Some years ago, news magazine India Today wrote a cover story on the Ugly Indian. It asked us to look into the mirror to identify him. Now, it could write another one about the incompetent Indian or the supine Indian or the self-centred Indian and ask us to do the same thing to identify all three.
It is easy to blame leadership failure on the politicians, especially those in office. Prabhu Chawla of India Today calls this the weakest and the most incoherent government at least since 1980. The truth that we have shied away from is that the terrorists have trained a spotlight on all that we all lacked at all levels. Paraphrasing my friend Nitin Pai, editor of Pragati, India’s governance capability in politics, economics and security simply did not catch up with its rise as an economic power. That revelation is the only useful thing to come out of the war on India that the terrorists waged last week.
Swapan Dasgupta predicts chillingly in his column in Pioneer that the success of 10 people in stopping a nation for 60 hours will encourage more to emulate their success on a grander scale. He gets it right. The terrorists achieved their strategic aims. Their tactics were superb, their planning thorough and their execution flawless.
Now, how many of those adjectives would apply to our political, executive and security leadership—national or local? How do we pick up the gauntlet they have thrown at us if we do not have clear strategic goals for counter-terrorism, prepare plans in anticipation of eventualities, have our tactics honed and in place and execute them under a unified command structure?
The smug questions that were asked in recent years as to whether the private sector could successfully bring about the emergence of India as an economic superpower without the help of the public sector have been answered conclusively negatively now. It cannot. First, the private sector, for the most part, proved itself incapable of long-range vision, risk management and sustainable greed. India is caught in the whirlwind of the global crisis because the private sector deluded itself that there was no speed limit to the possibilities. The global crisis put paid to that hubris.
But one could expect the private sector to reform itself because it is held accountable by the market. Stock prices decline and thus there are consequences. Its profits are at stake. It has felt the pain. India’s citizens have felt the pain. But its politicians feel neither economic pain nor existential threat. They face no consequences because our democracy leaves them unaccountable. Consequently, they have made us look more pathetic than we deserve to.
For this to change, we have to do many things. First, we have to come off our perch and vote in elections. The abysmal voter turnout in urban India ushered in the United Progressive Alliance government in the last elections. Second, events of the last week have demonstrated that money, power and the facilities that both can buy do not enable the rich to escape the fate that normally befalls the aam aadmi (common man). Now, they have no choice but to get involved.
In the US, people donate to political parties and that empowers them to dictate the goals that parties pursue. How many of us really donate money to political parties—the commodity that they desperately need to survive as a political party? If not, how can we expect them to listen to our concerns? What leverage do we have with them?
Third, the tremendous financial burden of contesting and winning elections has made political and decision-making power beyond the reach of well-intentioned people whose goal is national security and interest. Corporate leaders are better placed to catalyze change than ordinary Indians are. Near-term, they should work to put some spine in our politicians’ response and medium-term, start thinking seriously of changing the political landscape itself. It might be too late to bring about change through “behind the scenes” support to civil society and intellectual movements.
They have to realize that the world will look at India as a nation of wimps if it is unable to respond with purpose, determination, force and ruthlessness—qualities that the terrorists displayed. The status of a global power is not born out of the attitudes of “we are like this only” or “chalta hai”—labels that we have worn with mistaken pride. Failure to secure the nation will make our economic rise appear both accidental and ultimately unsustainable.
Although the US never came good on its warning to bomb Pakistan back into the stone age, it appears that terrorists supported or tolerated by Pakistan are on a mission to inflict that on India. The threat is plain and stark.
After the onset of the economic crisis, economist Paul Krugman wrote in his blog that America had become a banana republic with nukes. Probably, he should have waited until 26 November to bestow that honour on India.
V. Anantha Nageswaran is head, investment research, Bank Julius Baer & Co. Ltd in Singapore. These are his personal views and do not represent those of his employer. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org