India has much to be proud of and celebrate. But there is also much that is wrong, much that looks dangerous, and much that reminds us of the perils of declaring victory too soon.
On the dominant side of the political divide, there is a euphoria that India has never been in a sweeter spot in its history. Our economy is doing so brilliantly that we have left our former colonial masters Britain behind on total GDP.
Our markets are booming, the rupee has weakened less against the dollar than all other currencies, Make In India, Digital India, Skill India, and Invest India all mark a great era of economic boom.
The silly fellows at the World Bank may cut our growth estimate to 6.5 per cent. It will still be the highest for a major economy in the world. Which now looks up to India as an oasis in an era of a vast drought of growth, intellectual ideas, and morality.
Look elsewhere, our armed forces are modernising at a pace never seen before, our enemies have never been so wary of us, and the boom is also represented by our unprecedented rise in sports. We are winning more medals than ever. So many native Indians are becoming CEOs of top global MNCs. India is the flavour the world over. In short, it is a resurgent mood of balle-balle we’ve never seen before. Wherein lies the need for applying a circuit-breaker.
The reason I haven’t used quote marks or that most horrible of all punctuation marks, the exclamation mark, in all the ‘achievements’ listed above is that this week’s argument isn’t about fact-checking. And no, it’s not for fear of being lumped with the usual ‘nattering nabobs of negativity’. Because it is fully my intention to be a spoilsport.
More important than putting all these perceived and real achievements to the test of reality and facts is to alert ourselves to some of our greatest perils in our larger national thinking, method and style. I shall list four here:
• We Indians have what I might describe as the mindset of a ‘baraat ki ghodi’, the mare which the groom comes riding to his wedding in much of northern and heartland India. By habit and training, it stops every 50 yards, and only moves again after a bunch of ‘baraatis’ (groom’s family and guests) have done a jig in front. We do not believe in consistent, self-starting and self-motivating work. Honourable exceptions apart. I know, I know, you hate me for saying it. But check out the productivity rates in our businesses and activities. Think, especially, manufacturing.
• We mostly think we are better at doing the other guy’s work. Don’t we all believe we can do the Indian cricket coach or selector’s job better? In any family gathering there will be somebody to write a prescription for what ails you. Sure enough, they would’ve had no medical education. Real doctors don’t give you advice at parties, and that too, for free. For each qualified doctor, however, you can find 10 that believe they know better. The army thinks it can do the police’s job better and vice versa, and civil servants believe they can do everybody’s job brilliantly. If you’ve spent time in news media companies like me, you’d know that we journalists believe the bottom line would look so much better if we were in charge of marketing and sales. And those guys know how much better the state of the world might be if they were running the editorial.
• There is the old truism about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, or victory from the jaws of defeat. We Indians have that unique attribute of stealing other people’s defeat. For years now, the standard evidence for fears over economic reform has been: There are dangers. Haven’t you read Stiglitz? (I heard that from the late Jyoti Basu in a Walk The Talk interview) or Piketty. The fact that these discontents had come after decades of what could be described as free market ‘excess’, while we hadn’t seen even one financial year of that, doesn’t matter. If only we’d let our economy run for a decade like some of the success stories of the past decades, we might indeed have built enough anomalies, imbalances and grievances to have our own Pikettys complaining. Such is our intellectual laziness that we just borrowed the grievances of an American and a Frenchman — mostly without having read their books. That is embracing other people’s defeat.
• The fourth is the most important for the argument this week. It is a most self-destructive temptation of declaring victory too soon. Which is precisely the mood building up now. We’ve seen this before. Under Indira Gandhi a couple of times, even when we only had an IAF pilot-turned-astronaut free-riding a Soviet rocket, Rajiv Gandhi, his ‘Mera Bharat Mahaan’ and multiple Festivals of India across the world, Vajpayee’s India Shining and then under the UPA in 2007. The headiness of self-proclaimed victory was underlined most prominently by the “India Everywhere” week at that year’s Davos. We’ve entered a similar phase now, on a double dose of steroids.
Victory has been declared in all kinds of areas by well-heeled Indians, from the quality of our airports to banking, quality of internet, strength of the currency, vaccination numbers, a home-made assault helicopter, and a new super-fast train.
We are compulsively walking ourselves back into our favourite trap: Of declaring victory too early. From the history of medieval wars to cricket chases in the pre-Kohli era, from the spasms of growth in 1991, 2003, and 2007 — each followed by a meltdown — to conceding three goals in the last 2-3 minutes in a hockey match to lose from leading 3-1, our track record is quite long and, unfortunately consistent.
Today’s high is of a different order altogether. This is a very popular, ideological dispensation.
In a mood where balle-balle has become a key policy objective of the entire cabinet, who’s left to raise any warning flags? The mood is such that even a bronze in the Commonwealth Games in any discipline whatsoever is celebrated as a never-before national achievement, never mind that we have won many more medals in earlier editions of the games.
Never mind also that the CWG isn’t particularly significant on the international sporting calendar. In track and field and many other disciplines, sporting superpowers Australia, England, New Zealand and even the Caribbean islands do not send their top teams to the CWG. No Usain Bolt here. And in the events where we win most of our CWG medals — boxing, badminton, table tennis, weightlifting — the best in the world do not live in the Commonwealth. In fact, the Asiad field is much, much tougher.
Unthinking, premature celebration of sporting glory is only a metaphor for the larger malaise. We may still be happy with 6.5-7 per cent growth as being the best in this world, but our five-year average would be just about 3.5 per cent. You can blame the lockdown year, but the growth had declined to below 5 per cent before that. There is work to do, not declare victory already.
Employment, the current account deficit, rural distress, and agricultural productivity are all in deep crisis. Eighty crore people are being given free grain and the government isn’t willing to withdraw it, though the pandemic ended about a year ago. And you know what, even with so much free grain — which is being very efficiently distributed — the demand for MNREGA work is still at its peak. The external threat situation is worsened, with China unrelenting and straining our outreach to the West.
Much great stuff has happened. There is much to be proud of and celebrate. Physical infrastructure is being built at great speed, and bankruptcy law and GST are huge reforms. But there is also much that is wrong, and much that reminds us of the perils of declaring victory too soon. To hold the mirror to ourselves isn’t being a spoilsport.