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Article in The Financial Express
Authored by Dr.Jayaprakash Narayan

National Coordinator of
VOTEINDIA movement

First World people and Third World politics
July 29, 2005

The Prime Minister's state visit to the US and its outcome are perceived by different people in different ways. But differing perspectives apart, all have agreed that this visit marked a breakthrough in Indo-US relations, and in the eyes of the Western world India is now officially the strategic counterweight to the rapidly rising power of China. India clearly has arrived on the global scene.

The rising importance of India is entirely due to the first world attitudes of our people. Despite mass poverty, limited natural resources, centuries of oppression, a society "fragmented by narrow domestic walls", and historical baggage, Indian people have extremely positive attributes to succeed in modern world.

The strength of the family as an enduring institution with the attendant sense of responsibility and infinite capacity to face hardship is at the heart of our resilience as a society. Ordinary Indians exhibit uncommon ambition and drive for their economic upliftment. Witness the entrepreneurship of the dabbawallahs in Mumbai or the millions of tiny enterprises in unorganized sector which are sustaining our economy. People are willing to fend for themselves against heavy odds. For a poor country, the amounts paid by families for education of children and healthcare are astronomical. The thrift of our people is legendary, and Indian consumer is not easily swayed by consumerism, and seeks good value for money. And time and again, Indian society displayed an enlightened and modern spirit of nationalism with pride in ourselves, but without much animosity or jingoism. All these are recipes for success in the twenty-first century.

And yet our antediluvian politics is retarding our society. Leadership in modern world provides a great contrast what that in India. In a remarkable speech to European Parliament recently, Tony Blair exhorted politicians to respond to the challenges of today. Emphasizing the need for keeping pace in a changing world, he reminded OECD countries, "The USA is the world's only super power. But China and India in a few decades will be the world's largest economies, each of them with populations three times that of the whole of the EU…. (European social model) is allowing more science graduates to be produced by India than by Europe. India will expand its biotechnology sector five-fold in the next five years. China has trebled its spending on R & D in the last five…" Outlining the challenges of today, he called for renewal of the idea of Europe, and said, "Now, almost 50 years on, we have to renew. There is no shame in that. All institutions must do it. And we can. But only if we remarry the European ideals we believe in with the modern world we live in". That is the stuff of true politics and great leadership rooted in genuine soul-searching, passion and spirit of public service.

Does our politics measure up to the challenges of today? Four unhappy characteristics dominate our political landscape. First is the patronising attitude to people: citizens know nothing and are parasitic; and they need regulation, protection and doles. Witness the quality of debate on BHEL disinvestment. Every perceptive citizen knows that public sector in India is largely private sector of those in public office. We only need better goods and services at least cost, and it does not matter who produces them. And yet, public interest is sacrificed at the altar of failed ideologies. Or take the fears of globalization stoked with unceasing fervour. Mighty US and Europe are showing signs of anxiety with the increasing competitiveness and growing market share of China and India, and our antiquated politics can only see dangers in every opportunity! Or take the labour markets: the world over, rigid markets and overregulation led to large scale unemployment; and yet we want to perpetuate status quo at the cost of the millions of job seekers. And of course the politicians' eternal preference of doles and subsidies over empowerment and liberation of productive potential is too well known to require elaboration.

The second dangerous feature of our politics is its predatory nature. Politics of plunder and rent-seeking have become the norm, and public-spirited politicians are increasingly marginalized. Distortion of markets, kleptocracy, and shameless display of unearned wealth have created a culture of illegitimate plutocracy. Power and ill-gotten money acquired by abuse of power have become ends in themselves. Politics has in a large measure ceased to be a means to public good. Obsession with power at any cost has created a class of criminals and crooks dabbling in politics, and decent citizens are increasingly shunning public life. As Yeats lamented, "The best lack conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity." In the process very few new and powerful ideas are vigorously pursued to improve the conditions of the bulk of our people or to accelerate our growth rate.

Third, politics continues to be medieval in nature. Much of the debate on education is centered round rewriting history or detoxification of text books. The 'great' debates are about the location of a temple or a mosque, or past insults and private injuries, or perpetuation of barbaric practices and shunning of modern, humanistic vision. Obscurantism is zealously guarded, and "the clear stream of reason has lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit."

Finally, incompetence and laziness have become virtues in our political domain. Even now, our vision of education is merely increasing enrolment of school children and reduction of dropouts. Quality of education, high productivity of citizens, and seizing opportunities that modern world offers do not even enter our public discourse. Our universities languish despite the undoubted potential of our youngsters and the civilizational strength we enjoy. Most households are petrified at the thought of a kid to be admitted to school, or a sick person seeking medical attention. Quality education and healthcare are simply inaccessible and unaffordable to most Indians. China may run medical schools to educate Indians at moderate costs; US and Europe may attract bright Indian youngsters to their universities; India may have the potential to create world class facilities to meet our growing needs and become the hub of global education and health services. But our politicians are oblivious to the challenges of today, and frame lazy policies and execute them incompetently.

Clearly such a mismatch between first world people forging ahead with growing aspirations and third world politics undermining our prosperity and happiness is unsustainable. Either the people will have to force politicians to change and recreate a polity worthy of us and capable of meeting the challenges; or politics will retard our future and bring India down by several notches. Which will happen first? That is the great question of this decade, and the future of our nation and world will be shaped by the answer we give together.



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