Tuesday, October 20, 2009


China's dramatic transformation into an economic power house in virtually the blink of a sleepy Indian eye has shaken some Indian leaders out of their misplaced slumber. It is beginning to dawn on them that India has to get out of the self-congratulatory mindset that it has got stuck in following a few years of relatively rapid economic growth on a small base, because that is not going to get it anywhere close to what China has achieved. But, as always, this reactive response is very limited, and is destined to fail.

It has taken Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to ask the lethargic Planning Commission to wake up to what China has done to its railways and prepare a road map to reform Indian Railways. Two decades back, Chinese railways was behind its Indian counterpart. Today, it carries four times more freight and is expanding three times faster. Since 1992, the Chinese have added 1,000 km of tracks every year as against 100 km by the Indians. But it was India's Railway Minister Laloo Yadav who, at the behest of his bureaucrats no doubt, pompously made a fool of himself by showing off his 'management skills' to students of Harvard, Wharton, IIMs etc.

This is precisely the kind of political and bureaucratic deception that has kept India in darkness even while our biggest neighbour has flooded its almost 1.5 billion citizens with the light of progress and prosperity. The media has helped in this failure too. It has remained completely focused on the West, which is its reference point, and has continuously dismissed China, with which it is unfamiliar, in one line by saying that it has a totalitarian regime while India has democracy. 77% Indians who continue to live in darkness on Rs 20 a day must feel as blessed by democracy as the few who have millions to splurge.

We have gone horribly wrong somewhere. What makes this worse is that we could and should have done much better. This self-inflicted failure is best exemplified by the fact that the two areas in which India has excelled at a scorching pace are those where the shackles put by the government are the weakest. From a situation when there was a waiting period of 10 years to get a telephone from the government - and unaffordable long distance tariffs - to becoming the second largest mobile telephone market in the world with the lowest tariffs, in a little over a decade, is an astounding achievement. Same is the case with the software industry where India has been able to become a global player from nowhere, thanks to a few visionaries and the near-complete absence of bureaucratic interference.

There is little doubt that the whole process of governance and its framework needs to be overhauled. But, there is not even a thought in that direction. That is primarily because those who are benefitting the most by the existing system are the ones who have the power to decide on the changes to be put in place. And they know better than all of us that any real change will render them almost completely irrelevant. That is why no one looks towards China, and that is why everyone keeps going on learning tours to the West - where their kids live/study - only to come back and do nothing.

The Prime Minister must know that piecemeal directions like the one that he has given are not going to make the Indian Railways get ahead of, or even close to, the Chinese, ever. Their railways has not steamed ahead in isolation by accident. Nor has ours failed to get any real move on vital national projects like the two dedicated freight corridors, among many others, by chance or due to bad luck. Or because India is a democracy.

Something has to be done about the sloth and the lack of purpose and pride that afflicts every government department. Something has to be done to put a sense of time and urgency into decision-making and enforce accountability. Something has to be done to end the colonial disconnect between arms of the government and the people, and involve the latter more meaningfully in governance.

Even the Russians, recently 'blessed' by democracy, are not letting that model of governance blind them to the needs of their country. In 1949, the People's Republic of China was born with an ideology it had aped primarily from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Exactly 60 years later, the balance of economic and ideological power has reversed. But Russia is not sitting either on false pride or the idea of democracy. As per a report in The New York Times, it is openly looking at China as a role model. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is examining how his country can emulate China which has used a one-party system to not only keep the country well-governed but also drive unparalleled economic growth. The Russians are keen to learn lessons from the divergent paths taken by the two countries in the last couple of decades in which Russia has had to endure dark days while China has carried out a similar shift smoothly and powerfully. We should have been doing the same too.

Many living Chinese nationals have seen their country change three times almost completely. A feudal and backward nation of opium eaters became a communist state in 1949. That change turned the society on its head and lead to millions of deaths as Mao Zedong tried to put communism into practice at every level. That also resulted in a famine that saw around 35 million Chinese die. Such disasters made it evident that there was an unbridgeable and unacceptable gap between the theory and application of communism. Rapid economic growth required to catch up with West and usher all round prosperity was simply not possible with that ideology. That is why after Mao, Deng Xiaoping wisely dumped communism before if could throw the country into chaos again, and evolved a new brand of capitalism with a one-party rule. China also did not allow dynastic politics to take root, as was attempted by the Gang of Four led by Mao's widow.

In contrast, what have many living Indians seen? As far as governance is concerned, no one can tell when colonial rule ended and free India began; the only visible change that Independence ushered in was that the leaders elected by the people stopped reporting to the Governor General and the British Crown. Thanks to a couple of visits to the the Soviet Union that impressed him, Nehru tried to marry socialism with a colonial government structure, only to gave birth to the licence permit raj, unbridled corruption and many other ills that almost choked India to death. It was only after India had to pawn 47 tons of gold in the early nineties to stay afloat that some regulatory chains were loosened. That one step, forced by extreme circumstance mind you, is what saved India and allowed it to register faster economic growth. But when seen in the light of what China has achieved, our many failures easily swamp our few achievements.

Thus, if there is one nation from which India can learn the lessons it needs to about the whole business of governance and economic upliftment, it is China. The copied model that we have stuck to without daring to change some things laid down around 150 years back, has done nothing at all to give the taste of freedom and economic empowerment to nearly 80% of India's citizens even after 63 years. China, on the other hand, has continuously experimented heavily, from the individual upwards, to evolve a system that works like no other, and become a super power.

What is it in their system of governance, planning and implementation that allows the Chinese, for example, to pro-actively think of and then build the kind of railway system that they have, to construct a railway line into Tibet through permafrost conditions and heights of 16,000 feet? What are the structures of governance, revenue and expenditure in villages and towns that ensure that benefits of economic progress reach the last citizen and do not remain confined to the top 15-20%? What is their unique national security and strategy apparatus that is always ahead of the curve and on course to actualising the power and strength that is required to protect the economic and security interests of a nation of 1.5 billion people?

Answers to these and many other questions are urgently required by India. Piecemeal, reactive efforts to replicate what the Chinese have achieved are not going to take India where it should reach with its enormous and as yet unexploited strengths and capabilities. The Chinese have not reached where they have is so short a time by such reactive and disjointed efforts. Had they adopted that approach, they would surely have still been behind India in most fields, forget about going past America.

India and Bharat have to be united without further delay. And that, as should be evident to everyone by now, is not possible through the use of the very instruments of state that have created them in the first place. To this end, there is much that we can learn from China, more than we can from any other country.

A task force or commission needs to be set up without delay to study in detail every single instrument of governance, from the bottom to the top, in every single field, that China has evolved and put in place based on its experience and cultural genius. The task force should not include a single politician or bureaucrat or anyone vulnerable to them because that will make it a non-starter and ensure that only cosmetic changes that increase their power and authority are implemented. Only a completely honest and open-minded approach that has India, including Bharat, in focus will unshackle the genius of this nation and enable a vast majority of its people to experience the glow of freedom for the first time.
Readers may also read:
1. Conspicuous consumption and conspicuous poverty
2. Focused China powers ahead of shackled India
3. China and India: competition of civilisations
4. Bharat and India: armed rebellion and mental secession