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Why does it feel as if nothing is going right in the country?

There may be more conversations per capita in India than anywhere else. Recently, though, debate seems to transform into shrillness and aggression. Or are we mistaking the symptoms for the problem? Patrick French writes.

india Updated: Sep 15, 2013 03:23 IST

Hanging around in Dharamsala in the late 1980s, I spent a fair bit of time at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. In the early morning sun, groups of Tibetan monks in maroon robes would assemble outdoors to be instructed in, for instance, the absence of inherent existence.

To debate was itself to learn. One young student would sit cross-legged on the flagstones while another leapt about making an argument, culminating in a graceful lunge forward towards the seated monk and a slap of one hand against the other as if to say – now refute that! It was a ritualized performance, in that each debater took a set intellectual position and tried to make a point as adeptly as possible.

Indeed, the ability to argue a case with which you did not agree was taken to be a mark of skill. Occasionally the master would intervene, approaching a seated monk and throwing out a particularly difficult question with a clap.

It struck me later that religious life in ancient India might have been a little like this: both Hinduism and Buddhism in its heyday placed great emphasis on the ability to explore belief. When the 8th century Hindu philosopher Adi Shankaracharya debated with Mandana Misra under the watchful eye of Misra’s wife Bharati, it is said that both men wore fresh garlands of flowers. The challenge was to argue coherently and remain cool under pressure: the winner would be the one whose garland at the end of the long debate had not wilted, and remained as fresh as the moment it was picked.

In his book The Argumentative Indian, the economist Amartya Sen sees this tradition of dialectics and skepticism as central to the nation. Many stories in early texts are, as he puts it, “engagingly full of dialogues, dilemmas and alternative perspectives.”

As a young visitor, I was attracted by the public curiosity, the ability that people have for instance to strike up a discussion on a train – something that in Britain remains anathema. Indeed there may be more conversations per capita in India than in any other country, because there is no social rule saying you must stop speaking just because someone else is speaking to you. Nobody lacks an opinion. The post-1947 embrace of electoral democracy — itself a form of argument – and the vigorous rejection of dictatorship when it was introduced in 1975 cannot be a coincidence.

Recently, though, debate often seems to transform into vituperation, shrillness and aggression. The ‘India story’ (a fatuous phrase if ever there was one) is given regular obituaries — though how a story that has been told for millennia can be declared over is a mystery to me.

Earlier this month the New York Times announced that India had been “tantalizingly close” to an East Asian-style economic take-off, but “Its economy now stands in disarray.” Neither of these statements is correct.

Rising inflation and a falling rupee are certainly a problem, but such doom-mongering fuels the sense of a unique crisis. A year ago, the foreign institutional investors that are now pulling out were piling in, though the fundamentals have not changed significantly. The long-term lure of India’s demographics and rising middle class remain the same: the current sense of doom is down to a different reading of equivalent information.

Whether it is politicians chastising each others abusively, the judiciary lecturing the populace or television channels where the listener can only hear a squall of noise interrupted by cries of, “Ek minute! Please! The nation! One second!”, India appears angry. Women in the public sphere who express an opinion are routinely harassed on social media, often by cowards who hide behind fierce pseudonyms that they have given themselves.

Everyone is ready to take offence, and displays of competitive concern are the order of the day. Even Amartya Sen was bitten by the argumentative Indian when he expressed doubts over the prospect of Narendra Modi as a future prime minister. The BJP parliamentarian Chandan Mitra said Sen should be stripped of his Bharat Ratna — so much for debate. If you see a garland of flowers these days, it is likely to be as dried up as the ones chewed by cows on the roadside.

The pursuit of Amartya Sen started during the summer when his distinguished colleague Jagdish Bhagwati launched an attack on his professional record, saying he represented a “serious danger” to policy making and was “the Mother Teresa of economics”, before qualifying the statement by adding that “she did a lot of good at the micro level, whereas his policy prescriptions have done huge damage instead.” Just as India likes a debate, so it admires gurus whose feet can be touched.

Followers lined up in one camp or the other, Bhagwatians versus Senites, growers versus distributors, with the two aging academics being labelled as proxies for the BJP and Congress (quite falsely, given the failure of either party to set out its fiscal plans). Those of us who are not economists were happy to decide what each man stood for, and which one’s ideas would be better for India’s future wellbeing.

Taking a closer look, it’s hard to see their positions (at least today) as being truly contradictory, except in emphasis: both believe in market mechanisms, both believe in growth and poverty alleviation, and as another economics professor Partha Dasgupta has pointed out, both take little notice of externalities like the fate of the environment and the continuing impact of rapid population growth on a largely poor society.

Probably the row goes back to the 1970s, when Sen was doing arcane mathematical work in social choice theory while Bhagwati was banging his head against a brick wall by calling for economic reform and the demolition of India’s license raj. The difference these days is that Bhagwati thinks the egg generally needs to come before the chicken: that growth and sound finance must first produce jobs and rising tax revenues, whereas Sen would argue that without decent nutrition, mass education and improved health, the chickens are not going to be strong enough to produce good eggs. Like the two main political parties, there is no profound ideological Rubicon between these two respected and argumentative economists.

Why then, if so much of India’s mainstream debate is not split by points of principle, are temperatures running so high — and why does it feel as if nothing is going right? The answers perhaps lie less with individual intellectuals, political leaders, their parties, or even with policy prescriptions, than with a debilitating structural inertia.

Even the most bearish investors over the last decade worked on the assumption that the Indian system, by which they meant national politicians and bureaucrats, would try to pull together to improve infrastructure like roads, water supply and power, rather than each factory purchasing its own generators and each company digging its own wells, thereby taking away water from others.

Investors and their report writers assumed beneficial reforms would be made and that gross corruption in high places would be challenged from the top. In some areas improvements have happened, but in most places they haven’t. The reforms of the early 1990s have been followed only by spasmodic, incidental change and an assumption that growth would continue regardless. The Indian ‘system’ remains fatally conservative. It hates the idea that collapsed systems might be actively overturned, reconstructed or modernized.

Instead, its instinct is to tinker with what is already there, and lay down more rules. Inspectors, in their various guises, continue to be seen not as guardians of standards but as predators; government departments are interested more in process than in outcomes; rent controls remain out of control, making it inevitable that money changes hands under the table; much of the labour legislation that is supposed to protect workers does the opposite, making it difficult for employers to take on staff except informally, with the result that India has a much higher proportion of casual workers than other countries, with all the instability that results.

The 2013 World Bank Index on business regulations puts India near the bottom of the global list for both ‘starting a business’ and for ease of ‘dealing with construction permits’. In the ‘enforcing contracts’ category, India does worse than every other country in the world bar the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, otherwise known as East Timor. This is a chronic and serious problem, which no government has yet addressed: an inability to enforce a contract is of benefit only to those who do not intend to honour it.

Last year I went to a conference in Gurgaon where one of the speakers described changes designed to make it easier for businesses to offer apprenticeships, of which there are very few in India. An American delegate, who I think was on his first trip to the subcontinent, asked: “If you’re telling us that everyone from the highest levels of government down agrees this is a good idea, why hasn’t it been implemented?” In most countries this would be a reasonable question, but in India it seemed naïve.

“That’s politics,” said the speaker with a laugh. “Everyone thinks there has to be a catch, so they do nothing. No announcement happens here unless it’s long overdue.”

Bureaucrats who initiate change have nothing to gain, and plenty to lose. Politicians are rewarded for their loyalty, not for action or innovation. At ground level, those who fail to perform their jobs suffer no sanction. In Kolkata in July, I walked daily down a stretch of pavement that was not a pavement: it was a cross between a track and a swamp.

We were in the central, commercial part of the city. Why was it in such an atrocious condition? People explained to me about the division of labour between the municipal corporation and the state government; the short answer was that those tasked with maintaining the pavements were not punished for failing to do so.

Or take the human rickshaw pullers — starved men wading through floodwater in little trotting bursts. Hand-pulled rickshaws were introduced to Simla and Calcutta in the 1880s by a British official who had spotted them in Japan, Sir Louis Dane. On a visit to India in 1912, the politician Edwin Montagu wrote in his diary of his disgust at having to be pulled in one: “One’s feeling for the unfortunate men who seem to be struggling, as their breath becomes more laboured, is indescribable. I am told by Dane that rickshawmen all die early of lung disease.” Why do these rickshaws remain in use in Kolkata more than a century later? “Vested interests,” I was told.

India retains its imperial structure. It has ‘governors’ sent out from the centre to the provinces; it has ‘ordinances’ emitted by the executive; it has a police service with ‘inspector generals’ — a relic of its origins as a paramilitary force. No wonder that, more often than not, police officers are seen as a threat rather than as protectors. The colonial system had no interest in mass education, and this remains elusive, except on paper.

The components of the imperial structure are still viewed with an arcane relish, as if they are immutable and unimproveable, even as the country itself changes drastically. It has been a long time since a single party in New Delhi was able to form the government, but the balance between the centre and the states has not altered. How can it change, or even be thought about, when politicians today barely allow Parliament to function at all? In 1909, 1919, 1935 and 1950, India’s system of government — its financing, administration, representation and internal relationships — changed hugely; since 1950, it has barely been adjusted at all.

The regulations laid down in those days are treated like sacred texts, rather than as functional products of the time they were written. When communities can’t change things, they argue. Today’s economic crisis has its roots in a profound political and theoretical crisis. The leaders may feel frustrated, but not half as frustrated as an entire country that is exiled from its own political system, because most parties have no internal democracy.

Like the culture of argument and debate, India’s “we are like this only” approach has an attractive side — but increasingly it is turning sour. As people’s idea of themselves changes in the light of greater knowledge and information about the functioning of the rest of the world, many Indians are asking: Why do we have to be like this only? There is nothing inevitable about government inertia.

Other countries in much worse positions have reorganized aspects of their nation that do not work. In 1951, while India was conducting its first general election, hundreds of thousands of people were killed in China, many at mass executions; South Korea was at the same time engaged in a foreign-backed civil war that left two million dead. Today, both countries are doing things differently, and run their economies relatively well.

No single political leader, however ambitious or well-intentioned, can find a silver bullet and reform the problems in the Indian political and bureaucratic system: for that to happen, politicians large and small will have to negotiate with each other in a new way.