If there is one thing our political leaders excel at, it is never letting an economic crisis go waste. The best example of this is the way in which P V Narasimha Rao used a dire economic situation in 1991 to slyly begin dismantling the licence raj. As a Congress prime minister he needed to execute this historic economic reform sneakily because he could not denounce Nehruvian socialism openly. Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the BJP’s first prime minister did not have this constraint but never used his stupendous oratorical skills to explain to Indians why the business of governments should be to govern and not do business. Narendra Modi in those first euphoric days of his tenure did say more than once that government had no business to be in business but changed course after being taunted by the Congress heir-apparent for heading a ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’.
In my humble opinion it is because he reverted to socialist and statist policies that he now finds himself facing his first economic crisis. May I now suggest that he use this crisis to change course once more by reviving the promise he once made, to use tourism as an economic tool. I cut my journalistic teeth in the bleak Seventies, when foreign tourists were so rare that when a German billionaire landed at Delhi airport in his private jet, Customs officers impounded his plane. He was travelling further east and was not on a visit to India, but his plans were disrupted by Indian officials who appeared to think of private jets as contraband.
Foreign visitors started coming to India in larger numbers only after the Nineties when prohibition was lifted in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, and when officials stopped getting in the way of travellers. But even today, no more than nine million foreign tourists in a year come to India. This is pretty pathetic if you remember that Bangkok gets more than 30 million and Angkor Wat more than two million.
With BJP chief ministers governing most of our major states, the Prime Minister has a unique opportunity to build the infrastructure needed for foreign tourism to become a major pillar of the economy. The infrastructure needs are good roads, reliable airports and trains and decent standards of healthcare and sanitation. These are the exact utilities that Indians desperately need, so everyone would benefit. But, instead of concentrating on building infrastructure, two of Mr Modi’s handpicked chief ministers have plans to build giant statues at huge cost to taxpayers.
In Maharashtra we have Shivaji coming up on a manmade island in the sea and last week the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh announced plans to build a huge statue of Ram on the banks of the Saryu in Ayodhaya. The government of Yogi Adityanath recently published a tourism pamphlet that made no mention of the Taj Mahal while exalting the virtues of the state’s pilgrim towns like Varanasi. Government spokesmen said this was because they wanted to promote ‘religious tourism’. A bizarre idea since most Indians in any case travel within the country only on pilgrimages.
Having wandered in many foreign lands may I say that I cannot think of a single country that has more potential to build a successful tourism industry than our dear Bharat Mata. India is one of the few countries left that has places and monuments of extraordinary beauty that are unknown. I have personally seen lakes in the high Himalayas and pristine beaches on our eastern and western coasts that remain undiscovered. The problem is that they are very hard to get to, and when you get there, finding a decent place to stay is almost impossible. Hotels, restaurants, cafes and resorts are best built by the private sector, but it is for state governments to build the hard stuff. Why is this not happening yet?
Could it be because too much time in the past two years has been spent on saving cows and closing down meat and liquor shops? Speaking of which, the Prime Minister would do well to remind his chief ministers that if there is one thing foreign travellers do not like, it is spending holiday evenings without being able to have a drink. One of the reasons why Islamic republics do not feature on the itineraries of non-Islamic travellers is because of Islamic restrictions on liquor.
Muslims may be ready to wait for Paradise to enjoy rivers of wine but non-Muslims want their daily tipple here on Earth. This is why cities like Dubai take a relaxed approach to this Islamic clause and attract millions of tourists, while the Islamic Republic next door gets almost none. If in the name of Hindutva BJP chief ministers start imposing restrictions on what people can drink, eat and wear, then we can forget about tourism as an economic tool altogether.