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Jaimini Bhagwati: The erosion of India's consensus-building

The nostalgia for a lost golden age of probity and honesty diagnoses the problem incorrectly

Jaimini Bhagwati 

The has carried mournful commentaries on the state of the nation in recent months. Some of the anguished coverage has been of the prevailing or law and order situation. Alternatively, it has been about apathy or failure at the level of local administration, such as the police or officials dealing with registration of immovable property. Invariably the complaint is that things have gone from bad to worse, and that the past was better. On specific issues or incidents that are cited, political office-holders and civil servants often top the hate list as standing in the way of reform. The more discerning analysts accept that rent-seeking and pushing of personal, business or community-based agenda extend to companies, would-be oligopolies and private individuals.

This negative sentiment appears to be driven by a feeling that in the good old times civil servants were less likely to stray from the straight and narrow, politicians were mostly above suspicion, and everyone including the private sector was genuinely enthusiastic about nation-building. The argument goes that even popular were peppered with songs glorifying “Mother India” and self-sacrifice.

The differences of opinion, as evidenced on television, are marked by high levels of acrimony among sector specialists, economists and political commentators. However, it cannot be all gloom and doom irrespective of the drumbeat of articles and editorials on the opportunities missed in the presented last week. Taking a step back from the choices that confront India, it would be appropriate to remind ourselves of the martyrs who, not too long ago, charged up Tiger Hill during the Kargil war. Obviously, it is impossible to achieve similar levels of emotional or professional commitment in everyday civilian life. However, the memory of their strength of mind should motivate us to cope better with real or perceived injustices and inadequate probity in India. Without such thinking and values, it is difficult to build lasting institutions. At the risk of sounding extremely trite: the challenge for us is how to achieve an equitable balance between individual and collective maximisation of opportunities and benefits.

Clearly, pre-1947 Indians drawn from diverse backgrounds and conflicting ideologies were bound together by the common objective of achieving independence. We were fortunate to be led by Gandhi and others who were scrupulously transparent in every sense. However, as early as 1939, commenting on what was perceived to be financial irregularities in some out of the six ministries formed in 1937, Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said, “I would go to the extent of giving the whole of a decent burial, rather than put up with corruption that is rampant.” On balance, the time before Independence was our age of innocence.

The erosion of India’s consensus-buildingPost-Independence, even by the 1950s and 1960s, there were many instances of committees and reports on corrupt practices and shortcomings in governance. It was inevitable that with a measure of self-rule, Indians too had opportunities to engage in wrong-doing. It would have been unrealistic to have expected idealism to last without the unifying glue of the struggle for independence.

At present, some among the better educated or more self-confident espouse and promote openness, probity and transparency. Others, who are less exposed to education or have lower skills and confidence, tend to cling to caste and community identities, and band together to flout or bend laws and regulations. It is likely that the latter are insecure, however affluent, in an India and a world where hard skills are needed to achieve comparative economic and social independence.

To take an example from distant history, the musings of Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD, are relevant in India today. His Meditations, written in Greek while he was on campaign against the “barbarians” in what is currently Germany between 170 and 180 AD, are useful reading for all of us. It is remarkable that almost 18 centuries ago, an emperor with absolute power advocated a philosophy of stoic service and duty and revealed the way to maintain equanimity in the midst of conflict.

If the objective is to improve matters, self-examination can be helpful. However, it does not serve any constructive purpose if our media blandly reproduces international news agency reports — for example, Transparency International’s country-specific corruption index, which ranks India fairly low. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s effort to make the transfer of funds from one national jurisdiction to another more transparent has been strenuously and deviously resisted by several developed countries. Specious claims are made by financial institutions that receive funds from dubious sources that cross-country tax arbitrage is not a crime in their countries. Tax havens also claim that if tax avoidance or theft is alleged by countries from where capital flight has taken place, it is for the accusing country to provide the required evidence. Well, information on the US Justice Department’s actions against UBS and, more recently, the oldest Swiss bank Wegelin & Co for helping US citizens evade taxes is publicly available.

Before Independence, India was probably more divided in terms of caste and community prejudices, as well as separated in aspirations and a common understanding of economic and social issues. Those divisions are being gradually bridged with improvements in literacy and development and the spread of the visual media’s coverage, particularly in the vernacular. However, in the last three decades, the clash of ideas and even civilisations (with apologies to Samuel Huntington) within India has become fierce and unseemly, as hitherto disadvantaged groups are more aware of their constitutional rights and electoral muscle.

To summarise, it cannot be anyone’s case that India got its economic and social policies exactly right in the 1950s and 1960s. However, there was a better sense of give and take across the political spectrum in Parliament and state legislatures. This was probably because many of those elected as MPs and MLAs for the first two decades after Independence were able to arrive at common positions, since they had worked together during the freedom struggle. Even as social and economic differences have narrowed over the last three decades, the size of the national cake has increased and the opportunity cost of policy decisions for rent seekers and others has risen. Unfortunately, this has sharply eroded our ability to arrive at consensus decisions. It is this reality that bites.

The author is India’s High Commissioner to the UK.
These views are personal.  

First Published: Tue, March 20 2012. 00:38 IST