This week’s column comes to you from what us Indians like to call a ‘developed’ country. From the window of my hotel room I look on to a city of clean streets, manicured winter gardens and a promenade on a lake in which ducks paddle in clean water. On the promenade are cafes and shops and above it, on a low hill, are fine museums and libraries and a university with a splendid campus. It is the sort of city that we cannot dream of in India until we accept that it is not so much ‘vikas’ that we need as that promised ‘parivartan’.
In everything that we do and in that twisted mindset that makes too many Indians believe that the best people to control our destiny are officials. And, that as long as our vast resources of minerals, forests, rivers and extraordinary natural beauty are in the hands of said officials, the ‘family silver’ remains safe. This is complete rubbish and nobody is more hated in our ancient, complex land than officials. But we have continued to let them control our lives because of a terrible, mystifying fear of the word reform.
One reason for this fear of that word is that politicians and thinkers of leftist persuasion have been very successful in maligning it. Mention ‘reform’, and the likes of an Arvind Kejriwal will instantly start wailing about the country’s wealth being handed over to ‘Ambani-Adani’. He made this the leitmotif of his campaign to defeat Narendra Modi in Varanasi and it will undoubtedly be the pivot of his campaign to win Delhi once more. He will be backed by his fellow traveller Rahul Gandhi, who we hear is off once more to the forgotten rural outpost of Bhatta Parsaul where he once tried to earn his stripes. This time, he wants to convince farmers to oppose changes to the land law Mummy’s government brought. Land acquisition and purchase became impossible because of it, but it is easy to fool semi-literate farmers.
It is unfortunate but true that highly educated Indians are just as easily fooled and this is why ‘parivartan’ of any kind has been so hard to bring in our hopelessly backward land. But the Prime Minister has powers of persuasion that exceed those of almost any other political leader in recent times, so he must start making the word reform acceptable. He is eloquent when he uses it in a social and political context and the best example of this is the speech he made in his adopted village of Jayapur some months ago. He attacked female foeticide, promoted environmental concern and encouraged the celebration of the girl child in one short speech. But he has been more hesitant when it comes to linking reform to the economy.
So his speech at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit was a welcome change as was that of his Finance Minister. What is needed now is for him to start explaining the need for economic changes to that wider audience that aches for ‘parivartan’ in the filthy villages and squalid urban settlements that make up Gandhiji’s ‘real India’. Modi must explain simply and in detail why, for instance, archaic labour laws prevent employment instead of promoting it. And how the people’s money has been poured into the wasteful exercise of allowing officials to run huge public companies instead of concentrating their energies on governance.
This is easily done. Ask an ordinary citizen whether it is the government’s business to do business and he will say no. Ask the smallest entrepreneur whether there should be a licence raj and he will say no. Ask the average Indian where his biggest problems come from and he will say officialdom. The problem is that no political leader has asked these questions because all reforms in India come by stealth. This practice was made fashionable by Dr Manmohan Singh, whose only explanation for why he began dismantling the licence raj in 1991 was that it was an idea whose time had come.
So it was easy for leftist politicians, writers, poets, filmmakers and sundry other public intellectuals to create the impression that India is safest in the hands of officials. They say this even today knowing that most corruption in India is the result of the vast discretionary powers that our elected and non-elected officials have. And when someone is caught with their hands in the till, they explain it away as an ‘abberation’. It is not.
So if the Prime Minister is serious about bringing about the ‘parivartan’ he promised, he must explain as he so easily can that change and reform are different words for the same thing. He must repeat over and over that reform is necessary and will have to come before India can begin to dream of being counted among the world’s developed countries.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh