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Old ideas have a very long life in India

By T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
April 18, 2017 08:58 IST
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No new ideas, please, we are Indian. Seventeen years into the 21st century, we are still fixated by the ideas of the 20th century, says T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

Sketch by Uttam Ghosh


The late Paul Samuelson, when I called on him 27 years ago, very insightfully said at one point, “In your country human capital depreciates very slowly.”

He was referring to how we Indians show deference to older people even while differing with them.
But if you think about it, it is not just the old people we defer to.

We defer even more to old socio-political ideas. The result is that old ideas have a very long half-life in India. Obviously, some very bad ones linger on and on.
What’s more, it doesn’t matter who the fount of those socio-political ideas is: The Vedas, Golwalkar, Karl Marx, or Nehru. All of them still have diehard adherents.
Generally speaking, everywhere, two types of socio-political ideas are always deemed to be good.

One type is when you regard an idea as being good merely because you had happened to come up with it. Bureaucrats from the senior services are known for this.
The other type is when you think some socio-political idea is good because so many others also think it is good. This is the basis of all political parties, which, the world over, are like the mixers-grinders in a dhaba: They mash good ideas with bad ones.
In between are the ‘intellectuals’. Their modus operandi is to borrow someone else’s idea, call it good, and launch off on the gravy train operated by the politicians.
The ruling elite in India are made up mainly of this combination of politicians, bureaucrats and ‘intellectuals’. Charlatans and opportunists do well in it.
Half-life of ideas
This long preamble was served up because, although we are now 17 years into the 21st century, we are still using the socio-political ideas of the 20th century -- and indeed even the second and the 12th centuries -- as points of reference. The contexts have changed but we cling on.
Thanks to the special place accorded to age -- and our tendency to regard it as being synonymous with wisdom -- even the young, in very large numbers, tend to adopt these old socio-political ideas, regardless of whether these ideas make sense any longer or not.
All political dispensations in the last 70 years have been witness to this. Each one of them has been governed by an outdated idea: The Congress with Keynesian democratic socialism, the BJP with Hindu revivalism -- in which there is no concept of state but only government -- and the Communists with redistributive Marxism, which emphasises totalitarianism.
But no country can progress when it is weighed down by this fascination with -- and, indeed, preference for -- outdated socio-political ideas. India is a standing monument to this folly, as indeed are the Islamic countries.
China, on the other hand, which is governed by bandits in cheap suits and expensive ties, has progressed only because it has not clung to the ideas of Mao Zedong. Other countries in that part of the world have also benefited by not clinging to the outdated ideas of their national mythologies.
The core problem
At the core of all socio-political and economic ideas lies a fundamental societal issue: How does the sovereign reconcile group preferences with individual preferences? Or, if you like, at its most banal, how does anyone reconcile the individual preference of each Congress party member for change in leadership with the group preference for Rahul Gandhi?
So far only the branch of economic theory pioneered by the late Kenneth Arrow, which has been grappling with this problem, came up with an answer. It is dismaying: All democratic systems need a dictator at the top. Editors in media organisations are a perfect example of this.
Now that it is in power, the BJP has to solve its problems in this respect: How does it reconcile the preferences of individual Indians with the group preference of the RSS, which -- if the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as UP chief minister is anything to go by -- casts as much influence on its ward as the Gandhi family does on its own.
Narendra Modi is trying his best to resolve the dilemma.

This is relatively easy on the economic side, where instrumentalism -- more of roads, electricity, health centres, schools, etc -- is concerned. But when it comes to human things -- eating habits, love, prayer, etc -- he is faced with a serious problem.
P V Narasimha Rao sorted out the socialism problem of the Congress party by stealth.

History may well judge Mr Modi on whether, and how, he sorts out the BJP’s socio-political problem with the RSS.

TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan is a journalist and columnist. He is writing a history of the Reserve Bank of India.

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