Rather early, but if talks around Elections 2014 have begun, here’s a simple slogan that all our political parties, without exception, must embrace: Mera Bharat, Ameer Bharat (my India, wealthy India).
Today, we are behaving as though economic growth is a political hot potato, a zero-sum game, where one man’s gain is another man’s loss. What political players are missing is that during the past decade, even though it is the mansions of the rich that have hogged the news, poverty has fallen. The trickle-down may still be hazy, but it’s there.
The problem is that incomes of the rich have risen faster than those climbing out of the prison of poverty. As a result, income disparities have widened, leading to one of the world’s largest-ever migration to India’s urban centres from its rural bases. But it’s not that those left behind are living in penury — the shortage of agriculture labour from Bihar in the farms of rich Punjab farmers is just one example.
The problem with the slowing down of economic growth is the managing of aspirations that will now be difficult to smother. It is after more than a century that India is seeing a high economic growth — from 1900 to 1947, we grew at less than 1% per annum, this rose to 3.5% between 1950 and 1980. The 8%-plus growth we’re getting used to is a recent phenomenon that began as late as 2003.
Further, the dynamism of growth has brought a new confidence in today’s social atmosphere. Freed from the clutches of licences, bureaucrats and controls — and let’s take these blessings as a start, not the conclusion of a new India — a higher growth rate has been driving the aspirations of what is now the youngest-ever India. To mess with this generation because of a political focus or policies that belong to the past is foolhardiness.
What India needs today is to get growth back on track — sharply, single-mindedly, permanently. The South Korea of the 1960s may not stand the scrutiny of present-day India’s GDP, population or even geography, but if there is one reason why this small nation became a model of economic development, it is the government’s tight focus on economic growth. The case of Taiwan would be similar to South Korea’s but if we compare likes, China offers a lesson — here is a country that embraced a capitalist economic system within the coercive confines of communist politics and transformed itself into a superpower. What stops India?
Those who say income inequalities need to end before we grow would be personal beneficiaries of that skewed growth. The other elephant in the room — corruption — is something that will reduce because of a governance climate change towards a cleaner system; India’s growth focus can’t wait for that. The third related problem is of crony capitalism, of the kind that the Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai has been highlighting. If the political system is shaken, distribution of natural resources and the way they are used to deliver goods and services to citizens will become clearer.
But the biggest cost of a slowing economy today is not losses of jobs, cuts in income or drying up of opportunities. Those can be fixed. What can’t be easily reversed is the vulnerability of India’s young and opportunity-less demographics to extremist ideologies. Senior officials in North Block are already exploring such links in violent flashpoints, like the recent Maruti’s strike in Manesar, where one person was killed. Sooner rather than later, the vulnerable sections have to become partners in the economic development of India.
And that can happen only if the political establishment articulates this idea — Mera Bharat, Ameer Bharat. You
can twist it, translate it, sharpen it, broaden it, but give our young the hope that a prosperous India means a set of wealthy individuals that transcend geography, caste, religion.