Indian diplomacy was at its worst last week. It conducted the PMs visit to the US as if he was attending a seminar on economics, in Neemrana. If India is a superpower (perennially waiting to happen), it came across, on the one hand, as a country sapped of all energy and squabbling about petty matters whilst on the other, punching way above its weight (as usual), by seeking to “inform” international debate on marco-economics, political strategy and social development. When will our politicians learn to control their babus egos? International agendas should be set by politicos to project a short, simple and credible message, not waffle on about everything under the Sun.
Iran, in sharp contrast, showed real leadership and stole the thunder. The freshness of Iran’s approach to international rapprochement and the staleness of India’s squabbling with Pakistan couldn’t have been starker. The Pakistani perception of India and its leaders, aired on Pakistani television as bumbling compromisers, unable to live up to meaningful actions was true, but humiliating.
India used to be a Banyan tree spreading its roots. Today it has become a Baobab tree. Massive from the outside. Hollow from within. This is despite having the best technical talent and intellect in the world. Indians leave India to grow, get respect abroad (like Raghuran Rajan) and only then have the choice to return home to be recognized. The Indian private sector has similar constraints. Indians invest 1 % of GDP abroad (the real figure is higher but the IMF and the GOI do not share with us their assessment of investments abroad using havala) because of the ease in doing business, even in nearby Bangladesh, Myanmar and Srilanka.
Modi spoke on Sunday, from the ramparts of Rohini in Delhi, of “small” nations leaving India behind. It seems he was referring to East Asia, which overtook India in the late 1970s. He could as well have referred to our neighbours in South Asia and Myanmar, who have more recent successes. After Bangladesh, India is the poorest country in this region (World Bank definition of people with income below $2 per day). Srilanka, Nepal and Pakistan all do better than us. Both Srilanka and Bangladesh kept economic growth above 6% in the period 2009-2012 (World Bank Development Data). Even Nepal, managed to keep it above 5%, astoundingly despite (or perhaps because of) an undefined political architecture or credible government. In Pakistan, growth trended upwards from 1.6% in 2008 to 4.2% in 2012. Indian growth meanwhile declined to 3.2% in 2012. The manner in which Srilanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar have shaken off their erstwhile, crabbish lethargy of looking inwards is thrilling for business. We can learn from them.
External and internal conflict is a major growth retardant. The lengthy literature on the negative impact of conflict and violence on social capital and community well-being highlights the importance we need to give to the Rule of Law and Security. Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh has met the extremist challenge upfront. Rajapaksa similarly tamed the Tigers in Srilanka. India’s inability to take strategic and bold steps to root out terrorism is attributed to our being a democracy and hence a soft State. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If you are poor and marginalized, the Indian state would appear extremely hard and uncaring for your rights. Over 700 million people fall in this category. We are a country still enthralled with inherited social and ritual, class status. In this respect we are very similar to the UK and differ from our true team mate, the US. However, the US acts only in national interest. This is their ethos. You make it or break on your own. If we want to be taken seriously by the US (and the world) we have to first deal with what ails us within.
It is wrong to rush to the US to shake a few limp hands, limply. It is tragic to have leaders who represent no one, or to have those who drive from the back seat. It is unwise to degrade babudom into a quivering jelly of indecision even though we all know that both growth and social inclusion are based on selective but firm and effective state intervention. It is a crime to waste our intellectual and entrepreneurial talent overseas and be poorly served at home. It is unconscionable to spill Indian blood so casually but continue shaking hands with a Pakistani, puppet, Prime Minister. Yes, the nations of the world will applaud this conciliatory, rational approach. But what they respect, is America’s single minded determination to “hunt and gun down” the perpetrators of violence which spilt American blood in America. Even tiny UK attacked Argentina (admittedly better known for its beef than its military prowess) in a display of the essence of sovereignty; the monopoly of the State over violence within its territory. The world fears China’s single minded, uncompromising pursuit of national interest. If we want to play with the big boys we have to emulate their tactics.
Any poor Indian looking to buy blood for an operation faces prohibitive prices and often scarcity. Why is the blood of our babus in uniform, so cheap then? Let’s value it better.