India needs to be liberated from chokehold of regulations that favour the well-connected and their foreign partners over domestic talent, startups.
With better governance, the Union Territory of Pondicherry could see better days, as indeed would several other locations in a country that has ever since 1947 serially undershot its potential, usually by a substantial margin. Even in the town’s tourist quarter, where French street names and many of the houses built before the 1950s charmingly remain, the streets are a tad untidy, although not as much as in the rest of Pondicherry, a small town that survived during the days of the Raj as one of the few refuges left in India by the Brits for the French. Were the lady bothered about such matters, Congress Permanent President Sonia Gandhi could have taken her party’s control over the government of the UT as a challenge and ensured that it transformed the town into a magnet for tourism from not just the Francophone world but all Europeans nostalgic for a whiff of their culture-suffused continent on distant shores. Despite its immense potential as a tourist destination, the babus (the politicians whom they control the way Humphrey Appleby did Jim Hacker) have seen to it that tourist facilities and footfalls in India are a small fraction of what they ought to be. This applies to Pondicherry as well. Were the still magnificent beach cleaned up, the waters of the ocean would be an ally in such an effort. However, Pondicherry seems not to have figured majorly in the plans of the Sonia Gandhi-led branch of the Nehru family, which has controlled the Congress Party since the passing away of Sanjay Gandhi in 1980, barring the five years (1992-96) when P.V. Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister and declined to adopt the subservient posture of another non-Nehru PM, a posture now etched into history books. Given the intellect and knowledge of Manmohan Singh, he could have been even more successful in transforming the country than his boss during 1992-96 was. During much of the Manmohan decade, even the national security establishment responded and reported to 10 Janpath and to its nominees rather than to 7 RCR. As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh seemed resigned to a visible lack of control over the processes of government. Clearly, just being in the job was enough for him, and not using the most powerful post in the country to carry out the reforms that a mind as imaginative and profound as Manmohan Singh’s could have devised. Had Manmohan Singh liberated himself even to the extent that was the case with Narasimha Rao, India would have gained substantially through better policy and personnel, as wistfully pointed out by his admirer Sanjay Baru in a brilliantly written book, The Accidental Prime Minister. Not using the powers presented to him and mining the information available to subdue political and other opponents of the reforms still not implemented was Manmohan Singh’s error, for recourse to even a smidgen of the vast powers of the Prime Minister would have prevented Sonia Gandhi from unseating him through party intrigues. Even in the case of Narasimha Rao, the “Permanent President” of her party was able to remove him from the Prime Ministership only by destroying the Congress Party’s prospects in the 1996 polls by setting up a rival political outfit that cut into Congress votes and helped the Vajpayee-led BJP emerge as the key non-Congress party. As PM, Vajpayee showed his gratitude to Sonia for this favour throughout his six years in office
To ensure a degree of freedom of action similar to that of his former boss and predecessor, Manmohan Singh could have established his supremacy over the government, by throwing out a few ministers and high officials whose only reason for being included was because they were servitors of 10 Janpath. During his decade in office, with rare exceptions, not just ministers but even senior civil servants were chosen not by 7 RCR but by “Number Dus”. Unlike the PM, ministers collaterally useful to Sonia Gendhi, such as S.K. Shinde and P. Chidambaram, were given substantial latitude in choosing their suite of officials, as such freedom enabled such ministers to serve the interests of Number Dus in a very satisfactory manner.
Given its toxicity, getting away from the Lutyens bubble is usually refreshing. As was a visit to the Union Territory to speak at the Bharat Shakti—India Unbound conference organised by Professor Mohanan Pillai of the Department of International Relations of Pondicherry University. Indians are resilient. Mumbai the day after the 1993 terror attack was back to normal, as indeed the city was soon after the success of the (initially botched) series of operations against the 26/11 terrorists in 2008. A similar spirit was evident in the students and staff of Pondicherry University, who went about their studies and other activities refusing to allow fear of the Novel Coronavirus to deter them. In this, they were joined by the conference participants, some of whom came from the other end of the country despite being on the wrong side of 70, the age when infection with Covid-19 could be deadly rather than a mild inconvenience. Talking to the students and absorbing the range and intensity of their knowledge and interest in global trends, as well as gauging their self-confidence, it was possible to believe that the years ahead would finally see an India Unbound. Or more accurately, see Indians unbound, released at last from the death grip that the colonial bureaucratic edifice is continuing to retain. Should Modi 2.0 succeed in ensuring “Minimum Government”, there would not be any need for hundreds of thousands of talented youngsters to leave India every year actualise their dreams (and their inventions) in countries where regulations are not so numerous and regressive. That there are bureaucracy-created blockages to achievement in the country is recognised most of all by the country’s high officials, many of whom get their children admitted in prestigious educational institutions abroad and encourage them to settle there. Countries where regulation is kinder to talent than to influence have long scored over India. PM Modi needs to enhance the ecosystem for individual growth by an throwing into the dustbin the numerous blockages to enterprise of those citizens who are unassisted by influence. An example of such regulations is a Sonia-era clause that in many important bids, only organisations with a turnover of Rs 1,000 crore are allowed to participate, even though MSMEs and in the case of mny components SMEs could meet the specifications with ease. Naturally, with foreign collaboration are given an advantage over those without such linkages. A complex of rules has been created over the years so as to ensure that imports prevail over domestic production, including in bulk items such as coal, a feedstock where India’s own reserves are left largely untouched while imports soar. Is it any wonder that India is so hopelessly dependent on imports for so many key sectors, including telecom, health and defence?
Bharat Shakti can only be powered by Yuva Shakti. For that, the country needs to be liberated from the chokehold of regulations that favour the well-connected and their foreign partners over domestic talent and startups. Science facilitator Y.S. Rajan and others at the conference spoke about their vision of an India Unbound, and the response of the students of Pondicherry University to their ideas makes clear that India has in abundance the human material needed for double digit growth. What is needed is for policymakers to replace lingering remnants of the Nehruvian governance construct with a much lighter, much kinder, matrix of laws and regulations which promote rather than smother domestic innovation and enterprise.