Updated: December 28, 2014 12:00:50 am
The night before I left for Goa for the India Foundation’s first ‘ideas’ conclave, I met a journalist friend who said teasingly, “So the rightists are off to the beach tomorrow.” I laughed and when I repeated his comment to fellow rightists at the gathering, they laughed too as we pondered over the mysteries of economics, politics, religion and society under Goa’s balmy skies. As someone who believes absolutely that free enterprise and democracy create prosperous countries and that socialism and bureaucracy create countries mired in red tape and poverty, I was delighted to be at this conclave. I know from long years of reporting on India’s problems that they have been created mostly by incompetent officials and greedy politicians.
From the poorest Indian who ekes out a living on the pavements of our metropolises to the richest, you only need to have a short conversation to discover that their biggest problem is the Indian State. Indians do extraordinarily well in other countries but fail in India because at every step lie obstacles in the form of officialdom. The people who suffer most are our poorest citizens. They do not have the power to protest when municipal officials smash their tiny businesses and confiscate their meagre goods. And there is no recourse, no justice. The State provides ordinary citizens with the worst public services and justice so delayed that rapists and murderers walk free.
Why should we hesitate to reduce the powers of a State that has caused such distress? If India is to ever have real “vikas” and “parivartan”, there has to be fundamental change. Narendra Modi was given the mandate to bring about this change.
It has to be a change that strengthens free enterprise and democracy, so it was an excellent idea to spend three days discussing how change can come. There were senior ministers among us, but what disappointed me personally was how little these gentlemen understood the importance of shaking off the Nehruvian socialist mindset if change was to be real. If the conclave had continued without disruption of a very ugly kind, I would have liked to try and persuade them to think differently.
The disruption was created by a Belgian scholar during a session on religion and tolerance. He said Islam was a useless religion that had brought nothing good to the world and what he said about the Prophet amounted to describing Krishna as no more than a serial adulterer. It was ugly stuff and the scholar was sent away the next day, but his intervention revealed the underside of the gathered rightists. An academic I met the next day said, “I cannot understand why he was sent away. After all, what did he say that was wrong?”. When I tried pointing out that any religion and any prophet could be demeaned by emphasising only the bad side, he argued that the only way to deal with Muslims was to persuade them that their religion was bad. This is what the Belgian scholar had said.
What this conversation brought home for me were the choices that Modi must confront. He has, in the past six months, allowed Hindutva types to speak louder than him and he has allowed his comrades in the RSS to wander about spreading religious tensions with their Ghar Wapsi programme, and so we no longer talk of reform and renewal. Renaming Christmas Day as Good Governance Day only drew poignant attention to the truth that there has been no improvement in governance at all. And there will be no improvement as long as the Prime Minister’s own agenda for reform and change remains subsumed by RSS rubbish of the kind we hear from Mohan Bhagwat. Speaking on the Ghar Wapsi programme, he said, “It is our ‘maal’ so we have the right to take it back”. Sorry Mr Bhagwat, as a Sikh (at least by birth) I am not your ‘maal’ and please stop talking this offensive way.
What the Prime Minister must do now is assure us that he was serious when he told investors in Tokyo, New York and Washington that India would be replacing red tape with a red carpet. He needs to assure Indian investors of this as well since every other statement that we hear from regulators and ministers reflects a hatred of private enterprise. The RBI Governor called businessmen “freeloaders” contemptuously not long ago and the Prime Minister himself spoke against privatisation last week. What the Prime Minister needs to do instead is to examine why Indian industry across all sectors is in such dire straits. The conclave in Goa was a good beginning, but religion got in the way. Something like that seems to be happening to the government’s own agenda. The Prime Minister must take control if 2015 is to be a better year.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @tavleen_singh