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The year of unconventional thinking

Conventional wisdom would have it that the drumbeats of change that followed the Mumbai tragedy will mute...

Written by Vikram S Mehta |
January 6, 2009 1:15:35 am

Conventional wisdom would have it that the drumbeats of change that followed the Mumbai tragedy will mute; memories will fade and life will return to business as usual.  Sure,there will be a tightening of the security apparatus and an organisational review of the government agencies.  But there will be no serious effort to address the systemic causes behind the lapses, no concerted drive to improve the quality and morality of our leadership. The changes that do occur will be symbolic not radical.

I have to admit that in the 6 weeks since 26/11 there is much to support conventional wisdom.  The drumbeats have quieted. The challenge of shifting the needle of governance in a polity riven by the conflicting demands of multiple political groups does appear insuperable. The issue is whether it is impossible?

A flashback review of 2008 would suggest that conventional wisdom can and indeed has been turned on its head.  No public figure foresaw the near collapse of the world economy and the fading lustre of the liberal-capitalist model of economic growth.  Few if any professional economists predicted the resurrection of Keynesianism.  Only a handful of political seers expected Obama to clinch the presidency or for that matter for Sheila Dixit to retain her chief ministership for a third consecutive term.  And certainly no oil company executive forecast that oil prices would run up from less than $50/bbl in January to just under $150/bl in July and then collapse again to below $50/bl by December.  What conventionalism did suggest was that the world economy would slow but not hit the brakes; that the financial crisis would be severe but not engulf the global real economy;  that oil prices would oscillate but within the bounds set by the fundamentals of demand and supply and that whilst Obama was a candidate of rare talent and Dixit a chief minister of competence and integrity,the traditional determinants of race,experience,and incumbency would ultimately scupper their political ambitions.

Hindsight gives us some idea as to why the conventionalists got it wrong. They were peering into the future through lenses that focused unduly on the tangible. It did not capture the collage created by the combination of individual creativity,market dynamics and information technology. The financial crisis was seeded for instance by the whiz kids of Wall Street. They concocted the alchemists brew that turned sub prime mortgages into triple ‘A’ rated financial instruments. The brew tasted good in moderation but when driven by greed and on the back of integrated markets and information technology it became the drink of the global financial community it caused a systemic dysfunction. In similar vein but with more positive outcomes the political pundits failed to picture the power of Internet to ‘disintermediate’ established channels of political reach and to enable relative new comers like Obama to overcome the obstacles of group identity,entrenched prejudices and conventional psephology.

It would be naïve to argue that the events of 2008 mark a radical watershed. But it would be a mistake to ignore the signals that they emitted. If nothing else the signals suggest that the world does not revolve around an axis of only scientific principles and deterministic trends; that the future is not hostage to precedent. The votaries of change post Mumbai should pick on these straws to sustain their efforts to buck the conventional trend.

One idea for instance that has been floated but which conventionalism would rubbish can gain credence from such signals. This is an idea premised on three assumptions. Coalition governments in the Centre are here to stay; no single party will have the numbers to ride roughshod over its coalition partners and a cohesive group of 50-60 parliamentarians could well therefore hold the balance of power. The idea is to identify and then somehow get elected such a number of individuals of integrity and public spirit and for them to use their disproportionate clout to check public venality and executive incompetence. The conventionalists would dismiss the idea as impractical and infeasible. Elections require funds; candidates need to be backed by organisations and whilst integrity is a fine word it counts for little in the hurly burly of our electoral battles.

These are solid reasons for jettisoning the idea but only if the signals of 2008 are totally ignored.  But if they do hold out straws then it is one that invites experimentation. After all could not a trust be set up to finance the election campaigns of such individuals? Could not the trust draw on the Obama campaign tactics and use Internet to raise money from an ‘angry’ public? A contribution of say Rs. 100/- from even a part of India’s so called middle class could put over Rs. 100 crores into the trust. The effort may come to naught but if it did not and some candidates were elected through such a process it could galvanise a significant challenge to the present conventional narrative of governance. And if that happened the needle would shift not simply in the direction of symbolism but towards systemic,durable and positive changes.

The writer is chairman,Shell Group in India; views expressed are personal

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