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Mr PM, give us the freedom to achieve economic success

By Rajeev Srinivasan
August 17, 2015 14:46 IST
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After many false starts, India may well be at the inflexion point that Deng Xiaoping took China to post-1978. The window of opportunity is wide open right now, says Rajeev Srinivasan.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with school children soon after his Independence Day address to the nation, August 15, 2015. Photograph: Press Information Bureau.


'But freedom?' the notes would sing...
Parole is enough. Tonight
Below the fire-crossed sky
Of the Festival of Light.

-- Vikram Seth, Diwali

Some years ago, I wrote on another Independence Day that we had formal independence, but not real freedom. Freedom from want, freedom of thought, freedom to seek self-actualisation. My friend, the UC Berkeley economist Atanu Dey, suggests that political freedom (such as it is) is not real freedom: Only economic freedom is meaningful. By that measure, Indians are far from free. So is there really anything to celebrate?

The standard memes were trotted out. The chatterati waxed eloquent about the same old themes they have flogged all these years. But that doesn't make the smallest difference to those who really struggle for their daily bread. And we see these people all the time: Those child beggars who pluck at your sleeves, that old woman who carries an unbearable burden of vegetables on her head, the rail-thin, dark-skinned people living under tarpaulins on waste land.

Until these wretched of the earth have at least enough food to eat, we have failed as a nation. I think Prime Minister Narendra Modi understands that, perhaps in a visceral way as someone who grew up close to poverty. But most of the rest of us don't understand, empathise, or care -- the system has been taken over from the British as is: Only the skin colour of the oppressors has changed.

The new rulers preferred to keep Indians under the thumb of a quasi-colonial regime; the administrative setup is unchanged from imperial times, and is meant to extract funds from the populace, not to serve them. The monstrosity of this point of view can be seen from the fact that there were some 30 major famines in 200 years of white semi-rule, compared to some 12 in the 2,000 years preceding it.

The greatest loss we suffered during centuries of foreign invasions and pillage was the loss of systems. Of governance, of education, of social structure: We lost all these, and they were tuned to our civilisation, so their loss creates severe trauma. It is true that absolutely staggering amounts of money was looted, and the human suffering was also enormous, but the destruction of systems is more far-reaching and damaging.

Instead of self-governing kingdoms (in the Hindu period), or centralised empires (in the Muslim period), we were in an extractive, scorched-earth kind of setup during the Christian period. (If you wish to use other terms, you could consider them early, medieval and pre-modern periods; or Indic, Turkic, and European, but if you use religions for some period, for consistency you should use the same for all periods. Religion did have a major impact on the system, as can be seen in the Raj Syndrome).

The fact that the very same setup continued after 1947 was convenient for those on the inside in the crony-capitalist environment. An analog would be Russia, post the Soviet era. A handful of ex-KGB, with significant information advantages and connections, became Kubera-rich oligarchs, while the masses of Russians found their living standards falling precipitously. Roughly the same thing happened in India; well-connected insiders during the licence raj period became fabulously wealthy, while the masses suffered. If it hadn’t been for these distortions, India could possibly have followed in the footsteps of Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.

We have the most important ingredient, that which enabled all the above-mentioned countries to prosper: Potentially (if educated and freed) high-quality human resources. Indians tend to be naturally intelligent, especially in mathematics. There is some sort of racial memory built in, which I will write about at a later point as 'Hindu exceptionalism.' Where we failed is in having terrible leaders. Or perhaps that's not even true: The leaders did just fine for themselves. As Arun Jaitley remarked in Parliament recently, it is impressive how the Nehru dynasty has never done a day's honest work in their lives, but have managed to live like kings.

In addition, we have been suffering from the ill effects of two centuries of brainwashing: After Macaulay's Minute of 1835 or so, the imperialists introduced so-called modern education, which has a simple purpose: Turn out coolies for the empire, not free-thinking individuals. It has succeeded beyond Macaulay's wildest dreams, because India must have the largest number of self-hating citizens in the world. The Leftist takeover of institutions post-1947 has also meant that we produce mind-numbingly useless graduates, most of whom have never been corrupted by a original thought.

Moreover, we have swallowed the Western dogma hook, line and sinker. Not for us an indigenous freedom fighter like Veer Damodar Savarkar (I learned about him from my late friend Varsha Bhosle and the film Kalapani), or a Pazhassi Raja or a V O Chidambaram (learned of him from the film Kappalottiya Thamizhan). Our history texts do not teach us about the Battle of Colachel, or the Vijayanagar Empire, or even the magnificent Rajendra Chola, whose fleet that invaded Sumatra across the Indian Ocean was quite likely the largest fleet ever assembled before the time of steam.

All this has colonised us mentally: We have not been free men and women. Our intellects have been circumscribed so that the apex of our aspiration is to ape whites and to ascribe to them the very construction of a national identity, even though we have existed as a civilisation for at least 5,000 years. Our economy has been an also-ran, except for some glimmers of hope during NDA1. The only thing that has given us any sense of worth has been the IT industry, which has helped raise the profile of Indians worldwide, although the IT services business model has peaked and is probably declining now.

It is only in 2014 that we finally saw a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, with PM Modi's decisive win in the general election. His motto of self-reliance and self-improvement, strangely enough, reminds me of Sri Narayana Guru's exhortations to 'become enlightened through education; and become strong through organising yourselves;' and not coincidentally, the latter was addressed at 'lower-caste' Hindus, one of whose number the PM is, too.

Yes, we can break free of jati-based prisons we have confined ourselves to, and the sociologist P Kanagasabapathi has demonstrated the value of jati groups in collective efforts including an early form of 'crowd-funding.' Two finance experts, S Gurumurthy and Professor R Vaidyanathan of IIM Bangalore, have pointed out the tangible and intangible value of jati as social capital. There is no need for us to go around shamefaced at the very mention of jati. It turns out to be a useful construct, though, like any other construct, it is open to abuse by the powerful.

Interestingly, I have started noticing lately a number of stories that suggest that other traditional Indian ideas we abandoned in the headlong rush to be 'modern' (sic) are also in fact better, and we ought to go back to them. (The poet Octavio Paz said about Mexico that 'It's condemned to be modernised' and we need to escape that noose.) An early example is the practice of exposure cowpox pus, prevalent in Bengal two hundred years ago, which the imperialists banned as 'barbaric' until they themselves brought the idea back as Jenner's 'inoculation' against smallpox. 'Science,' don't you know?

It turns out that eating spicy food will in fact extend your life span, but only if you don't drink. Coconut oil, as well as milk fats, far from being bad because of saturated fats, turn out to be much better than the typical hydrogenated vegetable oils used in the West. Exposing children to farm animals like cows turns out to give them much better gut bacteria, sheltering them from a myriad of diseases later. Using recyclable cotton sanitary pads and baby diapers is healthier and environmentally better than plastic.

Going to a hospital to deliver a baby may well lead to more Caesarian sections and maternal deaths than using a midwife at home. Traditional coarse grains like jowar, bajra etc are better than wheat, rice etc for health. Meditation and yoga are widely accepted as being highly beneficial practices. Thus we should feel free to investigate our cultural and traditional knowledge without prejudice; we may surprise ourselves at the sagacity of our ancestors.

In addition, in 2015, we find ourselves at an interesting crossroads in terms of our economy as well. The #MakeInIndia thrust is paying dividends, most recently with a $5 billion investment by Foxconn of Taiwan to build electronic devices (and they know electronics, as the assemblers of the Apple iPhone). On the macro level, the recent sharp devaluation of the Chinese yuan, and their decreased appetite for commodities, show that the Chinese economy is no longer as robust as it was, while India is indeed growing at more than seven per cent. The precipitous fall in oil prices is a big boon for India's balance of payments.

Therefore India, after many false starts, may well be at the inflexion point that Deng Xiaoping took China to post-1978. The window of opportunity is wide open right now.

Big new initiatives in infrastructure including #DigitalIndia and #SkillIndia should help improve competitiveness. But most of all, it may well be freedom from the dirigiste State that matters most, allowing the natural entrepreneurial spirit of Indians -- notable everywhere outside India -- to flower at home as well. The dead hand of the Predatory State has been a major obstruction.

If the PM can do something that finally gives us several freedoms -- the freedom to think logically and not within some ossified ideology, the freedom to achieve economic success, the freedom from the dead hand of bureaucracy -- then there is something to celebrate.

Otherwise, this Independence Day is just like all the others before it: We are just going through the motions: Potemkin Nation.

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Rajeev Srinivasan