29 July 2007

"India after Gandhi" by Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha, Stanford/Yale professor turned writer, has done an outstanding job covering the history of India since 1947. The book is very engaging and informative. If you want to understand the evolution of modern India, you ought to read this book.

India’s journey in the last sixty years could be described as a journey between two books: from Katherine Mayo’s “Mother India” (dismissed by Mahatma Gandhi as a drain inspector’s report) to Thomas Friedman’s “The World is flat” (with adulations about a confident and growing economy).

The journey has several good and bad milestones:

(a) Good news: The country dealt with the messy partition – a great human tragedy that displaced 8 million people. Handling the bi-directional migration in Punjab was easier than the uni-directional immigration in Bengal.

(b) Good news: India, the political entity was created by unifying the various bits of the jigsaw puzzle left behind by the British; a country that the nation never had in several thousand years of history .

(c) Good news: A style of government based on rule of law, secular principles and a stable constitution was fashioned. A constitution based on liberty, democracy, emancipation and equality was created. Democracy has been the biggest strength of India in the last 60 years.

(d) Good news: The country was re-organized into linguistic states. Linguistic bonding created strong states under a federal structure and is one of the reasons why democracy has had a deep rooted existence in India.

(e) Good news: Nehru set in place political sensitivity that a heterogeneous population requires to hold the country together. Muslims in India went on to play a great role in India.

(f) Good news: Nehru laid the foundation for democratic traditions by conducting general elections every five years by universal adult franchise. Popular mandate dictated public policy and politics. Transfer of government from one administration to another was civilized.

(g) Good news: The Hindu personal code was reformed and standardized; a true revolt against the oppressive features of the Hindu society. Nehru/Ambedkar achieved in 17 years what could not be achieved in the preceding 1,700 years.

(h) Bad news: Nehru empathized with but desisted from reforming Muslim code; he preferred to leave it for a later day and to Muslim leadership. The Supreme Court judgment in Shah Bano case offered an opportunity. Muslim leadership was in support of this reform. However, Rajiv Gandhi, fearing electoral defeat, reversed the judgment by legislation in spite of the protest and resignation of his Muslim minister Arif Mohammed Khan.

(i) Good news: India got the ruler of Kashmir to sign on to join India when Pakistan sent “trained insurgents” to take Kashmir by force. Nehru got the popular Muslim leader Sheikh Abdullah to support accession to India. Nehru held general elections in Kashmir to ensure governments in Kashmir were backed by popular mandate.

(j) Bad news: Democratic principles and civil liberty were severely challenged by Indira Gandhi.

1 Constitutional rights and civil liberty were suspended for two years. However, these were restored by a wiser government that followed.

2 Political leadership in opposition was imprisoned but opposition leadership rose to the challenge; and the electorate rejected Indira’s actions by voting her out; her defeat was near total.

3 Political leadership in Congress party itself was weakened; inner party democracy weakened and power shifted to a coterie of advisors and members of the family. The party is yet to recover from this; however, the weakening of the Congress party has strengthened Indian democracy. Since 1989 no party has been able to form government on its own and coalition governments have come to stay widening and deepening democracy but rendering public policy slightly incoherent.

4 Political leadership at state level was weakened; and nominees of “high command” were “elected” by obedient legislatures to power as Chief Ministers. However, strong leaders like N T Rama Rao rose to protect “Teluguwala gopatnamu” and brought back pride to leadership at state level.

5 Government executives were pressured to be “committed” to political agenda (instead of being neutral in a multiparty democracy). Government executives were too glad to co-operate and several of them have turned to political careers after retirement.

6 Judiciary was pressured to be “committed” to political agenda. Though there have been a few instances of favored promotions, the Judiciary has substantially held its independence.

7 Gag rules were enforced on press for two years by Indira Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi attempted, in response to stories of corruption, legislation to jail editors for “scurrilous publication”. Fortunately protests in Parliament prevented the legislation.

(k) Bad news: Corruption became endemic in the system. State’s control over economic assets, and State’s leverage over private enterprise were enhanced ostensibly to fight the rich on behalf of the poor; but with a more obvious consequence of decision-makers in government being able to convert their influence over the direction and timeliness of the decisions into personal or political wealth.

(l) Bad news: India saw two pogroms. Against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. Against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Both arose due to willed breakdown of law. The PM in Delhi and the CM in Gujarat issued graceless statements that in effect justified the killings. Very unfortunately both reaped electoral rewards.

(m) Bad news: Rising Religious fundamentalism, by Hindus and Muslims, affected peaceful co-existence. A sixteenth century mosque around a Hindu sacred site has been a trigger for religious divide in India for long. Destruction of the mosque by Hindu fundamentalists stepped up the divide. Mahatma Gandhi’s advice to a pluralistic society to not seek benefits for the maximum; but maximize benefits for all was sadly forgotten.

(n) Good news: Backward castes who benefited economically from land reforms have started asserting themselves politically (Karunanidhi, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav). Dalits found new leadership in Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. Increasing political assertiveness would influence the differences to vanish in the long run.

(o) Bad news: Territorial integrity of India saw a few challenges that stemmed from:

1 Departing British rulers encouraging princely states and hill tribes to remain independent and have a dominion status with Britain so that the empire survives the Raj. Churchill’s support to Hyderabad and Nagaland are examples.

2 Political insensitivity of federal government to the pride, claim to common resources, border or leadership as in the case of Punjab

3 Pakistan’s agenda to avenge the loss of Bangladesh by supporting religious divide and sponsoring terrorism.

4 Kashmir.

(p) Bad news: The economy was mismanaged for first 35 years and is dogged by a “blow hot blow cold” view for next 25 years.

1 Indian economy, second largest in the world from time immemorial to 18th century stagnated with zero growth from 1857 to 1947 thanks to inept British rule.

2 The young nation pursued socialism (centralized planning, state ownership of big ticket industry, state control over private enterprise etc) for two reasons: Nehru truly believed in it; Indira Gandhi saw an opportunity in it to get defined as pro-poor and win elections. End result: Economy grew at a stately pace of 3.5% pa for the first 35 years.

3 The mid sixties famine was a shock to India. However, the “green revolution” helped India achieve self sufficiency in food production. Wheat production doubled. Rice production grew 50%.

4 Rajiv Gandhi started with right ideas by liberalizing trade, reducing duties, incenting exporters, simplifying license regime, lifting curbs on businesses and reducing tax rates; but reverted to populism closer to election time. (He did not win, however).

5 The 1987 drought affected 200 million people and entailed a few starvation deaths.

(q) Good news: A severe economic crisis forced politics to take back seat and introduce economic reforms in India that pushed India into a growth path.

1 The coalition governments inherited a crisis and had to take “significant” steps in opening up the economy, inviting foreign investment, and liberalizing trade.

2 However, there is a continuing debate between “reformers” and “populists”.

3 Economy is growing at a faster 6-8% in the last ten years.

4 There were success stories. The software service exports, aided by Nehru’s education system and linguistic policy, Rajiv’s emphasis on telecommunication and George Fernandes expulsion of IBM giving rise to indigenous players, grew from $ 0.1 billion in 1990 to $ 13.0 billion in 2004.

We have today a confident and rapidly growing India; well integrated with global markets for goods/services and capital. Democracy has taken a deeper root and some tradition in the country. Several malaises prevail and pose challenges.

Will India survive?

So long as the democractic traditions remain, secularism prevails, citizens remain free, market is respected and civil service/army remain; and Hindi film songs are sung, India will survive” says Guha.

Let me add my contribution to India with a Hindi film song: "so jo kabi aisa ho to kya ho?"

Just dont miss the book. If possible recommend the book to a young Indian.

13 July 2007

"Criminal" directed by Gregory Jacobs

This 2004 movie is a remake in English of “Nueve Reinas” (Nine Queens) the Argentinian heist movie written and directed by Fabian Bielinsky.

The movie is unique amongst heist flicks. A senior con artist and his understudy start the day in sunny Los Angeles with small time operations. The unfolding day gives them an opportunity to do a big ticket scam on a rich “mark”. A series of characters (not one of them honest) and rapid turn of events pose several challenges.

The movie grabs your attention right at start and holds it firm right to the end. The movie progresses along predictable lines for a brief while; and then it takes you on an unpredictable roller coaster ride.

Don’t miss it. Have fun.

01 July 2007

"Confessions of a Swadeshi reformer" by Yashwant Sinha

The book is indeed written by a “reformer”; am not sure this is however a “confession”.

Yashwant Sinha is one of the unsung heroes in the history of India’s economic reforms.

After 24 years in civil service as an IAS officer, Sinha switched to politics in 1984. He had two short spells as Finance Minister; in both instances the governments were brought down by moral low points of Congress party. In the first instance, the Chandrasekar administration (supported by Congress from outside) was brought down by Congress ostensibly because two sleuths were spying on Rajiv Gandhi. In the second instance, Gomango, a Congress MP who had taken office as CM of a State (and therefore was morally obliged to resign from Parliament) voted to bring down Vajpayee government by a wafer thin margin of one vote. Sinha came back as Finance Minister when Vajpayee formed his second government after winning elections; and went on to become the fourth man to present five budgets.

Sinha inherited an insolvent economy the first time; and had to pledge 20 tonnes of SBI’s gold with the Bank of England to get $ 400 million foreign exchange to tide over the crisis. He did not flinch in making hard decisions in spite of the negative popularity that would entail. Sinha swore to himself that he would not let that happen again. Sinha prepared, as per Dr Arjun Sengupta, an eminent economist, a truly revolutionary budget after the crisis; but was unable to present it because the government fell. Otherwise, it would have been Sinha, and not Dr Manmohan Singh, who would have become the poster boy of economic reforms.

The five budgets that Sinha was able to present later did not, unfortunately, have the same revolutionary edge.

The book however is certainly not a “confession”. There is nothing in the book that was private prior to disclosure and nothing that is sensational that would give a different perspective to the reader.

The book is still a good read because this is a reasonably honest account of a hero who thought more about strategic wins than immediate popularity. The alleged statement of Jana Krishnamurthy when he listened to Sinha’s economic agenda sums up Sinha’s philosophy: “It is good to implement your agenda; but we need to stay in power to implement your agenda. Your agenda may not allow us to remain in power for long”. The true dilemma of a statesman who has to however keep getting elected.

Three disclosures disturb a reader:

(a) Sinha claims that the budgets prepared by several of his predecessors were known ahead of turn to an industrial group.

(b) “Someone” close to PM Vajpayee’s office called Sinha to direct him to reduce tax on a product (that would have been useful to an industrial group). Sinha checked with the PM. No such directions were given. Sinha did not comply with the request. Sinha does not name the person who conveyed the alleged directive. The reader can understand Sinha’s reluctance since he is continuing to be in politics. But the book is not yet a “confession”. It would become one when Sinha is ready to name the person and get him/her out of politics.

(c) Chief Minister Jayalalitha slipped a note (listing all the income-tax disputes and cases Sinha's Finance ministry had with Jayalalitha) to Sinha after a lunch Sinha had with Jayalalitha in her home. Sinha claims he did not act on the note. If she indeed gave a note as Sinha claims, that is a low point in Jayalalitha’s political career!

Sinha is one of my favourite politicians in India. He had the moral timber to resign at the whiff of a suggestion of involvement in a havala case that was orchestrated by wily Narasimha rao. He did not contest elections until he was cleared by courts. He did not do a piggy back ride on a party. He won elections in Bihar each time he played a role in the government. He was a true reformer with a vision that went beyond the next elections. Above all, he did not strive to bring his children into politics – a clear sign that politics is not of economic advantage to this politician.