Fifth column: Economic freedom at last?

worker-m The man who will be sworn in as India’s next prime minister tomorrow has himself said that this election has been about hope. ( Source: PTI/File )

You might find it hard to believe, but the most intelligent reason I have heard for Narendra Modi’s stunning victory comes from an illiterate, young woman who has spent her whole life on the pavements of Mumbai. Her name is Surekha and I have known her since she was a child and watched her struggle to survive under the economic jackboot of the Indian state. She sells flowers, her husband does odd jobs, and the authorities make every effort to prevent them from earning a meagre living.

The Indian welfare state provides them with no access to basic healthcare. So Surekha lost two sons and now fights hard to keep her three-year-old son alive. She so badly wants to have a roof over her head that she and her mother once travelled to Delhi to try and meet Sonia Gandhi. They had heard that Sonia was giving houses to the poor. Of this election she said, “We have always voted for the Congress and our lives have never improved. So this time, we are going to vote for Modi because they say he can bring change.”

The man who will be sworn in as India’s next prime minister tomorrow has himself said that this election has been about hope. But, this has escaped political pundits in India and abroad. Leftist pamphleteers, who fancy themselves as liberals, have been the noisiest in their prophecies of doom. But they have been abetted by an assortment of activists, secularists, self-appointed guardians of ‘Indian pluralism’ and Bollywood actors.

Since none of these worthies has experienced the economic jackboot under which someone like Surekha has to live, they bang on about social justice and their concerns that the poor will be forgotten under Narendra Modi. Were they remembered in the six decades of Congress rule? If they had been, why is every other Indian child malnourished and every other Indian family living on less than Rs 20 a day?

If there are 300 million Indians who are official members of the middle classes, it is because they have somehow managed to fight their way up despite the efforts of the Indian state to keep them down. In this the poor suffer more, but the rich suffer as much in different ways. If there are Indian corporations today that count among the biggest in the world, it is despite the efforts of the government of India to destroy them.

These efforts became more strenuous in the past decade. Businessmen have been subjected to bizarre changes of policy, tax raids and public vilification. But for Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal, they have been the villains of the piece. During the election campaign, these two leaders rarely made a speech in which they did not charge Modi with promoting the ‘Ambani-Adani model of development’.

What they appear to not have noticed is that without private investment, and vast amounts of it, there is simply no possibility that India will be able to build the infrastructure she needs to catch up with even small, troubled Southeast Asian countries like Thailand. What worries me more is that they seem not to have noticed that what they are suggesting is that we put the economy back into the hands of officials and go back to the days when it was considered economic blasphemy to speak of private enterprise.

The truth is that the opposite needs to happen. If Modi wants to deliver on his promises of change and development, he is going to have to first deliver on his assurance that under him there will be “maximum governance and minimum government”. He could start by closing down the Planning Commission and half the ministries of the government. We do not need several ministries in charge, but one with total charge. For instance, of energy and transport. If he goes ahead with the administrative reforms Dr Manmohan Singh promised when he first became prime minister, he could find a hundred ways to hack through the layers and layers of red tape that have strangled economic growth and made it impossible for Indians like Surekha to escape the horrors of extreme poverty.

People like her need hope and change more than almost anyone else. And on my travels during this election campaign, I met people like her in nearly all the towns and villages I passed through. People with middleclass aspirations who are forced to live in poverty and squalour because the Indian state has been unable to provide them with jobs. And every time they have tried to lift their heads up, they have felt the economic jackboot slam down hard. So those who currently fear that under Modi there will be no concern for the poor and no thought for social justice, need to look around more carefully and see if these things ever existed.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh