Sep 172012

My Column in today’s DNA

Slow-wave sleep (SWS), is the slumber that is not just most restful, but also the most difficult to interrupt. It is the sleep where you have fallen so deep into a shutdown mode, that it would take an earthquake to wake you up. The last eighteen months has seen the Government of India in slow wave sleep mode. Nothing seemed to be getting through. Not the anti-corruption movement, nor the sight of its Chief of Army Staff taking it to court; not the plethora of scams it was implicated in, nor the prospect of losing its largest states to mismanagement; not its allies like the TMC challenging its authority, nor the consistent sniping from its own party. Nothing seemed to disturb or disrupt the state of deep hibernation. Even the sight of the economy going slowly down a gigantic drain of neglect and people crying for solutions made no impact on this sleep.

And, then a set of articles in the foreign media criticising the Prime Minister and the Government began appearing. Questions on whether the India story was over began getting asked. The division of labour between Mrs.Sonia Gandhi and Dr.Manmohan Singh, often sniggered about in Indian media, became the topic of discussion in foreign media. What all the raving and ranting in India failed to do, a set of well articles from the West managed to achieve. Wake the Government out of its slumber.

The Government seems to have gotten up and in a span of a 3 days made more decisions than it has in the last 18 months – A cut in diesel subsidy; FDI in multi brand retail, easing of norms for single brand retail, in broadcasting and DTH, in aviation; selling off stake in select PSU’s. The response has been predictable – the markets are ecstatic. For the middleclass it is a hope that the economy will halt its slide into the abyss and that its carefully constructed life does not end up in the garbage cans. With the political parties it is a mixed bag. In another world we would be able to say that the right wing parties support the Governments plans and the breaking down of economic barriers and the left wing parties oppose – but in India these labels ‘left’ and ‘right’ actually break down.

The shop on the Corner
(the corner store – according to opponents of FDI in retail, he is going to be the most impacted)

Politically right wing tends to convey socially ‘conservative’ values and the role of the State in protecting these. For the political right society takes precedence over the individual. On the other hand, left wing tends to place emphasis on individual choice and believe it is more important than societal values and the need for the State to actively intervene to protect these. Economically, right wing tends to convey free and liberal markets and the right to choice; whereas the left wing tends to mean protected markets, unions and curtailed choice. Needless to say, these definitions are ideal state, and are derived from the west

In India, the terms right wing and left wing are bandied about quite frequently. But these labels are limiting, and also derived for very different socio economic cultural systems. Here, the debate is never about the rights of the individual. It is about the rights of groups. When it comes to Economics, the situation is even more muddied. Both the main National parties have representatives from the economic left and the economic right. With most regional parties it is slightly clearer. Heavy duty, old fashioned socialism and a patriarchal state that will look after its citizens.

Economics, in India, is very rarely discussed. There may be an social media outcry on NREGA, or an op-ed piece against centralised Nehruvian planning – and how it is bad for the economy, but very rarely is the fact that an average of thousands of crores annually is given away to industry as subsidies a part of political discourse! Discussion is mostly about leakages & scams protectionism and fear mongering and seldom about alternatives.

But in a world where Economics is Politics, it is time that the discourse moved away from the trivial into the substantial Where there are debates not on generalities but specifics. How will Parties create jobs, how will they tackle inflation, how will they assure a better tomorrow? The assumption is that voters are simple, and will not be able to understand complex economic thought. And, that is a very patronising view. While voters may not be able to understand technobabble (or in this case economic babble), they will definitely be able to understand the outcomes of economic policy. For political choices to emerge based on economics, this is a very vital step.

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