To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Backing the wrong horse(s)...

The headline news (or "breaking news", as most news channels are wont to call it!) in almost all Indian newspapers today is how Manmohan Singh, taking over Finance ministry after Pranab Mukherji resigned en route to the President House, choose to meet his old 'groupies' Montek Singh Ahluwalia and C Rangarajan for a start.  And how this signalled great things to come...

It's striking how we Indians as a people, raised as many of us are (or at least were, till a couple of decades back) on mythological stories, are highly susceptible to the 'history syndrome'.  At the slightest pretext, whenever we even get a hint of an incident (or even a persona) resembling anything that has happened any time in the past - right from Rama's time to Krishna's and all the way till the end of 20th century and everything in between - we are wont to clutch at the straws of history/mythology and get our danders up 

(or down, as the case may be) basis the similarity of circumstances.  Little do we realize the dynamic nature of history - things once gone are hardly likely to come back, not in the same form at least.  Even if we could at least learn something from history, it'd be of some use; but no, we're content with just being nostalgic and all rosy eyed...

The over-exhuberance with Manmohan Singh taking charge of Finance ministry, and pulling along his 'old' team on the first day, is another demonstration of the same syndrome.  Now, nobody has got anything against Dr. Singh - he's a decent enough man, who's come up the ladder by dint of his technical/academic brilliance.  But how in the world is this 'opportunity' - of being in charge of Finance ministry again (though there were snide remarks earlier that even as PM he preferred to deal with Financial and Economic issues rather than the wider ones, including political) - supposed to add to his ability to deal with the country's current economic situation any more than what he was already able to do as PM?  

And are we really sure he 'understands' the current world/economic paradigm the same way he did 20 years back?  Perhaps he does (being a brilliant economist himself), but there's a world of difference between understanding something and doing, or even being 'allowed to do' (ref. all the the talk of 'coalition dharma'), something to help the situation.  Do we expect that Dr. Singh would just pull out his magic wand (of 1990s vintage!), say "Abracadabra", and all our economic ills would just vanish?!  And that too when the wand itself has rusted quite a bit in the intervening 20 years.  Call it 'old wine in new bottle' or whatever you may, the reality is that Dr. Singh may find himself as flummoxed (and hand-tied) in dealing with the current situation as FM (esp. if he chooses to use 20 year-old methods) as he has been as PM.

As for Montek, the guy appears to have actually deteriorated in his outlook over these 20 years.  Part of the blame must be put in the

space he finds himself in - as head of a communist-style 'apparatchik' body lording over Central Govt. resources and granting 'doles' to provincial govts.  Never mind that the resources are raised in the same provinces (and then 'appropriated' by the Centre and part of it funneled into the black home called Govt. bureaucracy)!  And never mind whether the money so doled out actually reaches the target populations.  The fact that Montek has got totally disjointed from ground realities is borne out by many indications, one being his view that a 'normal' person an live on Rs. 30 a day (presumably, if that 'normal person' doesn't have to spend Rs. 3 million on a couple of toilets, of the kind recently built in Montek's fiefdom Yojana Bhawan), while 'Montek-ji' himself can fly around the world on 'official' tours at a cost of crores.  If ever there was a contest for the best 'armchair economist' (living within ivory towers), Montek will qualify without even running for it!

As for Rangarajan, the best one could say about him is that he prefers to 'stick to his knitting'.  As Governor of Reserve Bank of India, he excelled in dealing with esoteric things like repo rates, CRR, (theoretical) inflation trends and such like.  And one suspects he has continued to restrict himself to dealing only with faceless numbers rather than real people.  Probably he can talk at length on the shape of money supply in the economy, without even a hint of what that 'money' means to the person on the ground trying to survive with the same (or even reduced) 'supply' of it while prices of everyday items keeps going up and up and up.  Something that not only doesn't hit people like Rangarajan, insulated as they are from any level of price rise, but is sanitized by the same people into faceless concepts of 'inflation' ('double dip' or not), 'stagflation', 'recession' and the like - much more palateable to deal with than the ugly realities of abject poverty and penury at both urban and rural levels.

Is it any surprise that with such a merry bunch at the helm, our economy is in the doldrums.  These are the people who, even when they get themselves up to do something at last, start talking about dealing with 'investor sentiment' and 'market trends', not even making a passing reference to the plight of the same 'common man' to whom many of them have to go every five years.  As if their first accoutability lies with the 'international community' and not to their constituents.   Well, talk of investors and market all you like, but at least explain to the common man how doing something to improve these is likely to (it's only a possibility after all, not a certainty) lead to a better deal for him.  

A classic example is how the Govt. machinery dealt with the resistance to foreign investment in the retail sector.  On paper, a whole lot of downstream benefits could be envisaged, from better realizations for farmers to more competitive prices for the consumers, eliminating middlemen from both ends of the chain.  But no, the Govt. preferred to talk only of how permitting this would lead to a great improvement in investor sentiment (even as many farmers' bodies got wise about the potential benefits, and chose to take a stand counter to the agitating trader community who seemed to have a bigger ear of the powers that be across the political spectrum)!

And you know why they wouldn't talk about the common man's reality on any issue?  It's because, in his heart of hearts, in the privacy of his leir, any intelligent man (discounting the idealistic fools), either in the economic or in the political space, knows that the machinery and mechanism which has been built up since our independence (and even before) is so rusted and moth-eaten by corruption that come what may, only a very small portion of economic benefits actually reach the common man for whom it's meant.  

And that applies to 'trickling down' of any economic & social good under the sun - unemployment benefits (the NREGS chain riddled with corruption at all levels and leakink like a sieve), education (whole armies of teachers drawing salaries from Govt. but not setting foot in the dilapidated rural 'schools'; why do you think there are riots every time a recruitment drive for teachers or policemen is held - because it's a licence to draw a pay withouth working & thus 'loot of the treasury'), health (primary healthcare centre workers playing truant, just like their brethren the teachers), industry (e.g. mining, a daylight robbery industry the likes of which are alleged to be driver of Naxalism), even law and order (a special case - a force tied down to its British-era 'legacy' as a tool of repression in the hands of the powers that be).

Faced with such 'insurmountable' challenges of economic development to benefit the common man, what do smart men like Manmohan, Montek, Rangarajan, et al do?  Why, they keep tinkering with this or that 'rate' or 'indicator' a bit this way or that way, while making all the right noises at Davos and Mexico, if only to ensure that after retirement (if it ever comes, for this lucky group) they have plenty of offers from the 'international community'.

Is the situation totally hopeless?  Is there not even a glimmer of hope?  I believe there is.  Just that we've to learn, as a country and people, to stop putting our stock in hopeless personages.  A lot has been said about Indian 'jugaad', the proclivity of the Indian people to get around any roadblock by using 'whatever works'.  Some negative comments have also been made against the 'jugaad' mentality - legitimate complaints that this mentality is condoning social/economic ills, encouraging corruption and letting people get away with murder.  However, I believe it's the Indian ethos of micro-level entrepreneurship (in the widest sense of the term), whether called 'jugaad' or something else, which'd eventually help us rise above the conundrum in which we find ourselves.  And that would probably happen in spite of, not becuase of, any shenanigans indulged in by the holier-than-thou armchair economists and technocrats.

There is a passage towards the end of 'War and Peace' where Tolstoy puts down the realization that it's not great kings and emperors who win battles, but the soldiers on the ground whose courage or cowardice on a given day and in a given battle actually decides the fate of that battle (and eventually the war).  This resonates closely with the timeless Indian classic Bhagvadgeeta which says while being engaged relentlessly in work, one shouldn't even think that things come about because of his efforts ('maa karmaphalheturbhu...').  If only the self-important 'rulers' like Manmohan, Montek & Rangarajan would get the import of this philosophy and focus on 'getting out of the way' of the common man as he goes about building his dream with his own two hands...