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Home >Opinion >Columns >It’s time for India to give Indians the stage and step out of the way

In the last one week, having made my contribution to the Indian cricket team’s victory at the Gabba in Brisbane by not watching the match live, lest I jinxed them, I have been reliving every moment of it vicariously by watching all interviews, seeing the tweets, and binge-watching the last day’s play. It was an extraordinary performance. I am not just referring to the final day’s run chase at the Brisbane cricket ground. I had watched part of the collapse in the second innings of the first Test at Adelaide. No batsman threw away his wicket that day. Almost all of them got unplayable deliveries. However, from that ignominy, the shock of it, and then having to deal with the covid bubble, for the team to bounce back the way it did, one Test match after another, is something for history books and us to narrate to our grandchildren and great grandchildren.

When the winning runs were scored, the entire Indian squad spilled into the playing arena. India’s captain Ajinkya Rahane simply stood up from his chair as though Rishabh Pant and Navdeep Saini had sauntered for a single and were returning to the pavilion for a cup of tea. To be silent is to be strong. If one combines self-belief, confidence and the strength of character, even setbacks become stepping stones. The attitude of the Indian cricket team reflects the attitude of young India.

Respected cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle tweeted after the match that this was young India at work. He said: “Give them a stage and move out. Our generation thinks: don’t lose. This one inhabits a different world. They see victory, opportunity."

The question is whether the Indian system is geared to give Indians the stage and move out. I think not. There may be the odd visionary bureaucrat or politician who figures out that what India needs is their getting out of the way. But, the system as a whole is geared to, and, more importantly, strongly disposed to holding back and throttling India because its operating philosophy is distrust and cynicism. But for the country’s governance, there is no stopping India.

Whether it is to do with making nominations online for Padma awards or with wanting to transfer the ‘Overseas Citizen of India’ (OCI) stamp onto a new passport, or about transferring a manufacturing licence to a new legal structure chosen by an enterprise, the system seems designed to confuse, confound and frustrate.

Over the decades, Indian bureaucracy—Union, states and local—has honed its skills in tying the rest of the country down in non-productive endeavours into a fine art that very few countries can match. The operating principle in view is that the government does not trust citizens to do the right thing, forcing citizens to reciprocate that faith with their own creativity. Some give up. Some emigrate. Some co-opt the system. Many struggle throughout their lives to deal with the government machinery. It does not end even after their sojourn on earth ends. India’s regulatory, compliance and inspection frameworks are similar to an auto-immune disease that makes the human body’s defence system turn on the body instead of protecting it.

Rather than help micro and small enterprises grow, the government machinery harasses them into oblivion. To succeed, an entrepreneur also needs multidisciplinary talents and skills to handle India’s political economy and bureaucrats of all shades. It means that entrepreneurial skills have to be applied to the task of acquiring political power first, in some form, so that this can be leveraged to venture into business. Only then might an entrepreneur stand a chance of succeeding.

On balance, India’s governments—Union and state—over the seven decades since independence have hurt rather than helped India. Countries do not progress when the bedrocks of governance are deep distrust of and disdain for the public, reflecting a large deficit of public spirit. With such weak values and trust ecosystems, it’s probably better for sincere politicians and bureaucrats to trust markets and deregulate than over-regulate. A vast regulatory state only serves to stymie Indians’ dynamism and help field-level government functionaries prosper in their extractive ventures.

How to bring in policies and regulations that can help grow the pie and restrict the state machinery’s plunder? Digitization end-to-end, reduction in human interface, decriminalization of harsh laws, self-regulation and accreditation, among other initiatives, can help. But, entrenched attitudes take time to change. The journey is long. It has to begin now. Every well-meaning senior bureaucrat must pledge to dedicate the final five years of his or her career to removing the encroachments and intrusions that their respective ministries or departments make into people’s lives and enterprises.

In Australia, the Indian cricket team demonstrated what is possible with a combination of good skills, great character and a positive attitude. It is time for the Indian bureaucracy to trust that the rest of India too possesses these attributes, give Indians the stage, and then step out of the way. The next three-and-a-half years should be dedicated to that.

These are the author’s personal views.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.

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