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India is too corrupt to become a superpower

By Ramachandra Guha :-

The sociologist Ashis Nandy once noted that “in India the choice could never be between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable chaos”. He wrote this in the 1980s, a decade marked by ethnic strife, caste violence, and bloody religious riots. But it applies even more so to the India of today, and is being made worse by the steady deterioration and corruption of India’s ruling political elite.

Throughout India’s history the manifestations of its chaos have been largely social and political: from secessionist movements and sectarian pogroms, to its enduring territorial conflicts with China and Pakistan.

The bomb blasts in Mumbai last week are but the latest example. The perpetrators are as yet unidentified: like the 2008 Mumbai attacks, they may have originated from Pakistan, but whoever they turn out to be, this was a familiar example of one of India’s pervasive and long-standing fault lines.

Yet the Republic of India today faces challenges that are as much moral as social or political, with the Mumbai blasts having only temporarily shifted off the front pages the corruption scandals that more recently dominated. These have revealed that manner in which our politicians have abused the state’s power of eminent domain, its control of infrastructural contracts, and its monopoly of natural resources, to enrich themselves. Rectifying this is now arguably India’s defining challenge.

These scandals implicate many of the country’s most powerful leaders. They include the large scale looting of mineral resources in southern and eastern India; graft during the organising of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi; the underpricing of mobile phone contracts to the tune of billions of dollars; and also numerous property and housing scandals in Mumbai. Corruption is not new in India, but the scale and ubiquity of these problems is genuinely unprecedented.

This activity cuts across political parties – small and large, regional and national. It has tainted the media too, with influential editors now commonly lobbying pliant politicians to bend the law to favour particular corporations. But while journalists may collude, and many companies and corporate titans have benefited, the chief promoters of this malaise have been the politicians themselves.

There is a curious paradox here; for India is the creation of a generation of visionary and selfless leaders who governed it in the first decades of freedom. These men and women united a disparate nation from its fragments; gave it a democratic constitution; and respected linguistic and especially religious pluralism, out of the conviction that India should not become a Hindu Pakistan. Today’s scandals, however, have their origin in the steady deterioration in the character of this Indian political class.

Surging growth is another proximate cause. Economic liberalisation has created wealth and jobs, and a class of entrepreneurs unshackled by the state. But its darker side is manifest in rising income inequalities and sweetheart deals between politicians and favoured businessmen, leading to the loss of billions of dollars to the public exchequer.

Was this necessary or inevitable? Perhaps not. The truth is that since 1991, the word “reform” has been defined in narrowly commercial terms, as meaning the withdrawal of the state from economic activity. The reform and renewal of public institutions has been ignored. It is this neglect that has led to a steady corrosion in state capacity, as manifest in the growing failure to moderate inequalities, manage social conflict, and enforce fair and efficient governance.

This could have been anticipated. Over the past three decades, a series of commissions have highlighted the need for institutional reforms, that, among other things, would insulate administrators and judges from interference by capricious politicians; prohibit criminals from contesting elections; curb abuse of the power of eminent domain; provide proper compensation for villagers displaced by industrial projects; make more efficient the now mostly malfunctioning public health system.

Many, perhaps all, of these reports have been read by Manmohan Singh, India’s scholarly prime minister; indeed, several were commissioned by him. Which is why the inaction on their recommendations is so disheartening. When Mr Singh became prime minister seven years ago, his appointment was widely welcomed. He was seen as incorruptible, and with the added advantage of a lifetime of public service. Tragically, in terms of concrete institutional reform these have been seven wasted years.

To single out an honest and intelligent man when corruption and criminality flourish may seem unfair. But W.B. Yeats was right: it is when the best lack intensity and conviction that we must fear for ourselves and our future. Mr Singh has been content to let things ride. He has not asserted himself against corrupt cabinet colleagues, nor has he promoted greater efficiency in public administration. Whatever the cause – personal diffidence or a dependence, in political terms, on Sonia Gandhi, his party president – this inactivity has greatly damaged his credibility, not to say India itself.

If nothing else, the current wave of corruption scandals will put at least a temporary halt to premature talk of India’s imminent rise to superstardom. Such fancies are characteristic of editors in New Delhi and businessmen in Mumbai, who dream often of catching up with and even surpassing China. Yet the truth is that India is in no position to become a superpower. It is not a rising power, nor even an emerging power. It is merely a fascinating, complex, and perhaps unique experiment in nationhood and democracy, whose leaders need still to attend to the fault lines within, rather than presume to take on the world without.

(The writer is a historian whose books include India after Gandhi and Makers of Modern India. He lives in Bangalore.)

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