Thursday, 25 August 2011

Badlega Bharat (India Will Change)

Renaissance and Reformation. Glasnost and Perestroika. Someday someone will come up with the pair of words that will best describe the twin revolutions sweeping India today.

The liberalisation story came first. Unshackling India's economy from years of socialist low growth was the start of the first revolution. So much so that "10% growth" has become the dream that inspires politician and public alike. Rival parties, normally quick to undo each other's initiatives on coming to power, now build on each other's work. Tamil Nadu's DMK and AIADMK parties and the unbroken industrialisation of the state (in spite of repeated changes in the ruling party) are a case in point. Somewhere along the way, a miracle has happened. Politicians are beginning to put the interests of their states ahead of petty political point scoring. The dream - that India can and will be an economic power - has ignited the collective imagination. Ten percent growth, year on year, will transform the country in half a generation. The BJP's "India Shining" was not the catchphrase of the revolution after all. "Ten percent growth" is.

Which brings us to the other thing that the term "ten percent" often connotes - corruption. Regardless of the merits and demerits of the rival Lokpal (public ombudsman) Bills, the tactics used by agitators to negotiate with the government, etc., one fact remains. Indians are fed up with corruption and are becoming increasingly vocal about it. Politicians are being put on notice that helping themselves from the public coffers will not be tolerated. Petty bureaucrats are now warned that demands for bribes will not go unpunished. Is this a false dawn? Time will tell. But the catchphrase "Badlega Bharat" (India will Change) is as powerful as the vision of 10% growth. It is a warning to the powerful and the corrupt. You have taken India for granted so far, but India will change, tomorrow's India will be different...

I think it was Gurcharan Das who said that corruption drastically reduces when more than half the population becomes middle class. The poor are corruptible and the rich can corrupt, but the middle class neither needs special favours nor is readily bribed. The anti-corruption agitation is a sign of India's growing middle class. That's why the oft-heard dismissal of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption crusade as "just a middle class phenomenon" misses the point entirely. Of course it's a middle-class phenomenon! Since the middle class will keep growing, the pressure on the corrupt will only increase. Regardless of the fate of the Lokpal Bill, corruption in the polity must decrease. It's a law of nature.

I foresee at least one juicy outcome in the near future. The government of India will be forced by public pressure to officially demand a list of Indian holders of Swiss bank accounts. It will be doubly entertaining to watch the proceedings, because many of these account holders are top functionaries of the Indian government, and they will resort to every legal (and illegal) contortion to avoid making that demand of the Swiss. But the truth will eventually be dragged out, and I suspect Indian politics will never be the same again. Of course, rumours are that Indians are moving their money from Swiss banks to banks in Mauritius, Dubai and Singapore, and the dance will no doubt continue. But at least the crooks are on the run now.

Imagine the elimination of corruption (or at least its drastic reduction) and a growth rate of 10% a year. India will be an unstoppable force. The country appears perpetually unstable and ungovernable (Galbraith's "functioning anarchy"), but as Shashi Tharoor put it so eloquently, Indians have evolved a consensus on how to manage without consensus, and the current social revolution is just the latest manifestation of that. 'Tis a perfect storm that blows a world of good.

[Update 28/08/2011: Anna wins]
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