Can India Get Over Its Obsession With Povertarianism?

Gautam Mukherjee

Aug 12, 2015, 11:30 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 09:55 AM IST

With the public demanding results does the lure of socialism work anymore in India? Can we really develop an appetite for growth without any relapses into socialist dogmas? 

Today, it appears, we, even amongst the seven hundred plus elected or nominated representatives to the two houses of parliament, cannot conceive of this nation, a collective of over a billion and a quarter souls, being anything other than forever poor.

Indians, perverse as they have become, can live easily with being individually rich, just as long as they stay collectively poor.

Is this povertarianism of the psyche reversible? Perhaps, but it is difficult to be sanguine about it. There are bound to be relapses into socialist dogma because it has been the default programme for so very long.

A Congress Party talking head, oddly enough, one Mr. Shergill, given that Rahul Gandhi brags about being more Left than the Left, recently said on TV that ‘In India, good economics is bad politics’.

By implication, Shergill was saying, not without irony, that shouting rhetoric at the TV cameras about the common man and the farmer was, ‘as above, so below, the whole of the law’.

It matters little how it becomes a povertarian obscenity of beggar-thy-neighbour negativity; because it purportedly wins votes, and nobody supposedly cares about results beyond that.

For a socialist ethic, it holds the actual, real, living breathing people, and their future outcomes, in a great deal of contempt. But, it is a little like sleep walking- unremembered and unawares.

So, if there is a halt to new industry because of labour or land difficulties, or if everyone continues to pay more indirect taxes because a GST law can’t be passed, so what?

A national railway system that is in dire need of upgrading is stymied by its trade unions resisting all reform, aided and abetted by the railway employees themselves, and, astoundingly, even its well-informed board of directors.

And again, so what, scream the embedded socialists, we are looking out for the people, not the capitalists!

The national carrier, Air India, over staffed, under equipped, inefficient, has been making whopping losses. The power generation, transmission and distribution system is losing money hand-over-fist, threatening to sink the banks that fund them, while providing unaffordable, expensive, electricity.

Yes, but who cares, when a subsidy financed by deficits can take care of things?

The armed forces have no state-of-the-art weapons to defend the country with, because orders have not been placed, and neither are they manufactured in the country. So who needs locally made defence equipment in collaboration with international greats, when millions in foreign purchase kickbacks can swell our common man loving coffers?

Why break with the most lucrative mercantile traditions of the past?

Elected representatives and senior bureaucrats keep voting themselves more pay, perks, and subsidies, while refusing to do any constructive work, but who can check them in the anarchic, leftist scheme of things?

And if a Speaker in the Lok Sabha suspends slogan shouting, placard carrying legislators from the Lok Sabha for five days so that some house business can, at last, be conducted, it is called undemocratic by the miscreants themselves!

The big question being put to the test with parts of the opposition going for broke, or hysteria, whichever comes first, is, does the lure of socialism really work anymore in India?

These people know the tide may be turning irrevocably the other way, with the public demanding results instead.

Many do not like the daily tamasha in parliament. The decisive election of Narendra Modi, even though some of his lustre has worn off, is a manifestation of this yearning for self- propelled growth.

The public is stirring into self-respect. It is perhaps fed up of demeaning charity in lieu of development.

The ideal gentle and decent common man, despite his many would be champions, has been created by ace cartoonist, the late RK Laxman.

The version put out by a procession of hypocritical netas is a chimera; but many have prospered and fattened in his name.

The ‘principal opposition’ may have decided, in the face of the severest challenge to its very existence, that it must assume extreme positions. And so, there are shades of the fiery anarchy echoing Lohia, JP Narayan, George Fernandes, Mamata Banerjee – all in their flood.

Curiously, there is very little of the gentle determination and accommodation of MK Gandhi. Not even once did the mattresses and the fasting Anna Hazare style come to the fore.

One thing is clear though- if the socialist emotion being drummed up so very stridently wins out, then we can kiss goodbye to the growth trajectory.

The threat is real enough, because plumping for growth and options is unfamiliar territory for Indians.

Fortunately for the forces of change, most of the population, a fulsome 65% are between the ages of 15 and 35, and do not carry much baggage.

Still, the lure of the freebie is always compelling, and cannot be underestimated. And the young get frustrated easily if their aspirations are not met.

But is this likely? Will it be yesterday once more? There is no doubt a lot of pain in enforcing fiscal discipline, bureaucratic accountability, speed of execution, growing the GDP for real, instead of profligate welfare spending on the never-never, to the exclusion of efforts, or means, to pay for it.

All over the world the capitalist economies are indeed in turmoil, after a long spell of spectacular, debt-fuelled growth.

The socialists and communists may have failed in their dogmas, but capitalism is also badly bruised. It needs to balance out its excesses, and also the fact that it seems to enrich a miniscule minority much beyond reasonable multiples.

India has been no different. It has leap-frogged over its earlier possibilities since 1991, despite its many Nehruvian hesitations and codicils. But, somehow, the second stage of confidence and conviction has not come, even after 24 years.

Even now, a large proportion of the articulate and expressive are hostile to big business, wealth, unbridled growth that does not have a guaranteed omnibus compartment where the masses can be accommodated, a fondness for the inefficiencies that serve vested interests, and so on.

We want to keep our socialism, but somehow grow individually rich at the same time. For the everyman version, it is par for the course for Norway or Kuwait with tiny populations and much wealth.

But how feasible is it for a resourceful nation but with 1.27 billion people going on 1.50 billion? It can be done of course. If we have been able to feed ourselves with huge surpluses we can raise every person’s living standards too.

But something of an idea far more massive than an equitable distribution of poverty is called for. That was wrong even when we were less than 400 million strong, in 1947.

But now, just printing notes to cynically give away money for votes in the name of subsidy and welfare cannot work. We have to develop a voracious appetite for growth instead. This seems impossible with socialism sleeping insouciantly in the same bed. Welfare does have its place, but cannot define the narrative. To get where we must go we have to build the economy to $ 5 trillion, and then more.

Gautam Mukherjee is a political commentator whose columns figure regularly in different right-of-centre media outlets

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