue but the degree to which corruption has increased, in India, with liberalisation is what gravely concerns me. I have been away ten years and in that time the level, depth and pace of corruption has not only increased dramatically but more frighteningly it seems to have become acceptable and almost legalised as a means for not only doing business but going about day to day life. It has spread from politicians, public servants and the bureaucracy to a societal cancer that is rapidly destroying our soul, blinding and eroding our essence. I no longer believe that economic prosperity will help lift the poor and instil a sense of patriotic duty in the rest of us. I can no longer close my eyes and bury this harsh and ugly reality under some fantastic rate of economic growth or the hype the media feeds us every day. We can no longer justify it simply because we are told that this has been our way from time immemorial and that is why we should accept it. We can no longer stand idly by while we sell our country to the highest bidder.
 
My critics will point to the 2005 Right to Information Act and even the social audits that have been instituted as part of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) but I argue quoting Mr. Wajahat Habibullah, India’s Chief Information Commissioner; when he told the Wall Street Journal that people requesting information have been threatened and even murdered to protect the culprits. "The number of murders has been mounting, and that's a cause for grave concern." (http://on.wsj.com). Even during the NREGA audits there have been numerous instances of intimidation and official interference like a senior Congress party politician in Nagarkurnool, elbowing his way onto the dais to try and take control of audit proceeding to defend local politicians and contractors (http://www.nytimes.com). Ultimately, it does not matter how many transparency laws or right to information acts are passed if there is no protection for the people trying to exercise this right. And when the people meant to uphold and enforce the law can also be bought then where is the recourse for the aam aadmi? If we believe that by simply passing more laws we are making progress towards a cleaner government, then I contend that our democratic ideals are no longer high enough or worse yet we are deluding ourselves.

I am also fully aware of the realities and know that is easy for an NRI to say we should stop bribing the policeman, the motor vehicle department employee or the electricity board. But I believe that if a person in India is to stand on principle, today, they would have to live without electricity, the ability to drive and probably without food and shelter. It is fast becoming impossible to be an honest person. I am told you even have to bribe someone to receive your tax refund! If this is progress then we were better off living in the era prior to liberalisation. Today, not only are the politicians amassing vast amounts of wealth but also cutting every corner on the delivery of projects simply to make even more money. They are not only looting the nation but raping it by delivering sub-standard services and infrastructure. The recent Commonwealth Games, 2G and now the ISRO's spectrum scam are examples of how corruption has now grown into a nexus with the private sector. Even our great army has been sullied by the Adarsh Housing scam where flats meant to be allotted to widows of the Kargil conflict were given to everyone but a single widow. This Congress government has demonstrated that they are without a doubt the most corrupt in our history. It seems our current leaders have taken a page out of Machiavelli’s book when he said, in the Prince; “since love and fear hardly exist together if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”

If 2010 was the year of uncovering scams, as the Times of India and Outlook have declared, then it is equally the year of our politicians no longer displaying any fear, shame, or professing any sense of remorse because they are all complicit and all above the law. If the Congress party is serious about prosecuting corrupt officials then why did it take Sonia Gandhi more than a month to say anything on the 2G issue? And why was Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, silent? In my book only the guilty stay silent because the innocent have nothing to hide, and therefore no reason to wait to proclaim their innocence. Why are the accused, other than having resigned their posts, still smiling? Because they know that there will be a prolonged investigation by some agency whose chief has been appointed by the government and it will drag on just long enough for the public anger to dissipate and people’s attention to move onto the next scam. Nobody will ever be prosecuted and life will go on. This time we should all say no more - and demand real transparency and meaningful accountability. Nobody should be above the law.

I still believe the vast majority of our country is honest and hard-working, but there is a small and very powerful majority that has become completely corrupt. Consider this a plea from India’s most vocal cheerleader, her greatest admirer, optimist, and eternal patriot. I believed in her and saw her potential much before anyone else. I believed she would become a global economic powerhouse during her darkest days and the lowest ebbs of the license Raj. And never stopped believing in her despite the tremendous odds and the contrary viewpoints of every expert. Today I feel she is dying. If we do not act now then it will soon be too late to act. Because GDP growth rates, new highways, bullet trains, a rising SENSEX, industrial productivity and the number of Indians on Forbes rich list won’t matter - when the aam aadmi decides that he would rather die fighting for justice and equality, than let his hungry children watch the corrupt official slap him one more time.