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The painful task of self-improvement

Factions The current Parliament has had 40-odd parties — many a party on the hunt for issues by which it can make a noise, and be noti...

Factions

The current Parliament has had 40-odd parties — many a party on the hunt for issues by which it can make a noise, and be noticed; each party not in office convinced that being in opposition means that one must denounce whatever it is that those in office propose — even if it be the very thing that it was doing when it was in office, indeed even if it be the very thing that it is doing where it is in office today.

These parties in turn have half a dozen factions apiece — I have seen one faction leader after another being suddenly triggered to denounce a proposal because he had just learnt that the leader of the other faction had supported it in some meeting. The Reform has thus but to be launched that an avalanche of denunciation descends on it, and obstacles are devised.

Fragmentation apart, our system places the authority to change things in the hands of the very persons and institutions whose mores have brought them to their current pass. Electoral Reforms? Politicians, many of whom wouldn’t be where they are but for the permissive peculiarities in the present arrangements, are the ones who will decide: can we be surprised at the unanimity, and alacrity with which all political parties rejected the Supreme Court judgment that sought no more than minimal improvement — that information about the criminal record of the candidate, about his assets and educational qualifications be included in the nomination papers? The very legislators who would be embarrassed by the disclosure shall decide.

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Punishment for violating rules on the floor of the House? Adherence to the Resolution they had passed unanimously — that the Question Hour shall not be suspended, that a member who enters the well of the House shall automatically stand suspended? The very members who violate the rules day in and day out, who storm the well, who demand every other day that the Question Hour be suspended will decide.

Pruning vigilance procedures so that corrupt officers may be brought to book? A committee of the same baraadri will examine the matter. Yes, of course, corruption is cancer. We will, therefore, have Lok Ayuktas in every state — but each of them will be hand-picked by the very persons many of whom would be ruined were that authority to do its job.

What we have made of administration paralyses. Describing the Nationalist Regime in Nanking, a doctoral work reported, ‘‘Administration had degenerated into correspondence’’. Our administrative system works in much the same way — notings on a file; the file moving up and down a silo; at last its being sent across to another silo; its going down and then coming up in that silo; its being sent back to the silo from which it came… And anyone at any level in any silo in a position to send it on some other journey — ‘‘The opinion of the Law Department may be obtained…’’

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And each silo is set up to, is conditioned to assess each proposal from a very narrow, specialised viewpoint. The Law Department will go by what some officer had said the law requires in some other case. The judge will go by the commas and words and caveats in affidavits, circulars, notifications. The civil servant and minister will often go by — rather, that he will refuse to budge on grounds of — turf. Imagine what things would be if each of these personage were to assess the proposal by the totality of its impact, if each were to assess it by keeping in mind not the specialised mandate for which it has been set up but by what the whole is — the economic environment, the hurricanes of technology.

So, a sort of Clausewitzian ‘‘friction’’ within each institution, and the same sort — but squared — between institutions… Often help arrives, help of an order beyond one’s expectation: the judgment of the Supreme Court in the BALCO case enabled us to vault over several obstacles for months. Just as often meteors descend — sometimes from the same quarter: the Supreme Court’s somewhat incomprehensible judgment on the HPCL/BPCL case has brought the disinvestment process to a virtual halt.

But those within the state apparatus are not the only ones who get a hand in. As the Reform proceeds, it dislocates many outside the governmental apparatus who have made themselves comfortable under the old arrangements: corporate lobbyists soon begin their maneuvers, for instance, to ensure that some rival of their principal does not get ahead because of the new arrangement. And what ability they have — to dress up corporate interest in high principle.

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And don’t forget crabbiness. As the Reform gathers steam, it stokes envy. Precisely because it is new, the Reform becomes, the person who is piloting it becomes the focus of coverage in the media. He is applauded — for battling odds, for forging a new direction. That is enough to ignite others to mob him.

For a brief while, of course, the informed sections laud the Reform. They make much of the reformer. But soon, as the rentiers group, as they block the Reform, and ambush the reformer, even these sections distance themselves. Unable to stand up to the bullies, to those who — under the cloak of great principles — are actually ripping the country, they paste the failure on to the reformer! ‘‘Pig-headed,’’ they say, ‘‘Headstrong,’’ they say, ‘‘Not enough of a politician,’’ they say, the very ones who were lauding him for not being a politician!

It is as if we were to start hacking a path through the Amazon forest. By the time we have proceeded a hundred yards, the undergrowth takes over again. It is through these thickets that Reforms have to be steered. What kind of leaders can do so? What can we do to help them?

Reforms and the consummate artist

To steer Reforms through such thickets is, above all, an art. To sometimes stand up to a storm. At others, as Mr Ramnath Goenka used to counsel, to be the humble grass — ‘‘The tree that turns to face the storm and defy it, the storm uproots it,’’ he would remind us; ‘‘the grass bends, the storm passes, the grass straightens up.’’ Sometimes, when blocked by an obstacle, to create a crisis, to go on strike, so to say — ‘‘all or nothing’’. At others, to go by that delicious quip of Atalji. ‘‘Pakistan has been ready to resume dialogue,’’ Musharraf said at the Non-Aligned Summit in Kuala Lumpur. ‘‘India has not responded to our efforts. So, I too have lost interest in resuming the dialogue. It takes two hands to clap.’’ Asked for his reaction to Musharraf’s statement, Atalji said, ‘‘Koyi baat nahin. Agar taali nahin bajti to chutki bajaate rahen. Kuch na kuch bajaate rehna chaahiye.’’ To force the issue sometimes — recall, the way Atalji forced the issue on the Patents Act, on the Insurance Act. At others, as he does often, to let it ripen, and then just pick the fruit up from the ground. Better still, let someone else pick it up…

As art is what Reform is, one needs an artist at the top. That is what we have had in the last few years in the Prime Minister — a consummate artist. And that has made all the difference.

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What can we do to push things along a bit, what can we do to help the artist along a bit?

Will breakdowns deliver?

One option of course is to wait for, to look forward to successive breakdowns. They will compel — or liberate — even a weak political class, as the one on external account did in 1991, to at last do the right thing. But who can say who will be in office when the next breakdown comes? Will he have hands that are strong enough, a comprehension that is robust enough to put the breakdown to work? Will he have a team to carry the changes through? True, there is a ratchet effect in these matters: some changes do get embedded, but — and the country’s experience in 1991/93 is a vivid reminder — the moment the immediate crisis has been contained, the process of reforms is brought to a crawl, and everyone relapses into the old comfortable, accustomed ways.

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Moreover, the metaphor of a ‘‘breakdown’’ is itself misleading. It conjures up the image of some dramatic thunderclap which at last wakes people up. But look at Bihar: there has been no ‘‘breakdown’’ in that sense; things have just gone on disintegrating — with everyone getting accustomed to worse and worse.

On the other side, the world is galloping ahead. If the distance between China and India increases, that will not just mean that our people could be better off than they are. The distance will translate into an ever-growing threat to our security.

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So, we can’t leave the process to meander along as it will. We must set its direction, we must set its pace. What can we do to help?

Build on the change that has already come about

To an extent the Reforms that have been implemented since the early ’90s have themselves cleared the path for further Reforms.

The gloom-and-doom prophecies that were made about the disasters that Reforms would bring down upon our country have all turned out to have been miasmas. The country has got used to Reforms, to doing things in new ways. Influential sections are impatient that the change is not faster, that areas like labour laws have yet to be improved.

Demography plain and simple is by itself bound to have a major impact in the future. Few realise that 54 per cent of Indians today are less than 25 years of age. And they matter: the average age of the ones who are creating Rs 60,000 crores worth of wealth every year in Information Technology is just 26 years! These youngsters care little for the rhetoric of our doomsayers. They are not afraid of the world. They feel they can out-do the competition. They know they have outdone the competition in field after field. They just want the freedom to do so. They just want the wherewithal, the environment — precisely the things that Reforms bring about — to do so.

Moreover, the critics of Reform have talked themselves out. They are stuck at slogans. But the debate in economic policy today is about details — and on those details, these critics have little to add. Of course, there is the minatory promise. For four years I have been told that a comprehensive paper is soon going to be released setting out an alternative — not just to the Reforms that are being brought about but to the entire ‘‘western’’ economic system that we are said to be aping. The paper seems to be another of those files — ‘‘Sir, abhi voh file apne office tak pahunchi nahin.’’

Even political parties are changing. It is the Marxist Government of Kerala that christened the state as ‘‘God’s own country’’ — and that to promote tourism: surely, a pastime of the Leisure Class! It is the Marxist Government of West Bengal that has brought the power sector to heel, that has notified Information Technology as a ‘‘public utility’’ and thereby put it beyond the mischief of bandhs and strikes. It is that very Marxist Government which places advertisements in bourgeois papers listing the multinationals with which it has signed MoUs.

There is another equally consequential advantage — today there is a competition among states, indeed among several cities too to be the preferred investment destination. Investors are therefore in a position to induce, even demand improvements. They should continue to do so.

And they should proclaim — openly and unambigously — why they are choosing one location and shunning the other. The fact that investors have shunned their state for the past 15 years is one of the strongest propellers of the changes that the Government of West Bengal is bringing about.

How can we put this environment, these various advantages to work?

To be continued

Based on the Fourth M. N. Srinivas Memorial Lecture delivered by the author at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

First published on: 05-02-2004 at 00:00 IST
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