December 22, 2012 Sujeev Shakya

Lessons for Nepal

After being an ardent fan of India Unbound, I could not resist finishing Gurcharan Das’s yet another masterpiece — India Grows at Night — in one sitting. In between these two books, he published another bestseller — The Difficulty of Being Good — which opened up new discourses in the ‘Dharma of Capitalism’.

The central theme of Das’ new book revolved on how India has grown at night and the questionable sustainability of such growth. He talks about how Gurgaon, which got its municipal corporation status only in 2008, has risen with little help from the state, while Faridabad, a government initiative, lags far behind. But he questions the governance structures in Gurgaon and whether such cities can sustain themselves. He describes the IT boom and how customer inspectors could not stop the export of software through telephone lines, and labour inspectors could not stop software engineers talking to customers in America at night. The lack of regulation, however, meant that a big IT company like Satyam was involved in one of the biggest corporate scams. Many other such examples bring about the challenge of balancing economic growth with governance and what Das refers to the ‘Dharma of Capitalism’.

Like in India Unbound, he provides multiple lenses through which to look at India. “India offers a new model. First, it got democracy before capitalism; the rest of the world had it the other way around. Second, its economic rise has been driven from ‘below’ through its people, rather than forced from ‘above’ by the state.” He contrasts the Indian phenomenon with the Chinese one, which is rising from the top, scripted by a technocratic state. He argues: “India is a salad bowl, where the constituents retain their identity and China is more of a melting pot.”
He provides interesting insight on the Indian ‘commuter culture’ as he calls it, where, during the day, people wore western clothes, spoke English and took up liberal norms, as demanded by professional life. In the evening, the same people went back to their ‘Kurtas’ and ‘Dhotis’ spoke in their mother tongue and lived according conservative traditions. “Since the two lives did not mix, western, liberal values remained skin deep,” Gurcharan Das believes.

Much explanation is provided on the rise of India in past two decades and the quagmire it has plunged into. The book is filled with a wide range of discourses: from origins of rule of law to the differences of applications of the laws in the West and in the East; from the discourse of how rulers derive legitimacy to the intricate relationship between religion and politics; how English had to cope with the difference in the two legal systems in India, where one is based on legality and the other based on authority and religion; from the discourse on might vs right to distinguishing rights vs. responsibilities; from the classic division between those who look ahead and aspire versus those who look back and complain; from tackling public failure and private success to discussing the roots of corruption.

A libertarian at heart, Das does not mince words while discussing how political intents of governments have thwarted economic growth. He points out regional political parties’ doling out campaign and cites examples of how elections became a way of doling out televisions, computers and freebies funded by the state treasuries. He shows how 800 industries reserved for the small scale sector have completely killed the sector. He describes how the sight of the finance minister announcing the budget with two dozen welfare schemes in March is always a bureaucrat’s nightmare. He says that the discourse on labor, where protecting existing unionized workers or ‘organized labor’ at expense of everyone else has resulted in less than 10 percent comprising of organized labor force and enterprises shying away from letting workers organize . He argues foreign investors still prefer to engage a local partner in India because even bribes don’t guarantee predictability of the law and its applications. His idea of a liberal state hinges on the state to act independently and resolutely, a rule of law which constraints political power and limits corruption and brings about democracy and accountability such that people can change bad rulers. He ponders upon how capitalism is not perfect but there is nothing better to replace it. He then moves on to talk about how he calls it ‘Dharma Within Society’ is to be achieved as no amount of regulation will catch all the crooks.

The book is sprinkled with examples of success. Public-private partnerships in road projects demolished opportunities for corruption. Indians have moved out of poverty through their own initiative. Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket went global in the second year while it took fifty years for American Football League to play outside US. Twenty years of reform produced more than 150 Indian companies with a market capitalization of over a billion dollars. The middle class, in one generation, has started living decent lives. The opening up of the insurance sector to private players has created six million jobs and improved the quality of services.

A strong of lessons for people in government and business: out of the 30 companies that made up the Bombay Stock Exchange Sensex in 1990, only nine companies remain in 2010, which shows that if you don’t live up to the times, you perish.

This book, Das says, has been inspired by three questions he was asked at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt: How India dealt with generals in politics; how to manage to create a sense of security for its minorities; and what could Egypt learn from the success of India’s outsourcing business and economic growth.

Therefore, ‘India Sleeps at Night’ provides a good discourse on the political system from every aspect, its history, geography. It is not a wonder that scholars, who used a variety of different lenses, quoted is as a treat to read. He talks about how it is not healthy for the world’s largest democracy to have a poor opinion of its political class. He prescribes the formation of a new secular, liberal political party on the lines of the old Swatantra Party. There is lot of things he discusses on ‘What Is To Be Done’ and perhaps that could be a primer for many people not only in India but other parts of the world too.
Nepali readers will find that practically every issue raised in the book can be contextualized for Nepal. At some points, it feels he is talking about Nepal because the issues are very similar and deep rooted in the interpretation of culture, religion, success and growth in Nepal as well.

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