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‘India lacks reform flowing from political conviction’

T N Ninan

New Delhi :  Rife with contradictions and rich in potential, India is very much a “work in progress” as it looks to rise to a position of global reckoning, according to senior journalist T N Ninan.

But there are several challenges to achieving that transition, he believes, not least of which is the scenario wherein the country does not have reform “flowing from political conviction, such as when a political leader campaigns and creates a climate for change”.

Momentum and acceleration are key considerations for Ninan, the chairman and editorial director of the daily, Business Standard, in his exposition of the “Turn of the Tortoise” (Penguin Allen Lane, 2015), or the historical imperative for an emerging India as it aspires to find its rightful standing amongst nations as a demographic behemoth and the world’s largest democracy.

In focusing on the future, Ninan talks about a “coming out party”, the sort of which South Korea threw in 1988 and China in 2008 by hosting the Olympic Games. The author believes it to be “a fair bet that… if the economy fares well over the next few years, whichever government is in office in 2019 will feel compelled to bid for the Olympic Games of 2028″.

But even as he fancies such an eventuality for India, the author rues, sarcastically, that “there is no danger of anyone trying to give effect to much of the change agenda” that he spells out as he dwells on the “challenge and promise of India’s future”.

However, not one to lose heart, he believes that India “merely has to be itself and deliver steady, incremental change” for achieving “transformative results”. If he appears to despair of a thrust from the political class to lift the country into the regions of stratospheric growth, he also believes that India has “both economic weight and creditable speed” for generating the progress that it needs.

The approach to take for turning the “situation to an advantage”, he says, would be to recognise that “state capacity is limited” and that it “ought to focus better on what it alone can or should do”.

In this respect, talking about the “mega trends” for the future, the author notes that one of them will be the “unwilling retreat of the state” under a “growing private sector dominance of economic activity”.

In this context, Ninan calls for a broad policy switch” from ‘make’ to ‘buy’. However, he also points out that it is “important” to recognise that such a trend as that of the public sector taking a backseat is “out of line with the political mood”.

“The political desire for control, and the power to intervene in everything from airline fares to private school fees, remains strong,” he says, adding that, if the state gets “rolled back, it will be simply because people choose the private sector as their service provider”.

Ninan says that, in the coming years, the broad trend would continue to be that of state-owned enterprises “shrinking in relative size” to private-sector providers.

He points to Air India, with its losses of Rs 36,000 crore in seven years up to 2013-14, and Doordarshan, with its 30,000-plus employees which has lost out to private cable and satellite broadcasters.

But, he notes that while public sector enterprises may shrink, economies moving on a growth trajectory usually see an increase in the tax-GDP ratio, which in turn would lead to bigger government budgets.

What Ninan hopes that would lead to is an expansion of government and public or constitutional institutions, “because there is a clear need for more policemen, judges and the like”.

However, even as he observes that the private sector has come to occupy the ‘commanding heights’ of Indian economy and talks of the “retreat of the state”, Ninan stresses that government “will need to play the role of regulator and quality certifier”.

Referring to the market itself, Ninan finds a second ‘mega trend’ in the change in scale that is underway therein.

“India has so far been a 25-30 per cent economy,” the author says, explaining that roughly 25-30 per cent of households belong now to the middle class. But the “big change” coming over the next decade is that the 30 per cent figure could “nearly double”. Such a thing would be “seismic change” for society and the economy, he says.

The third mega trend for Ninan is the shift of the centre of gravity from New Delhi to the state capitals. The plain fact, he avers, is that it is the state governments which have
to execute policy in the majority of areas, be it education, healthcare or attracting industrial investment.

Studying positive transformation and its pace in India, Ninan says that change now is “easier to introduce at the state level simply because the chief ministers are more in control”. But while noting that this is so, he also calls for “empowering the third tier of government”, saying that the “logical corollary to this shift to greater federalism should be the empowerment of local government bodies, especially in urban areas”.     At a time when some Indian cities have populations larger than states like Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand, Ninan says that the “absence of proper urban governments will… become increasingly untenable”.

The author thus seems to propound a need for government to govern less and go for restructuring and reform to distribute decision-making power more widely. But while he talks about government receding to the wings, he also talks about the nature of Indian democracy vis-a-vis the crossroads where the country now finds itself.

In observations that are significant in the light of recent controversies in the country, Ninan wonders whether India’s “constitutional liberalism will gradually give way to a less-than-liberal democracy”.

Stating that individual rights are not always given “effective protection” by statutory institutions, he cautions that one should not rule out “the danger of complicit majorities operating to impose constraints on different minorities”.

Summing up though, it is mostly a feeling of optimism that Ninan gets from studying the ‘tortoise’ in the title of his first book as he says that the various trends are “manifestations of a society, polity and economy caught in a process of evolution, with change at multiple speeds”.

Tensions and conflict are “inevitable by-products” when there are many forces driving change on a “grand canvas”, says Ninan, but notes that the directions of change are “overwhelmingly positive”, so much so that, if all goes well, “life of the next generation will be better for larger numbers”.

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