Gurcharan Das - author, playwright, Harvard graduate, corporate consultant, venture capitalist and former CEO of Procter & Gamble India - is a gung-ho liberaliser. He is also an incorrigible optimist.
His second work of non-fiction after India Unbound (2000) is an amalgam of personal memoirs coupled with comment on matters public. As the author himself points out, the origins of the volume lie in the concise columns he writes every week for a newspaper.
Das has apparently read the works of those he despises the most, which include Nehruvian socialists and Marxists. Close on the heels of this bunch of villains, come the infamous babus. If the author is to be believed, the bureaucracy is almost entirely responsible for just about everything that has gone wrong in India. Off with their heads, orders Das. Downsize the bureaucracy and this country will start hurtling inexorably towards that great dawn of political freedom with economic prosperity that the founding fathers of the nation dreamt of. The sun rises yet again in the east.
Glory of privatisation
Does this sound a little too simplistic? To be fair to Das, his arguments are not always couched in such stark terms. He recognises the complexities and paradoxes that characterise many aspects of life in this country.
He acknowledges that the Indian government’s biggest drawbacks have been its failure to provide proper education and health-care facilities to the bulk of the population. He is clear about what he wants — a two-party system, with the BJP becoming a right-wing “conservative” party like (his favourite) Margaret Thatcher’s party minus its Muslim-bashing, lots of multinationals (like his former employers) flocking to this land, privatisation, privatisation and more — Das can never have enough of it.
A dumbing down
Even if this reviewer disagrees with much of what has been propounded, the author is certainly at his best when it comes to propounding the cause of a right-wing economic ideology. He is at his weakest when he rambles on about religious practices, recounts anecdotes about young women he has chanced upon at parties, pontificates on the virtues of selfless sacrifice and holds forth at some length on a mind-boggling variety of topics — from Greek tragedies and Hindu epics to the importance of reading novels and writing during rainy afternoons, how Doordarshan dumbs its audience down, lessons on writing crisp prose, the importance of educating women and life in a typical Indian village. Along the way, Das also provides his readers a laundry-list of must-read classics.
This reviewer has a confession at this juncture: I almost started agreeing with the views of a lady I love to loathe — Shobha De — that Das, at times, does come through as rather ponderous and pretentious.
Be that as it may, what is an outstanding quality in the author is his ability to remain optimistic in the face of all odds. After recounting a horrendous episode of a couple who were hanged because they loved each other but belonged to different castes, Das finds in the rise of Mayawati and Laloo Yadav a reflection of the empowerment of once-suppressed sections of Indian society.
An inequal society
Das is certainly not a hypocrite. Equality is clearly not among his favourite words. As he writes candidly: “Most of us would happily accept rich people or an increase in inequality among the middle classes provided it leads to even a small improvement in the condition of the poor and the most disadvantaged.
It is more important, I believe, to raise the living standards of the poor than to worry about inequality. We have to realise that economic reforms are bound to increase inequality that comes from open and free competition…”
The problem with the word “reforms” is that it means different things to different people. It may mean one thing to Das and quite something else to a person who is not in a position to read his book. He exhorts the villager from Dabhol not to blame Enron but the Maharashtra State Electricity Board for his power problems. But not a word is uttered about how the disgraced US firm “educated” Indian politicians.
There’s a lot in Das’ book about the creators of wealth, almost nothing about those who destroyed wealth, such as the Ketan Parekhs of the world. While the author finds a lot that is wrong with India’s politicians and bureaucrats, he predictably finds little in the actions of corporate captains that warrants criticism.
Das attributes most of the country's economic woes to three broad factors. Unlike in most countries of the world, democracy preceded capitalism in India — this, according to him, resulted in the development of democratic institutions before the country had the chance to create an industrial revolution. (I wonder if that was such a bad thing.) The second important limitation is “our tendency to always place politics before economics”.
Thirdly, we are good at theorising and lousy at implementation, says he. One can hardly disagree with such unexceptional statements, nor can one deny the aptness of the analogy that inspires the book’s title, namely, that India may never roar like an Asian tiger but would lumber along like wise pachyderm.
An unreal dream
What some may find objectionable is Das’ patronising tone when he says that the ordinary citizen of India “does not understand how economic reforms will help improve his life”. Still, he does foresee the possibility of the country growing at a sustained real rate of growth of 8 per cent per year and one has no right to play party-pooper with those who sincerely believe that milk, honey and clean drinking water will flow freely in this wretched land in the foreseeable future.
None should deny others the right to dream, even if the reality is rather rough. As the boxer stated in the old Simon and Garfunkel song: “All lies and jest; still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Das must be wondering why a fuddy-duddy socialist was asked to review his book preaching the virtues of capitalism, Indian ishtyle.