The long and short of it

The new year is here, but it isn’t a happy one. It should have felt like the beginning of something new, but it feels, instead, like the end of all that might have been. And so, 2012 doesn’t look like it will be a good year for India.

Photo: Michael Bocchieri/AFP

The details paint a picture of gloom: fiscally, India seems headed for a situation in which it last was in the early 1990s; politically, if the tragicomedy that’s playing itself out in New Delhi reaches its logical denouement, it will find itself in the mid to late 1990s, and in terms of governance, the period since May 2009 is a blur of compromises, controversies and corruption scandals (but no constructive work). In Mumbai, the centre of gravity of business in the country, the prevailing sentiment is one of pessimism without a trace of the hope that is usually omnipresent in the city (it was even there in 2008 and 2009). Today, there is general despair, and the few brave executives who uncharacteristically expressed their feelings have nothing to show for it, other than a rap on the knuckles from the country’s once-reformist Prime Minister whose thin-skinned reaction shows that his evolution from economist to politician is now complete.

India has many problems—financial, political, geopolitical and social—but the most significant challenge it faces has to do with leadership. The curse of bad leadership isn’t limited to politics. It extends to popular movements such as India Against Corruption’s campaign. And so, even as those in power continue to build a strong case, with their actions and non-actions, on why they should not be in power, there are no alternatives to be found, either among the opposition parties (which are, indeed, taking this opposition bit very seriously indeed), or outside the political mainstream.

The only sliver of hope, a very thin one, is that there is an almost universal disenchantment with the current crop of leaders (those in power as well as those who are not) among young people in big cities. This is unlikely to result in any major and immediate electoral upsets (which is why it is a thin sliver of hope), but the feeling could, over the next three, five or 10 years, travel to other cities, towns, even villages, effecting a change in the profile of candidates who stand for elections and the reasons why people vote for them. If that happens—and it is a long shot—then it should make up for all the pain this country will go through in the next year or two.

And so, since it is human nature to bet on and believe we will run faster and go farther (to twice paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald), it may probably not be a bad idea to go long on India in the long term.

But do remember to go short on it in the short term.

R. Sukumar is Editor, Mint.

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