Some Indian hackles will rise following Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments about democracies like India needing to be wary of political polarisation and a more specific criticism of India’s bureaucrats and their expertise in putting up obstacles. Rather than asking what is the locus standi of a foreign dignitary to make such comments the more sensible response should be to ask whether there is some truth in his statements. It is in India’s own interest to treat such external evaluations seriously.
In urging democracies to respect freedom of expression and avoiding polarisation, Kerry is only echoing a perception that India’s social divisions — most notably communal and caste — have worsened under the NDA government. The government rightly argues there is no statistical evidence of this fact. For example, the number of communal crimes registered in the country has shown no increase. In such matters, however, it is the perception that matters. While Hindu fringe groups always tend to become more active when the Bharatiya Janata Party is in power, what has differentiated the present regime from the last BJP governments has been the prime minister’s studied silence after the more horrific communal incidents.
Thankfully, the gau rakshak attacks on Dalits have aroused Modi to make the kind of statements that are expected of a national leader. The US has often protested the government’s regulatory action against NGOs like Greenpeace and Ford Foundation. And here all the political parties are equally guilty: It is a Congress regime that has charged Amnesty International with sedition. While central and state governments traditionally take shelter behind the law, the truth is that the Foreign Contribution Regulation and the Sedition Acts are seriously flawed laws that are almost tailor-made to encourage official harassment. Modi, himself a victim of the Emergency, should take the lead in building a consensus towards abolishing the Sedition Act, an obsolete colonial hangover.
Few can argue that the Modi government is committed to trying to remove the bureaucratic hurdles to foreign investment and domestic business. It has already accomplished much: India has risen in most international indices regarding ease of doing business and dropped in most indices that seek to measure corruption. But Kerry’s statements address more fundamental issues regarding the administration of laws and rules in India. Officials have huge discretionary authority, face virtually no punishment when they don’t get things done and resist attempts to bring in outside talent and expertise. A few years ago a study by Political & Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong rated the Indian bureaucracy as the worst among 12 Asian countries that it studied. There continues to be little evidence — one has only to look at the tangle of illogic and confusion that is known as the country’s tax system — that this risen more than one or two notches.
External perceptions matter. They should be studied and, if found wanting, should be responded to with fact, figures and a counter narrative. If they are found to have even a kernel of truth, then corrective measures should be carried out at home. As in the case of individuals, there is a bleak future for nations who prefer ruinous praise to constructive criticism.