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To market, to market...

Gurcharan Das, that unabashed votary of the market economy, came to the City with his book and sweeping generalisations.

Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

GURCHARAN DAS, former CEO of Procter and Gamble, now columnist, was here last week for the release of his new book, The Elephant Paradigm, India Wrestles With Change. That lent occasion to exchange notes on his perceptions about politics, economy, and culture in India. Reading his book and talking to him leaves the impression of a man keen to see the market take hold of the everyday life of the Indian economy, cutting the state to size.

Is there something wrong with someone saying that he is all for market reforms in a country like India? Maybe not. But one cannot help noticing he is an ex-chief of a company (headquartered in America that has business interests all around the world) who is a columnist for a national newspaper. All the reason why one would want to pay close attention to what he says about our culture and economy.

Das contends that the '90s have been liberating for the country. "The economy has grown at more than 6 per cent in the last 10 years. This is only because of liberalisation. The growth in the first three decades was around 3.5 per cent. The public sector had destroyed the work ethic."

He believes that countries with market-led growth always performed better than those with state-led growth. South East Asia, for instance. "In India, we made the Government an entrepreneur. But how many of the 260 government companies today are viable? I don't understand the criticism against disinvestment. When these companies are bleeding the country, how can we keep them going? The most natural thing to do would be to disinvest."

While the book appreciates decentralisation, as seen in the panchayat institution, and political mobility of OBCs and Dalits, it is stringently critical of the role of the state in the economy as well as in education. There is data, for instance, that shows how government schools are in a pathetic state and how private schools have been performing better. Says Das, "The conditions in municipal schools are bad. Teachers get a good salary, but don't even come to class at times. Private schools are performing better. The Government does not need to run schools, but only fund them. That should be its role."

He is convinced that the country suffered previously because the Government was doing everything but governing.

"The business of the government is to govern, not to get into business. Leave that to the private individual. If you cannot provide drinking water, get a private party to do it. State-led growth in India was non-growth. Leave everything to the private sector, and growth will be automatic."

The book is premised on this preconception and all argument moves towards this conclusion arrived in advance. What is that conclusion? That the public sector destroyed work ethic and that the bureaucracy was a degenerate form of Nehruvian Socialism typified by the licence-permit-raj.

While one can certainly agree that there have been problems with the India's long-driven public sector philosophy, can one say with certainly that everything is fine with the open market? The book has not gone into the specifics of the latter. For instance, what does it mean for a teacher to be teaching in four different schools on a temporary basis everyday, at say, Rs. 600 per school, per month? Das would argue that insecurity instils fear of termination, which in turn, induces efficiency. But then, it could also be argued that the same insecurity induces fear in the teacher about when he or she is likely to lose the job and what efficiency this anxiety can bring about is open to question. Let's take call centres. Das contends that it is the most wonderful thing to happen in India. What problem can one have when one is being paid an average salary of Rs. 10,000? Oddly enough, advocates of call centres themselves never work in graveyard shifts: 6 in the evening to 8 in the morning. Decent working hours is something people fought for over decades, not to forget the fact that you cannot take a break if you don't have someone at your desk for those few minutes you have to go to the bathroom. The monopoly of DoT may have been bad, but the monopoly of Microsoft cannot be terribly good.

Das captures the spirit of his own book when he says: "Security is bad for the soul, nation, company, and society. Lifetime employment does not work. Let us be sensible. Whatever the Government does, it turns to dust, whatever a private individual does, it turns to gold. Our temper is so low because of the success of the private individual and the failure of the government."

The book also talks about private spaces like marriage and family and links it up to the public space of the larger society and economy. Das believes that the private space is richer in India compared to the public space. "You have a society in which the private individual is trying to succeed, but on top of it is a rapacious Government that is trying to steal from his pocket all the time." The implication is of a pure private space and a corrupt public space. The connection is not entirely evident. Can one make a generalisation on marriage in India — how men and women of different communities live out their life — and can one easily make the connection between marriage, culture, and economy without accounting for historical-geographic-cultural differences?

What is the state of secularism in a nation that is now opening its doors to foreign capital? Das believes that secularists have let down the country just as fundamentalists have, though he is not very clear on what it is to be secular. The secular discourse, he contends, has not resonated with the average believer. "We need voices of religious moderation. Secularists, writing in the media, are ones who hate religion. The average Indian is religious, but does not want politics, hatred, or violence," he sermonises.

In the end, Das asks what is slowing down India. While he believes that the elephant paradigm is positive, that, while India is not an Asian tiger like China, it is an elephant that is rumbling along, waiting to sprint. Only, what slows it down is "its democracy and religious traditions". Unless research establishes the connection between performance of an economy and a politico-religious tradition, a generalisation like this remains untenable.


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