This column has often been critical of the policy inaction and mismanagement of public finances by the Manmohan Singh government. But I have tried never to forget that the man who heads the government has rare qualities for an Indian politician. He is intelligent, honest and down to earth.
As he recovers from a cardiac surgery, one recent episode tells us a lot about Manmohan Singh. He personally visited the regional transport office (RTO) in New Delhi to renew his driving licence, as he had also done when he was finance minister and then leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. This was on 19 January. He was in the operating theatre less than a week later and I assume that the Prime Minister already knew that he was ailing while he went through with the formalities at the transport office. Yet, he did not call the RTO or send some minor bureaucrat to do the job.
All this happened in the same month that the Indian republic entered its 60th year on 26 January and the nation will mourn 61 years of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on 30 January.
One of Gandhi’s key insights was that you could not understand the real India unless you directly experienced it. Hence his famous tour of India after his return from South Africa in the second decade of the 20th century, before he plunged into active politics here. And hence his adamant decision to travel in third-class train compartments and stay in poor neighbourhoods, even as he was hosted and feted by the rich and powerful (there was undoubtedly some truth in Sarojini Naidu’s famed quip that it cost the nation a fortune to keep Gandhi in poverty).
The point is that such behaviour is in stark contrast to the behaviour of today’s Indian elite—politicians, decision makers, top bureaucrats, journalists, members of the chosen think tanks in New Delhi and even heads of elite non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They have withdrawn into a private bubble far away from the heat and dust of the real India, even as they deliver speeches and write policy notes on inclusive growth.
I wonder when was the last time any of them travelled by public transport, how many send their children to the neighbourhood school or how many have visited a public hospital for a health check-up. This is not some moralistic grouse about the need to maintain an ascetic lifestyle in a poor country. That sort of socialist thinking has thankfully been in retreat and aspiring to a better life is no longer looked down upon.
The concerns are more practical. Do we have more money spent on flyovers rather than new suburban trains in a city such as Mumbai because those who take decisions have more personal reasons to be exasperated by traffic jams rather than trains packed to the point of claustrophobia? Is there less pressure on opening higher education to foreign investments because the elite could not care less as its children almost inevitably study abroad?
Let me clarify that I have no problems with visiting private hospitals or driving to work. The issue is whether our decision makers and opinion makers really know anything at all about the country where they wield such influence. The quality of understanding that comes from direct experience is of a different order.
The economist Albert O. Hirschman said in a 1970 book that there are three responses to the decline of firms, organizations and states—exit, voice and loyalty. In the case of countries such as the former German Democratic Republic, dissenters who no longer see reason for loyalty may either emigrate (exit) or protest (voice). Which strategy is more effective depends a lot on the circumstances. Hirschman also gives a more commonplace example—schools.
Say, a school system is declining in the quality of education it provides. Quality-conscious parents who are relatively better off will pull their children out of these schools and move them to private schools. Price-conscious parents who want their children to be in school and are not aware of quality issues will stay behind. But the loss of the “best” will reduce pressure on the school system to improve its quality. There will be further decline.
Exit is the easy way out but can lead to further decline. This seems to be what is happening in India in various ways. The elite is in exit mode, and its irregular excursions into the politics of voice often leads to silly responses such as calls to not pay taxes or boycott elections (we saw these two ideas get an airing after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai).
This column began with Manmohan Singh, meandered past Gandhi and ends with the work of an American economist. But there is a common thread—an elite living in gated communities, opting out of public spaces and never standing in queues loses touch with reality on the one hand and, on the other, hastens the institutional decline that it loves to talk about.
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