January 22, 2017 12:30:00 am
Is India going to miss the bus yet again? I asked myself this question many times last week in Davos as the mightiest of our business leaders wandered about with doleful expressions because of the almost total absence of India in the conversations the world is currently having.
There were as many Indian participants at this year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum as there were Chinese, but nobody noticed India at all. More depressing still was that Xi Jinping was greeted by this gathering of the rich and powerful as if he were the emperor of the world.
While listening to his excellent speech, I marvelled at the irony of a Communist dictator being kowtowed to by people who believe in democracy and free markets. These do not exist in China. They do in India, but no Indian leader has ever attracted the kind of attention the Chinese President did. Why? When I asked myself this question, images of China’s modern highways, superfast trains and orderly cities rose in my head and the answer became evident.
China realised in the Seventies that central planning and Marxist economics would not bring prosperity. So it changed course. India did not change course till 15 years later when P V Narasimha Rao began to dismantle the licence raj. He did this slyly without telling people why change was necessary. This stealthy approach to economic reform has unfortunately been copied by every prime minister since then. Most Indians continue to be fooled by rubbish about how the rich have stolen money and resources that belong to the poor. So in a truly tragic way we remain mired in an economic time warp.
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Narendra Modi began what seemed like a process of real reform by abolishing the Planning Commission, but he did this without explaining why it had become an anachronism. Not only did ordinary Indians not understand what the disappearance of this symbol of central planning meant but even Narendra Modi’s ministers seemed not to see the NITI Aayog as a new idea. Modi should have not just explained this reform but also explained why India had to open her economy to change and private investment.
If in his conversations with ordinary people on Mann ki Baat he had asked whether government should be running businesses or concentrating on governance, it is hard to think of any Indian who would not have agreed that the government had no business to be in business. Modi himself said this often in those early months of his tenure when he travelled the world asking overseas Indians to put their faith and their money in India. So what changed?
When did he change from being a dedicated economic reformer to suddenly becoming Robin Hood? If he talks to ordinary people, he will discover that the main reason why there has been huge popular support for the currency withdrawal is because they believe that money taken from the rich will be put in the bank accounts of the poorest Indians. Modi has himself taken to talking about how the money of the poor has been looted by corrupt people, lending dangerous credence to these rumours. Has he noticed yet how much damage the hysteria over black money has caused? Has he noticed that since he took office there has been almost no major foreign investment in new projects?
In the main bazaar in Davos, I spotted a sign for Make in India and it reminded me once more of the bus India could be missing again. Inside the conference halls of the World Economic Forum nearly all conversations were about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the consequences of digitisation on jobs and businesses. The great manufacturing opportunities that China benefited so cleverly from 20 years ago now no longer exist. Besides, making in India will only become possible when our transport systems improve dramatically. The money needed for modernising India’s infrastructure is huge. Can the government find it without private investment?
Since demonetisation, Modi has urged Indians to accept that the world has changed and that they will have to learn to use digital systems of banking and commerce. He is absolutely right. But once more India fails when it comes to the infrastructure needed for us to become participants in this Fourth Industrial Revolution.
If India misses the bus once more, it will be a long, long time before we are able to catch the next one because buses are moving much faster today than ever before and they are travelling on highways that we could not have imagined even five years ago. A session on solar cell technology in Davos and another on the use of holograms in medical science made me feel I had come from another planet. The world is no longer what it was but alas India is exactly as she was.
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