Originally Published 2020-09-24 12:19:29 Published on Sep 24, 2020
Holding up a mirror to India

“Ghasiram Kotwal” Vijay Tendulkar’s brilliant Marathi satire on the predilection of the powerful to subvert ideology to their own survival, was penned in 1972. It faced rough weather in getting permissions to be staged.

The Shiv Sena raged against it, presumably because it portrayed Nana Phadnavis, a prime minister of the Peshwas, in a bad light thereby hurting Marathi pride. More likely, the opposition was because firebrand Tendulkar, never one to mince words, wrote to deride the rise of the autocratic Shiv Sena in Mumbai. Others added mirch to masala, by labelling it a Muslim plot to bad mouth Hindus. The barb was aimed at its director – Dr Jabbar Patel, though the actors included Chitpavan Brahmins.

In 1980 the play could go on a European Tour only after then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi intervened, despite – or possibly because of-the virulent opposition of the Sena.

Autocracy was and is not, the sole prerogative of the Shiv Sena. It is liberally sprinkled across all Indian political parties and indeed, deeply embedded in our prickly, mostly patriarchal/ marginally matriarchal society. The “mai baap” culture prevails stronger than ever, now that COVID has dealt a heavy blow in favor of the entrenched elites and asset heavy classes.

Why rake this up now? Well the Indian Express via its “40 years ago” section jogged my memory. And it struck me that the angst and anguish that Modi’s New India have evoked amongst sections of the Indian populace are just an extension of what has been happening all along since India became Independent.

The very fact that it appeared necessary in 1976 to embed the words “secular” and “socialist” in the preamble of the Constitution is ample evidence that even three decades after independence we were not an exemplar society. Had we been so, there would have been little political mileage to be gained by playing to the gallery and writing in these ideological values into the constitution.

For seven decades, till 2014, an artificial divide was maintained between the way states were ruled and the relatively politically correct ways of the Union government. But it was never a differentiation based on substance, merely a difference in style – the politically correct one being better suited to the suited-booted rows of diplomats in Lutyens Delhi, Raj Relics, Intellectuals divorced from reality and Romantics perpetually at odds with the circumstances which surround them.

Ask any government servant, politician, non-state actor, businessperson or farmer who has lived in the mofussil areas and they will confirm the dichotomy of their messy lives – much like our constitution – a bare-bones, discretionary, eco-system of Fundamental Rights and a glowing, futuristic fog of Directive Principles, with a wide gap between the two.

For seven decades, access to electricity has been the privilege of the urban and rural well-off who could either draw it from the grid or use back-up storage. Last mile grid links are assured now. But supply remains deficient. Clean, piped drinking water remains a mirage. Even dirty 24X7 piped drinking water is unavailable. Till recently even defecation – a human necessity as crucial as breathing – was impossible in privacy. Access to reliable, free medical care remains uncertain during emergencies.

Life, for the ordinary Indian, remains nasty, brutish and short. Our life expectancy at birth (a fair metric for the strength of public health services) at 69.4 years (2019) is 4% worse than Bangladesh at 72.32 years and 13% worse than the US at 78.5 years.

The COVID pandemic is making things worse for the average Indian. It amplifies the negative trends in World and Indian growth since 2017. CRISIL estimates that India will permanently lose around Rs 30 trillion- one year’s Union government budget- from the continuing economic recession which will continue through the next fiscal FY 2021-22.

The employment situation can only become worse, driven by automation replacing workers, excess industrial supply capacity and continuing low demand. People without jobs do not spend, they save to pay back loans.

An early across-the-board revival of private investment is unrealistic. Banks – the motors of private investment – are short-circuited by rising non-performing assets expected to cross 14% of assets.

The only fall back is public spending based on sovereign borrowing. The worst outcome of a public finance push would be a proliferation of our public sector companies. Between 2017-17 and 2018-19 sixteen new PSEs were established taking the total to 237 PSEs – a growth in numbers of 7% in just three years. The hydra of PSE will keep flourishing unless a complete ban on this antiquated form of State capitalism is imposed.

We must push public finance into private managements without incurring the charge of crony capitalism and without subverting private managements from governing and growing their business. Publicly held Golden Shares- minority shares with a veto power -can work. But we lack the mature political environment to restrain government directors from interfering.

First, go back to the drawing board for workable private services companies in transport, energy, water and sanitation, medical care and housing, based on conditional public finance and regulated user charges. Revisiting the Kelkar Committee Report of PPP (2016) can help.

Second, make education practical from the ground-up to prepare students for the available employment over the next three decades to 2050. Learning Sanskrit or Tamil or both is fine if they learn functional skills alongside. Test aptitude and channel students towards their comparative strengths. Parents do this badly. They relive their own lives and ignore future needs.

Third, take the time to reform government inside out- the spaghetti of cadres and services, each with entitlements, employment protection and poor outcomes orientation, create a perverse environment, where doing nothing out-of-ordinary is better than being proactive.

The Trishul of farm reforms unleashed in Parliament is the way to go. The alarmed cries of embedded elites – large farmers and Arhtiyas (wholesalers) are only the pain of plutocratic fiefdoms lost to real reforms.

Prime Minister Modi at 70 has a decade to fill in his report card till he hands it in. Make these the deep reform years which build the foundation for a century, not more-of-the-same quick-wins -good only on paper.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Sanjeev S. Ahluwalia has core skills in institutional analysis, energy and economic regulation and public financial management backed by eight years of project management experience ...

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