Thursday, 24 July 2008

Land of Jungle Raj

India is a land of contrasts. The north and the south are poles apart. North Indians are typically materialistic while the southerners are spiritual. Languages of the two regions have distinct origins, hence are entirely uncorrelated. If north Indian food is rich and spicy, south Indian food is simple and mild. Similarly, the east and the west have individual identities. The west is more industrialized than the east. While the east is mountainous and lush green, the west is a desert. The typical soft demeanour of east Indians is an antithesis to the more prevalent aggression in west India. With such disparity, I could not find one word or phrase that described modern India. That was until my current trip to the homeland.

Total chaos in Indian politics over the Indo US nuclear deal, the rampant “fix and settle it” attitude of corporate India and the complete ignorance of urban India towards civic responsibilities, highlighted the national attitude and description of India - “survival of the fittest” in a thriving “jungle Raj”.

Nuclear energy can be a part solution to India’s energy crisis. The communists supporting the coalition government, however, object to the Indo US nuclear deal on pretext of “perceived threat to national security”. Instead of devising counter proposals like mature adults, or forming an expert committee to weigh the pros and cons, the left decided to withdraw support and put the country at risk of early elections in the current difficult times. The entire melodrama was a lame means to gain much needed political mileage. Presumably the communists have realized their limitations and dying influence. If the nuclear deal is implemented and successful, the left would not only lose further ground but also a historic election propaganda suggesting all that is foreign is bad. The ensuing horse trading prior to the parliamentary vote of confidence was bewildering. Money was distributed like candy; imprisoned parliamentarians were called to support their factions and blatant opportunistic defection transpired. All in an attempt to retain power and survive! This crude “power hungry" attitude has made us the laughing stock of the world. But do we care?

As long as there is economic advancement at individual level there is little concern for the image of the country, inclusive growth or even working with foresight. We are content in being a reactive society rather than being proactive people. India is predominantly an agricultural economy, however, little has been done to empower farmers, while IT sector for example gets unessential support. Finally, a huge “compassionate” effort was made in the form of the farm loan waiver program in the last budget. More of an attempt to win votes keeping in mind next years’ elections! There is an upcoming sector, however, which could make a difference – the retail sector. At a recent conference, I asked a panel comprising of senior executives of leading Indian retail chains, on how they could help farmers and improve their lives. The answer was crisp and clear. While cooperation between the corporate and the farmer could prove productive, since it does not make sense for the bottom line yet, there is no point in making the effort. Simple analysis shows that a little time, effort and money invested today would help the retailers going forward – reduce dependence on imports, increase sourcing mix, ensuring quality etc. At the same time it will spread prosperity to the grass root level. However, with just the short term in mind there is little that is deemed fit to be done.

When the crunch time comes and there is realisation that something should have been done in the past, Indians have a convenient trick at hand to use – “settle” the issue and fix the problem ostensibly. That is why reliable “relationships” with bureaucracy and judiciary are paramount to succeed in corporate India. If required environmental clearances have not been obtained and the concerned entity is pulled up, it is only a matter of time and a few bank rolls that the enquiry is withdrawn. When an ostentatious amount of money is raised via a ridiculously priced IPO; bankers, regulators and lawyers all keep mum despite glaring absence of any bankable asset to lend value to the project. The clout of the promoter prohibits anyone from speaking their mind and the fee earned is another reason to stifle speech. When post IPO the share price crashes, in a grand (“face saving”) gesture the promoter “dilutes” his own holding by a meagre 3% and conducts a bonus issue. If the investors were purely institutional accounts I would have said well too bad they knew the risk they were undertaking. With substantial retail participation, there needs to be some more prudence adopted. Or will we protect investors only once another stock market scandal surfaces?

There is an absence of independent regulators and think tanks in India. Media and journalists are neither incentivised nor encouraged to build awareness and rouse public discussions. In fact even the educated population enjoys reading Bollywood gossip more than grasping the fundamentals about national economics, policy, politics and security. We seem to be content being a nation that works in hindsight and not with foresight. How then do we propose to grow and become a world leader? Or is it just more talk without substance in the typical Indian fashion?

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