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The great Indian rope trick and other illusions of progress

July 16, 2013 15:37 IST

Rajeev Srinivasan on how Indians are satisfied with illusions, not reality.

Indians live in a state of illusion: they believe there is progress, there is a democracy, and that the State is a benign mai-baap nanny State. It turns out that they are wrong on all counts, but apparently this political and economic theatre is quite enough as anodyne for the long-suffering ordinary Indian.

I was impelled to write this after reading ‘The Great Indian Rupee Trick’ by Krishnara at and a piece in The Economist magazine of June 13, 2011 (Big Mac index: Value Meal). Although the two disagree -- the former suggests the rupee has a long way left to fall, while the latter suggests that the rupee is the most undervalued currency around right now -- it is a tribute to the fecklessness of the Indian government that the rupee has tumbled so far so fast (from around $1=Rs 45 in 2011 to $1=Rs 61 now, some 30 percent).

I also happened to leaf through an old issue of National Geographic from 1988 with a story on Kerala, and it mentioned that $1=Rs 12 at that time. Thus, the rupee has, in about 25 years, lost 80 percent of its value, and quite a bit of that in the last few years (mostly coinciding with UPA 2). In simple terms, the fall of the Indian rupee reflects the lack of competitiveness of the Indian economy.

The dramatic increase in the current account deficit suggests the same thing: that there is little India makes that foreigners want; whereas Indians want to import a lot of things others make. It was blithely predicted by India’s mandarins that the rupee’s fall would lead to a surge in its exports, but on the contrary, India’s exports have actually shrunk by 4.6 percent year to year.

We don’t need to go far to understand why this has happened: it is because of pure economic mismanagement. The immense potential of the country and its people has been wasted -- a colossal crime against the people and indeed against humanity, which has prevented half a billion people from clawing their way out of poverty.

Why have Indians allowed a clutch of clever political entrepreneurs to do this to them? It must be because Indians are satisfied with delusion (is that why Bollywood is so big?). They are happy with the illusion of progress; they are happy to have the illusion of a democratic republic; they are happy to have the illusion that our wretched are being looked after. In fact none of these is true, but they happily suspend their disbelief. They live in a make-believe world.

The fact is that India is falling further and further behind the rest of the world. Half the world’s poor, half the world’s blind, half the world’s sick and malnourished, are in India. Things are not getting better; they are getting worse by the day. India is regressing rapidly.

Remember how India was compared to China and other developing nations, courtesy Goldman Sachs and the convenient BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) epithet? But have you noticed that these days India is increasingly bracketed with Africa -- and sometimes contrasted negatively with sub-Saharan Africa, for instance in malnourishment -- as the last reservoir of the world’s miseries? China appears to have decisively trounced India in the race for growth and prosperity.

There is, some argue, the effect of democracy, as though there were a democracy penalty. But this is absurd, because India is not a democracy. It is a hereditary feudal monarchy with a large set of court jesters and other hangers-on. Parliament is a chimera, or at best a smokescreen. There are what look like elections, what looks like an assertion of the people’s will. But this is a hugely expensive, elaborate charade like the Potemkin villages of Tsarist Russia.

In fact, Parliament is merely a place to park the hereditary scions of the ruling castes. Patrick French’s 2011 research ('The Princely State of India', in Outlook magazine, January 17, 2011) showed that 100 percent of the Congress party’s members below the age of 35 were sons or daughters of some senior party person.

Furthermore, Parliament is just a rubber stamp. There is the gigantic Food Security Bill, which will add many a billion dollars to the nation’s budget deficit. It was enacted not after parliamentary debate, but as an ordinance, or executive order.

Similarly, a few years ago, the ‘nuclear deal’ with the US was signed by the executive without ever informing Parliament about how much was being given up in national security in return for virtually nothing.

Therefore, the Indian Parliament is merely ornamental, and a playground for the children of political bigwigs. But Indians are under the comfortable illusion that they live in a parliamentary democracy. Yes, that and ten rupees will get them a cup of coffee.

Then there is the fantasy that the Indian State is benign. And that it looks after its poorest and worst-off. Which is the alleged reason that the unelected National Advisory Council (a truly motley crew) has rammed through various hare-brained schemes such as National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Right to Education, and the latest turkey, FSB. And what is the reality with all this spending -- which amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars? The Indian State is actually a predatory State, the direct descendant of the colonial construct intended to loot and pillage.

In a March 23, 2011, article titled 'India can’t fumble its ‘food right’ plan', the Wall Street Journal noted that, according to the Global Hunger Index, India is in the category of ‘alarming’ along with Haiti, Bangladesh, Sudan, Cambodia and Nepal. This is worse than war-ravaged Afghanistan and Iraq. The only countries were hunger is worse than India are: war-torn Congo, Haiti and Bangladesh. This is how the UPA has helped the common man?

Even worse, reporting on a study in the British medical journal Lancet, The Economist pointed out in February 7, 2011 ('Global Obesity: An expanding world. How men’s waistlines have grown since 1980') that there are only three countries in the world where people have grown thinner in the recent past (ie. 1980-2008): Afghanistan, Congo and India! That means malnutrition is endemic in India, while much of the rest of the world struggles with obesity. (Note that Congo and Afghanistan are wretched, war-torn States).

A more recent update is even more damning. Quoting the Asian Development Bank, The Economist of July 6, 2013 ('Widefare') points out that of all the welfare states in Asia, India’s is the worst-performing: it has neither depth nor breadth. That is, neither is the alleged welfare net reaching a large proportion of the people, nor is the per-person welfare amount high. Even Pakistan manages to give its welfare recipients more.

So this is the reality of the welfare State: yet another figment of your imagination.

I will close with a final illusion: that of toilets in trains. Even in higher-class compartments, if you use the stinking toilets, you will notice that there is no way you can clean your bottom with dignity. There is a chained mug and a faucet, thus giving you the idea that you can wash yourself. Much of the time, there is no water. The rest of the time, you are frustrated because the chain is just slightly too short -- there is no way you can wash yourself without twisting yourself into contortions, or without spilling soiled water all over the toilet floor.

The bureaucrat who specified the length of that chain -- just three inches too short -- is a perfect metaphor for India’s ruling classes. They have no interest in your welfare, only in giving you the frustrating impression that you can actually accomplish something, which of course you cannot.

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Rajeev Srinivasan