“Life without liberty is like a body without spirit.” – Kahlil Gibran
We need to be free to choose. This is what I wrote in January 2018: “Free, without force. Free to choose our candidates, empowered mayors, CMs and PM. Free to choose how we live our lives. Free to choose how we spend the money we earn.”
There is one question that comes up time and again when I talk of freedom. “But look at Singapore and China – where do their people have freedom? And their government is deeply embedded in the economy. That is what India also needs. Not less government but more government — with good people.”
Let’s first get this clear. Singapore and China are not democracies. Both have had single-party rule since their inception. In such a situation, those in power can take the long view because they do not have to face elections. (Singapore does have elections every few years, but the outcome has never been in doubt even once. China doesn’t even bother with elections.) In both countries, the power of the leader at the top is absolute. This can be used for good or bad. Singapore was lucky to get Lee Kuan Yew. China’s luck turned after Deng Xiaoping replaced Mao and opened the country to foreign investments. Both countries ensure that the bureaucracy employs some of the smartest people the country has. They think long-term and with the powers they have to ensure execution. Both countries have delivered prosperity to their people.
India is a democracy. Politicians have to face the electorate every few years. The result is that their first instinct after they win is to strategise on how they are going to stay in power by winning the next elections. Any transformative policy which can be remotely a vote-loser is relegated to the background. Populism rules the roost for the most part. So, welfare schemes rise to redistribute wealth from the rich – very popular in a one-person-one-vote electoral system where the poor outnumber the rich many times over.
India’s predicament is multiplied by politicians who have no idea of the principles of prosperity. They are adept at winning elections, but not at governing. So, they rely on their naïve instinct (which is usually wrong when it comes to identifying policies that can create wealth and prosperity) and pliant ‘Yes, Minister’-like bureaucrats who revel in the socialist status quo and avoid any form of risk that reforms could bring. Yes, the occasional good idea does come through but even a broken clock is right twice a day.
The actions of politicians and bureaucrats would not have mattered much had India got a Constitution like the US that put constraints on the powers of the government and ensured freedom for the people. Unfortunately, in India it is just the opposite. Our more-than-100-times-amended-Constitution maximises the powers of those in government. The result is a deadly feedback loop – the bad people get into politics and rise to the top, and create an unholy alliance with other bad people to grab even more power and money, which attracts even more bad people.
Tomorrow: Part 15