governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

“Class” in diplomacy

coffee

(photo credit: http://www.dreamstime.com)

“Diplomacy is not instant coffee” said the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs yesterday. He is right of course. If you are the “instant coffee” type,  you are unlikely to be invited to join the international high table.

This doesn’t mean though that, if our MEA mandarins switch from Coffee Board brew to private caches of Hacienda La Esmerelda (US$104 per lb.), the Chinese troops camping so brazenly at Chumar would vanish instantly. The diplomatic high table respects what you do at home not what you pretend to do when you are abroad or what you pretend to be, whilst mixing with the rich and mighty. “Class” is a social stamp affixed to your entire family, not just you, which sticks tighter than glue.

As in diplomacy, class at the individual level, is also increasingly about where you are going rather than where you have come from. The American dream best illustrates this change since the early part of the last century. “You can be what you want” so long as you have fire in the belly.

Ironically, the Soviets had the same ideology, but not the instruments. They ended up with a classless but skewed society where Party based patrimony and cronyism became more important than merit, tested by competition.

The Chinese corrected for this gap between ideology and practice and have prospered since 1979. The results are visible. One third of the people pulled out of poverty in the last decade by job creating growth, are Chinese. A classless “poor” society is becoming a classless “rich” society. To be sure this has resulted in growing inequality, but inequality is to growth, as wine is to cheese.

India has not been far behind in effecting a quiet social revolution with its unique brand of positive affirmation for the marginalized and merit based competitive entry for the excluded, into the heady domain of the powerful via public service jobs.  PM Modi is the best example that this policy has been reasonably satisfactory in giving entry points to make individuals upwardly mobile.

But as a nation, so long as 70% of our population is poorer than the admittedly blunt, international standard of US$2 per head per day (or more colorfully, poorer that the proverbial “Church Mouse”); so long as our external account is fragile and so long as our political parties don’t align, like magnetic strips, in a single direction with respect to foreign policy, we are doomed to remain mere “guests” at the high table. We may be thus honoured for our future potential, but we will continue to be subtly excluded from substantive current decisions, till we become paying members of the club of “classy” nations.

We are years from getting there. We are still grappling with the fundamentals of infrastructure development and growth. How to make PPPs work? How to integrate world class assets into a creaky frame? How to scale up manufacturing and join the international value chain? These are our current 101 concerns. We have targets for infrastructure: (1) A fast train to Arunachal Pradesh by November 2014- a riposte to President Xi’s rather heavy-handed assertion of brute power by making the Peoples Liberation Army troops pitch camp in a border area, which both China and Indian patrol, even whilst he himself was savouring the delights of an Indian welcome last week.  (2) Fuel supply issues to be sorted out to enhance capacity utilization in electricity generation. (3) Faster project clearances (4) Easier environmental clearances and so on.

But we have no targets as yet for poverty reduction. We spend more “intellectual” effort in arguing about the nominal base line for poverty than on getting people to cross the line and remain above it.

An alternative strategy, one advocated by Mahatma Gandhi, could have been to put poverty reduction foremost. Bullet trains, highways, better airports, more electricity may all be inputs in the log frame defining the sequential path to achieve this key strategic objective. But why is the log frame and the thinking not shared with the public? Do we have a “poverty filter” in place which can help government rigorously evaluate and rank alternative investments for their poverty reduction potential? If we do not, then how can we be sure that our scarce capital resources are being allocated and spent well aligned to the principle of “value for money”?

Diplomacy is really about getting better deals with international partners that would be available automatically given the international market. Our external business strategy should be similar to that followed by the Dalai Lama and earlier by the Mahatma. This would be the 3H strategy characterized by Humility, Humanity and Holding Harmless.

Humility is the ultimate signal of strength. The Mahatma, clad in his spare loin cloth, demonstrated this whilst winning over the world with his message and his thoughts.

Humanity is of the essence to Indian philosophy. Given the extent of poverty and the depth of inequality, the relatively low level of social disorder is striking. The origins of this social-cohesion lie in an essential Rousseauian mind space, which views human nature as essentially benign; which accepts the dirty underbelly of humanity-greed, ego and excess, as human frailties; which accepts that the world is an unfair place; that differences in resource endowments and the standard of living are natural but draws comfort from the belief that there are countervailing social forces, which bring about social justice in the long term. This philosophy was recently well applied to our external relations by Minister Sushma Swaraj in a suave but home-spun manner “There are no full stops in Diplomacy”

Holding Harmless is the classic strategy of a democratic, heterogeneous, soft state and segmented economy like ours. Progress and reform yes, but not at the cost of unbearable pain even for significant minorities and always aligned to the principle of “None Left Behind”.  In external affairs just as we seek differentiated responsibilities to allow us to “catch up” with the rest of the World so must we recognize the special needs of others who are worse off-particularly select countries in South Asia.

How does 4H translate into practice?

First, we must learn to observe, listen, absorb and adapt from the experience of others rather than spend our time, preening and preaching about our practices and policies overseas. Our ways of doing things are contextually good, primarily for ourselves. They do not become better just by marketing them aggressively overseas. Nor do we need overseas endorsement of our ideas and policies.

Second, our officers overseas must resemble tradespeople; annoyingly nosy; curious; people-persons; seeking out deals in national interest, rather than haughty, remote representatives of the Indian State. False pride can be our fall.

Third, PM Modi is right in declaring “make in India” as his leitmotif. Indian big business should heed this call. There is nothing edifying about earning money in India but investing it overseas. It is neither a coup for big Indian Business nor for the government. Rather, it is a cop-out for the country. It illustrates that Indian business has more faith in foreign business environments and opportunities that in those available in India. Such transactions may also be suspect due to the opportunities they provide for “havala” (extra-legal export of either illegal earnings in India, or to evade income tax through dodgy invoicing of imports and exports). The national duty of Indian business is to leverage overseas funds for investment in India.

Fourth, before we wade into securing the World against terror; or showcasing India’s “naval might” it would be prudent to spend a decade on building up our military assets; modernizing our equipment; re-stocking our armories and re-skilling our personnel. Indian peace keeping forces abroad do us proud but that is because of their personal valour and fortitude. They do so despite shoddy personal equipment and arms. We have too many security related issues to resolve at home, to have the mind space or the financial muscle to police the world.

“Class” as a social identity is increasingly an outdated concept everywhere except within the government where such Colonial traditions survive. We must work to restructure government to eliminate class based identities. Baby steps in that direction could be abolishing separate toilets for senior government officers in government buildings. Staff lunch gatherings in offices, at least twice a week is another way to socially integrate senior officers with their junior colleagues. Switching over to digital offices systems and denuding officers of personal secretaries and messengers, is another. We must work hard to replace the steaming Coffee Board brew, currently served by a waiter in colonial livery, with a plebian coffee dispenser at the end of each corridor, although stocked with- what else but Esmerelda?

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