If you have read this column more than once you would have noticed that I blame Nehruvian socialism for nearly all of India’s problems. I am against this ideology because I believe India should be a rich country but counts among the poorest because of it. I believe that politically we invented a unique form of socialist feudalism. I believe that socially it failed to end social evils and culturally it killed the dazzling literary and cultural landscape that existed before 1947. I believe that unlike other socialist countries it failed to build halfway decent systems of public education and healthcare. And, I believe that the only people who benefited hugely from our genre of socialism are politicians and officials.
So it surprised me when someone from the Human Resource Development Centre in JNU asked me to come and talk about the failures of socialism at an orientation programme for teachers. I accepted because I believe that unless we discuss these failures, again and again, we will continue to make the same mistakes. Socialism is so sacred a word in our ancient land that even the ‘right wing’ Hindutva crowd invented Gandhian socialism as their economic philosophy and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch as its vector.
Narendra Modi, the candidate, sounded as if he were ready to liberate the Indian economy from red tape and the bondage of officialdom. But, after becoming Prime Minister, he has shown that he is as much of a statist as the Nehruvian socialist prime ministers who preceded him. He wants sincerely to bring ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’ but he believes that he can achieve these goals by making officialdom more efficient. In my book this is socialism. So the ‘parivartan’ we have seen in Lutyens Delhi is new occupants moving into those fine, colonial bungalows that close off India’s ugly realities. Cocooned in colonial housing, at taxpayers’ expense, our ministers and high officials quickly forget that the average Indian lives in a one-room hovel on less than Rs 20 a day. This is the ‘prosperity’ brought by 70 years of socialism.
So as part of my zealous crusade against this kind of socialism, I trotted off to the dreary environs of JNU last week and found myself in a bleak room, decorated in ‘socialist’ style with nothing other than rows of badly made desks. I had come fully prepared for debate with people who I knew had the exact opposite worldview to my own, but what I had not come prepared for were hostile personal comments instead of debate. And, what I had foolishly forgotten was that lefties are a humourless bunch, so the first problem arose at the beginning of my talk when I joked about needing to be careful in JNU in case I got stoned to death for my views. This was so obviously a joke that I was dumbstruck when a grim-faced, bespectacled teacher told me not to use ‘hyperbole’. I told him that since I was the speaker I had the right to speak any way I wanted.
After this I was allowed to make my case against socialism, but when it came to the audience’s turn to ask questions, it surprised me that the first two questions had nothing to do with anything I said. First, a gentleman rose to tell me politely that he read my column every week and did not agree with anything I said. I told him that he had every right to disagree but then he went into a short tirade about my going to Davos this year and being ‘gung-ho’ about it when even globalisation economists were gloomy. I reminded him that my talk had been about socialism and not globalisation and admitted that I have gone often to the World Economic Forum’s annual conference. I did not remember immediately what I wrote this year, but later when I checked, found that I had done a very gloomy piece about how Xi Jinping was the glittering star of the forum while India was almost absent.
The next question came from a lady who said she objected to my ‘generalisation’ on the school system and reminded me that Kerala had excellent state schools, so how could I ask that schools be privatised. I said I totally opposed the privatisation of schools and hospitals as I believed it was the fundamental responsibility of the State to provide these public services. After this a gentleman rose to make a short speech about how he wanted to ask an ‘academic’ question, and when I urged him to ask it rather than make a speech, he retorted with another personal comment that evoked hoots of laughter. And, I cut the discourse short because I realised that this was a dialogue with the deaf. Sad. I would have loved a real debate.