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It’s not the real deal

India wants structural reforms, not a revolution. Only a sensible State, not activists like Anna Hazare, can provide it, writes Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2011 12:33 IST

Indian commentators have a tendency to overstate and overreach themselves. The public response to Anna Hazare’s fast has been misinterpreted and magnified beyond belief. Expressions like ‘India is overrun by oligarchs’ have been bandied about, as if India were as dysfunctional and undemocratic as Russia. The Constitution has been spoken of disparagingly, as if it has failed us. More substantially, comparisons have been drawn with the early 1970s, and the student protests that accompanied the Jayaprakash Narayan (‘JP’, as he was known) movement.

Are we not getting carried away? To see the Hazare episode as merely a replay of the JP era is not just lazy but fundamentally flawed. India is a very different society from 1975. The defining principle for today’s young citizen is aspiration, not adventurism, much less anarchy. There is absolutely no chance of hundreds, let alone thousands, of middle-class youth giving up college and job applications to answer a ‘jail bharo’ call for the noble but vague objective of ridding India of corruption. More than vacuous demands for revolution, today’s Indian is only crying out for structured and structural reform.

The fundamental difference between the India of the 1970s and the India of 2011 is in the degree of prosperity. If India’s GDP grows at 8-9% a year, it will double in quantum every six or seven years. At the moment, India’s GDP is valued at $1.3 trillion. By 2020, it should reach $3.5 trillion. Consider what those numbers mean: India took 60 years to earn its first trillion, but will take only 10 years to reach its next $2.5 trillion.

Such a dramatic expansion of wealth can propel ambitions and transform a society. It can also trigger inequities and give scope for incremental corruption (in absolute terms, since there is much more money to go around). To accelerate that transformation and check that corruption is the basic challenge that Indian governance will have to confront. In essence, this is a mandate for greater reform — not just economic deregulation and business-friendly policies, but also a reimagining of government, a rational expectation of what the State should do and what it shouldn’t, transparent rather than whimsical and discretionary pricing of finite resources (land, spectrum, energy sources), an education boom, and a leadership that uses a modernist idiom.

What has any of this got to do with Anna Hazare? Everything and nothing. The fact is, in the past two years, the UPA government has been found wanting on all of these counts. The middle classes that came out in support of Hazare were exasperated by and frustrated at the inability of the UPA government to live up to the election verdict of 2009. A veteran Gandhian’s fast only become a trigger. The Lokpal Bill was a handy symptom; it was not the main affliction. In any case most people — whether gathered at Jantar Mantar, marching and holding candles in other cities or providing vox pops on television — did not understand or even care for the Bill.

This is not to say a Lokpal law is not needed. Yet the point is if everybody from ministers and civil servants to, as Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh has helpfully recommended, business corporations and NGOs is going to be investigated by the Lokpal, what happens to the normal machinery that fights economic crimes?

From stock exchange regulators to income tax authorities to the plain police: if the job is done at these levels, it may not even need to reach the Lokpal. Adding one more layer at the top without empowering and enhancing capacities in existing institutions, and bringing them up to date with the new India, will be self-defeating.

Most important, the imperative of economic growth — pushing for 10% plus GDP growth rates, rather than slipping, as recent data suggests, to easy-to-achieve below 8% rates — can never be forgotten. Only rapid growth and wealth creation can incubate new middle classes who will, in turn, demand better standards from those who govern. Hazare and many of his fellow activists may have spent a lifetime working with the poorest Indians but, paradoxically, the traction they got this month was directly correlated to India’s rising prosperity and the urges and urgencies this is unleashing.

If this cycle is to continue, India will need authoritative rather than authoritarian governance. It will require some party or alliance to put forward a purposeful agenda, challenge the UPA and defeat it in an election. Despite the euphoria and media clamour, the role of civil society activism will be limited.

In the end, such activism can draw up the world’s most exacting — or most woolly-headed — Lokpal Bill but it is Parliament that has to pass it. Likewise, the variety of civil society groups — representing pro-Congress civil society, anti-Congress civil society, socialist civil society, religious civil society, well-meaning civil society, self-seeking civil society — may design everything from redistributive schemes to new anti-corruption or pro-welfare bureaucracies. Nevertheless they cannot boost the economy and reform the State. Only a sensible government can, and India is desperate for one.

(Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator)

The views expressed by the author are personal.