I wonder if others rubbed their eyes in disbelief as they read the headline “End socialist slogans hypocrisy, says Prime Minister” in The Sunday Times (January 21). I for one did and wondered what had persuaded the prime minister at long last to speak out the truth. After all, he has been swearing by Pandit Nehru and Mrs Indira Gandhi even as he has been trying to liberate the economy from the strangleholds they had imposed on it in the very name of socialism.
The choice of the forum – a meeting of secretaries, additional secretaries and joint secretaries to the Union Government – added to my amazement.
The surprise, however, survived only up to the first half of the first sentence. By then Mr PV Narasimha Rao was back to his Congress, or the Nehruvian self. Socialist slogans should be dropped, he said, not because these had helped stifle growth and spawned a regime of corruption but because they had only succeeded in “increasing disparities’’ and helping the rich amass wealth while the bulk of the population remained steeped in poverty.
From what I have known of Mr Rao, his, unlike that of most of our politicians, is not a sloganised mind. But the statement is typical of other members of the political community. It mixes and confuses issues.
The rich, it is true, have become richer under the “socialist” dispensation but mainly because, with the help of obliging and obliged bureaucrats and politicians, they have managed to bypass the Byzantine controls and regulations.
But for such deals, the system would have finished them off, and that would also have produced an economic disaster worse than the one Russia and other constituents of the Soviet Union now face in view of our much larger population. On that there cannot now be any dispute.
As for the increase in disparities Mr Rao spoke about, three points may be made. First, the poor have not become poorer. On the contrary, their overall condition has improved.
The rise in the average age is one piece of evidence; the absence of deaths by starvation even in years of bad monsoon is another; official statistics testify to the sharp drop in the percentage of people below the poverty line.
Secondly, the disparity in India between the top 10 per cent and the bottom 10 per cent is not significantly different from that of France or Britain; it only appears stark because our general level is low.
In addition, Mr Rao ignores the vast expansion of the middle class which has been independent India’s single biggest achievement.
Thirdly, without disparities, there can be no capital accumulation which is vital for economic growth. Indeed, one of our problems has been that the rate of our capital accumulation, impressive in itself, has not been good enough for our needs.
Incidentally, “socialism” can be regarded wholly as an import from the west only on a surface view. In reality, it is well rooted in our medieval culture which eulogised poverty for the people and extravagant display of wealth for the rulers.
Thus, while our ministers pay obeisance to the man in the loin cloth, they fly in special planes when normal flights or trains are available, and when they do travel by road, they invariably move in cavalcades as if to remind the people of royal visitors and invading parties of yore. In the Moghul-Nawabi culture, businessmen were barely tolerated; they have been barely tolerated in independent India as a necessary evil.
That Mr Rao spoke to top bureaucrats on the hypocritical nature of socialist slogans also suggests that he too regards them as instruments of change. That is a hangover of the past in which the state was seen as “mai-baap” (father-mother) and bureaucrats as its instruments.
In this regard, India is, of course, not alone. The “mai-baap” state flows from the logic of mass politics which even dictatorships cannot defy. But sensible governments and leaders are trying to reduce the role of the state. For India that is a grim necessity.
The Economic Times, 5 February 1993