India’s post-crisis narrative is getting baked really fast. As the first decade of the 21st century ended, the rounds of panel discussions and prognostications have served to act as the chambers in which this narrative has been kneaded and shaped. This is how it goes:
“India has weathered the worst global crisis in close to a century remarkably well. This has been achieved by the combination of a relatively sheltered financial system, a conservative and responsive banking regulator and quick government intervention with a fiscal stimulus plan.
“We have emerged out of this crisis as the world’s second fastest growing economy—arguably the fastest, since China’s data on double-digit growth is suspect. Eight per cent growth is now the new normal for India, and if we get our act together on a few fronts, sustained 10% growth is not outside the realm of possibility.
“The reasons for this are India’s demographic dividend, the rising tide of entrepreneurs, our strong banking system, our global branding on services thanks to information technology, an emerging manufacturing story thanks to Nano and the like, infrastructure spending that is now in the crosshairs of a government that is stable, mature and has a well-established political leadership.
“However, India cannot grow unless all of India grows, and hence the mantra is inclusive growth where the rising tide of prosperity lifts all boats, or else the widening gap between the two Indias will result in irreconcilable conflict.
“The tilt of the world’s balance of power is shifting inexorably eastwards—this is India’s century.”
Give or take a few phrases, this is the emerging narrative for India. Most narratives are crafted on the crucible of facts, and ours is no different. Narratives also need to have a compelling trajectory, which this one amply fulfils, with its once-in-a-generation message of hope and national pride.
There is, therefore, no need to regurgitate this narrative ad nauseum, in conferences and seminars—by business or government.
So, like in board meetings, where many items on the agenda are “taken as read”, our future conferences and seminars should take this narrative as “read”, and move instead to probe its nuances—how to nurture this narrative. While hundreds of questions could be posed, three come to mind:
1: What personal commitments will our political leaders make? We should ask tough questions of our leaders, at the Central and state levels and across the gamut of sectors, to answer the question: “What will I take bottom-line responsibility for?” Not empty rhetoric or misplaced hubris or petty territoriality, but specific actions—on policy, institutional architecture and governance systems. Let us demand that the leading political parties have the rigour to publish position papers on key aspects of India’s narrative, and the courage to stick by them when elected.
2: How can we improve the quality of information? Priding ourselves on gigantic exercises such as the decennial Census, the occasional National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) findings and the like is no longer enough. The little primary data we gather is too insignificant, given the enormity of the transformation we are undertaking. Often, our conclusions are based on secondary data from institutions outside India—this is not only lazy, but potentially misleading (an example—a recent Pew Research Center report on global attitudes stated that 81% of Indians supported a free market economy in 2009, up from 62% in 2002. This seems like extraordinary public support for free markets. Except that the same study also showed that 91% of Indians surveyed are satisfied with their economic situation and income levels. Clearly, this is not reflective of the real India).
We need to start generating our own data to understand the narrative— granular, systematic and clear-headed.
3: Where are the intellectuals and academics? Our research houses and universities—across a range of disciplines, be it science and technology or politics and culture—are atrophied institutions, of little relevance to what is happening outside their own gates. The danger here is that we end up importing paradigms of change from other countries, without developing our own nuanced understanding of the dynamics of progress. Irrelevant scientific experimentation or brittle ideological tags are applied to most issues, with little effort to apply a mindset of objective inquiry. Not only is this wasteful of the intellectual assets of the country, this virus of lazy intellectualism is being passed on to the next generation of youth who are being programmed in the same form of stultified thinking.
India’s narrative is pretty much set, and leaving aside minor quibbles, it’s a compelling one. It is time now to move ahead and see how to nurture this narrative. This means getting into the details, for it is in the details that any narrative actually comes alive.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org