The pursuit of a GDP number does not inspire citizens because it does not tell them how their lives will improve but the idea of building a good society would
Rahul Gandhi spoke to the captains of industry for the first time on April 4. He described his inclusionary vision for India. He said that when the people prosper, especially the poor and the youth, industry will prosper too. Thus he evoked a bottom-up vision of growth, in contrast to a top-down vision in which industry must first grow before people can prosper. His speech has been criticised by many for being merely visionary and not concrete. This raises questions about the role of vision in energising movements of change and what should be the content of a vision.
Democratic India is not a unitary battleship. With its many contending interest groups, its federal state structure, and jostling political parties, India is a flotilla of independent, but interdependent boats. For a flotilla of independent boats to advance together, they must wish to go to the same destination and follow the same course. The flotilla needs a shared vision of what it wants to achieve and how it will do it.
Relate it to lives
A vision cannot be merely numbers. It must be an evocative idea representing the aspirations of citizens for the quality of society and economy they want to be a part of and will help to shape. This is a lesson that business corporations have learnt. In the 1990s when the pursuit of shareholder value became a corporate mantra, many companies expressed their vision of the future as a number (revenue or market capitalisation) they aimed to achieve. However, such visions did little to inspire employees down the line to change their behaviour. Shop floor workers would not wake up in the morning looking forward to what they could do that day to increase shareholder value — an outcome far removed from their lives. Similarly, the pursuit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) numbers inspires very few citizens. What do these numbers mean to them? What matters to them is how the quality of their lives will change and the opportunities they will have for better livelihoods.
India’s GDP growth rate has been stumbling. The Indian flotilla is muddling along. Sometimes it even seems to be falling apart in cacophonies of contention and confusion. The need of the hour is to rally the flotilla of boats and the people in them with a vision. This vision cannot be merely a number, or even just a slogan. It has to be an evocative story of the nation’s progress. We are far from our goals of becoming, in Tagore’s words, a nation in which every head is held high, and which is not broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls. Economic reforms had become imperative in 1991. Fortunately, India had leaders then with the courage and skills required to implement them. However, an inadvertent casualty of the era of economic reforms is that, since then, a vision of a large GDP seems to have overshadowed a shared vision of a good society. Those who point to the narrowness of GDP as a measure of good growth are accused of being “anti-growth” when in reality they are also calling for growth — the growth of a good society and inclusive economy.
The design of democracy’s structures — constitutions and electoral processes — is important for democracy to function smoothly. India can be proud of its Constitution and its ability to conduct elections on a scale no other country can. However, the nature of the dialogue and deliberations among citizens produces democracy’s quality. The structures are like the hardware of a computer. Dialogue and deliberations are the software of democracy. And, as in computer systems, given adequate hardware, the system’s performance depends entirely on the quality of the software. Diverse India needs much better processes for citizens to listen to each other, deliberate together, and develop a shared vision of the country they want to build.
Three growth directions
The 12th Plan foresees three possible scenarios for India’s growth. The scenarios are described as Muddling Along, Falling Apart, and The Flotilla Advances. According to the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), GDP growth will be eight per cent in the Flotilla Advances scenario, six per cent in Muddling Along, and five per cent in Falling Apart. Clearly, we want the flotilla to advance and produce the best outcomes for all aboard.
The Indian flotilla needs a vision to unite it. It needs credible leaders who can speak to people’s hearts about a path to a future in which all citizens will enjoy accountable, participative and effective governance; a future in which there will be many opportunities for good livelihoods for India’s burgeoning population of youth who could become violent when they have better education and skills but no jobs; and a future in which the country’s natural environment will not be further destroyed in the pursuit of GDP growth.
(Arun Maira is a Member of the Planning Commission.)