Published April 16-20, 2020
A morbid fear has gripped the nation that anyone can be a Covid carrier and therefore potentially a killer. This has led to imposition of local quarantines – households, buildings, societies, villages, districts and states. What started at the national level (closing of borders) is now happening at the smallest possible level of homes. Even though fatality rates are very low, the “Laxman Rekha” has imprinted itself in the collective psyche of people. Only when we start rising above that will we be able to look ahead.
What is clear is that winning the war against the virus will take time – until we have herd immunity, or a vaccine is created. Either way, there are no short-cuts. Life is not going to return to normal any time soon. We will operate at sub-optimal levels for many months if not a year or two. Many industries will face significant downside going forward, even as new opportunities arise.
This is not just like a tsunami or earthquake which is a one-off event, and then one can get down to the rebuilding process. This is more like being attacked by a distributed guerrilla force with outbreaks here and there which will need to be suppressed as and when they emerge.
At some point in the future, the fear and devastating impact of the virus will pass. While the government actions in the near-term will determine the duration of the pain, what is clear is that there will be a time when the focus will shift from lives to livelihoods. That has not yet happened in India. Most minds are focused on the healthcare supply chain. I think it’s time for some of us to start thinking forward to the India that emerges on the other side of the pandemic, and imagining the India that will emerge from the ever-increasing lockdown carnage.
Like 1947, we face a fresh start. There is a fork in the road – a choice between two futures. We chose the wrong path then. Will we make the same mistake again?
The India that we will have to live through in the near-term will be very different from the one we were living in till just about a month ago. That’s not the India I am asking us to imagine. I want to focus on a slightly longer horizon. What will India be in, say, three to five years?
There are two futures possible.
The first future is one in which the government becomes even more domineering and overpowering. This is a future in which people rely on the government for everything – our food, home, education, house and even our jobs. The politician becomes our God as lives and livelihoods come under the control of the government.
For those in power, this is nirvana – an opportunity that has come after a couple of generations. Even now, a set of people are already deciding who can travel and where, which industry can open, which item is essential, who should get what. Do we really want this kind of micro-management of our daily lives?
This is like the India of the 1950s, 60s and 70s when the licence raj was at its peak, when central planning ruled the roost. Few of us remember that world, but our parents lived through it. For those in power, this is the India that they would love to recreate.
There is a second future possible – where we determine our own destiny, free from the control of the politicians. It is one which we have seen just glimpses of. It is a future some of us experience when we visit free and rich nations like the US, UK, Germany or Hong Kong. It is a future built on the classical liberal principles of limited government, protection of individual freedom, economic freedom, property rights, rule of law and free trade.
Many will tell us that such a future is no longer possible given the human and economic devastation that we are likely to see in India. They are wrong. India can indeed craft such a future – however impossible it may seem today.
Indians, like people everywhere, respond to the rules and incentives. Striving to better one’s own condition is inbuilt in all of us. The question is will we be able to imagine and work towards this future – because that will pit the people against the politicians.
Thus there are two mutually exclusive paths for India. One is the path of planned poverty, the path that the politicians would take us on; the other is the path to pervasive prosperity, the path that we will have to fight for and create ourselves. Which path would you choose?
To understand India’s post-pandemic future, we will need to delve into our post-Independence past. We chose a path – the British parliamentary political system and the Soviet socialist economic system. Did we have a choice then or was that the only option? Think back to the 1940s when the 2nd World War was ending. Germany, Italy and Japan had been vanquished. Even as Britain and the Soviet Union fought back in Europe, it was the might and innovation of the Americans that tilted the balance in favour of the Allied powers.
The America of the 1940s was already the strongest economic powerhouse in the world. Yes, there had been the Great Depression starting in 1929. But before that, for over 50 years, America had been transformed by entrepreneurs. Central to this period of economic growth was the American Constitution of 1789 which gave maximum freedom to the people and put severe constraints on the government. The American Presidential political system with its exquisitely crafted balance of powers and free-market economic system with its focus on free enterprise had created the world’s richest nation.
India in 1947 had just attained independence as the British left in a hurry. India was a very poor country. A new leadership took over in India. And what do they do? They created a Constitution which borrowed 242 out of its 395 Articles from the 1935 British-written Government of India Act, an act meant to enable a colonial power to keep the people enslaved.
The British Raj 2.0 leadership took India down the path of collectivism that was prevalent in the Soviet Union. India’s leadership chose a future – one which condemned future generations of Indians to perpetual poverty. Even after more than 70 years of Independence, 40% of Indian households are almost entirely at the mercy of government handouts.
What would India’s future have been had we chosen a different path – the American governance system that split powers between the three branches of government, and the American economic system that prioritised personal and economic freedom by limiting government action?
We will never know the answer since we didn’t choose that path. The virus has once again brought us to the crossroads where we need to make a similar choice. Will we make another mistake or will we choose wisely this time around? Which future will we select – suicide or rebirth?
We were already killing our future selves even before the virus attacked us. By not adequately educating our kids, by not providing skills to our youths, by limiting the jobs for people entering the workforce, by trapping farmers in a web of interventions, by making cities hard to live in for the working. In every case, a set of government actions deliberately hurt us. In doing so, they made the future an extension of the past that killed our prosperity. We let our future be strangled by our politicians for the past 70 years.
India’s present should have been very different. Every one of us should have been at least 10 times richer. There is nothing in the Indian DNA which forces us to be poorer than the average American, German, South Korean, Singaporean or Chinese. It is the rules we live under that have prevented Indians from being prosperous. These are rules made by kakistocratic governments, who see themselves as legitimate successors of the colonial British rulers. Unless we understand how our present has been damaged, we cannot hope to restore our future and rise from the ashes of the virus.
This is the choice we face as citizens of India. We can continue to struggle through our daily lives. Or we can imagine an alternate future. A future in which freedom and prosperity go hand in hand, where the chains are on government and not the people, where every voluntary exchange is not seen with suspicious eyes, where every new-born has an opportunity to dream of success, where wealth creation is celebrated and not taxed, where cities are celebrated as job hubs and not starved of infrastructure.
Are we ready to imagine such a future? If so, are we ready to rise and demand this future?
We have a choice. We can continue our daily struggle under the failed system or we can lead the change. We can let the suicide continue – as it has for the past 70 years ago. Or we can rise to stop it, and give birth to a new India, one that our forefathers would have imagined during the struggle for our freedom.
We need a modern Quit India movement – to reverse the wealth destroying interventions that have looted 90% of our riches, to create a new India where it is not the citizens that serve the politicians but the other way around, and to finally add economic freedom to the political freedom that was handed to us in 1947.
It is still not too late. The story that began in 1857 did not end in 1947. The final chapter is still to be written. With governments across India increasing their presence in our lives and businesses, with prosperity becoming more and more elusive for the masses, with individual freedoms being curtailed through legislations and fear, with social and economic mobility becoming harder as small- and mid-sized businesses are crushed, the virus has brought forth a question we have ignored for long – what is the India we want to create for our children?
Swatantrata (independence) without Samriddhi (prosperity) is a battle not even half-won. We must not rest till every child, worker, entrepreneur has been truly liberated in our country. The good news is that it is possible – because India is rich, even as Indians have been kept poor. If enough of us come together, a peaceful political and economic transformation is possible – not in a generation, but before the next election.
This Indian Revolution must begin in our minds. We must begin by replacing the dated romantic ideas of what creates prosperity with the evidence-backed reality of what actually does. Each of us must be a node in this networked spread of new ideas. We must set aside differences of caste, class and community that have been used to divide us. We must unite to set India in a new direction, to choose a different future. The only questions we must ask are – If not us, who? If not now, when?