Friday, May 17, 2013

Emerging India needs to introspect

Three players from an IPL franchisee have just been arrested on grounds of spot-fixing in an IPL game in the 2013 edition of the tournament. Take a step back and look at the list of other scandals that we have seen in India in the last few years - coalgate, railgate, fodder scam, match-fixing in international cricket, 3G fiasco, mining scam, Satyam Computers, and a few older ones such as the hawala scam of the 90s, Bofors in the 80s etc. There is even an official list of scams available online.

I get a feeling that we are all convinced that India as a nation is on the cusp of its moment in history, of finally doing something about the emerging superpower that the world has been talking about. Yet, I am equally convinced that beneath that conviction, lie factors that are so intrinsically Indian that we are almost forced to think whether it's our turn to take on the world now at all. There are too many impediments that are a derivative of our own dreams and aspirations that is stopping us in our tracks, so to speak. Things like corruption, malaise, lack of probity in public life, total lack of transparency, incredibly high levels of unproved nepotism in different spheres, financial scandals, politicians with a criminal background governing us, supreme pressures of coalition politics that deflates any attempt at making sound economic policy (think Tata Nano) and so on.

A part of the reason, I think, is because we are a victim of our own inactions and inabilities to solve many of the above issues. Yes, many of us may be aware of these issues and have potentially had many a coffee corner discussions on the malaise that bleeds India. Yet, we have lacked the collective courage of conviction to get united in our attempt to fight these elements that are potentially stopping us from realising our true economic potential. That leads to frustration and dissatisfaction i.e. when we have the potential to do something, and then that potential is not going down the road of true realisation due to internal politiking and differences, it curbs dreams. I can only cite the example of Japan, which fought against all odds, with great national pride after 1945 and rebuilt itself to become a world-beater. Do we have such pride in India left?

Take the latest IPL scam where three cricketers of a franchisee have been arrested for alleged spot-fixing. All three of them have emerged from distant corners of the country and came into the IPL, regional cricket, and one of them has even represented the country. Why in the wild world would they resort to spot-fixing and put their careers on their line? Why succumb to the very elements that I talk of i.e. doing everything they can to stop themselves from realising their true potential? Where is the ability to still do a few things the good old-fashioned way i.e. keep a goal, work hard on it, and go and realise it. 

I think that such sad incidents (IPL) are cases of an India that wants to grab the attention of the world, but is not necessarily being given that stage readily. Resorting to any sort of malaise is the last thing that the country needs in its quest for international political and economic glory. Can we not find a way to direct our frustration to more concrete and positive directions?

For far too long, we have been an emerging economy. And I fear that with many of these anti-social elements and scandals at play, we may take a longer time in actually emerging and making a grand arrival on the world stage. We, as a nation, have traditionally not been a rich part of the world. It is only post-1991 that many of us have actually understood what it means to make money and more importantly what it means to use that money to the country's advantage. Yet, with national scams from every discernible part of country, we have grossly misdirected the ability to become an economic superpower. Rather, we have become a victim of our own fantasies. 

That's why, as clich├ęd as it may sound, we are at a tipping point. We cannot let all our internal issues, stop us from realising our true potential. Nor, should we allow ourselves greed and lure to get the better of us

It is not wrong to make money, nor is it wrong to dream big in life. But, we need to always remember that the one lasting identity of a person, or a nation for that matter, is integrity and probity. I don't think any of us, who is a right-thinking citizen, will ever be able to respect any sort of success that is achieved through unwarranted means. 

We are a 5,000 year old civilisation and have some serious tradition, values, principles and ethics to look after. The sheer dream of becoming an economic superpower should never result in India losing the very values and principles that we have been known for. That is a price that is far too expensive to pay, and one that I am certainly not game for. Play the game hard, but play it the right way, as I have always seen and learnt by watching sport. It holds true for every other walk of life.

Given all this, I therefore think, that we need some serious introspection on where we are headed as a country. We need to think for ourselves i.e. whether we are on our way to becoming an economic superpower with the right values and principles, or, whether we are ready to give into the lure of economic freedom at the cost of values. I vote for the former option.

But achieving that balance of economic freedom with a high value quotient is not easy to achieve. We need many things to fall into place for that to become a reality. For example, we need politicians who typically are of high moral and public probity, we need citizens who pay their taxes regularly, we need corporates that invest in growth through the right channels and have every word of the corporate governance law executed in letter and spirit, we need sports games (not just IPL) to have the highest form of credibility, lest, sporting bodies will risk going bankrupt and losing the interest of the sports fan. We need people from every profession to deliver the highest levels of professionalism that is possible, but not at the cost of ethics and moral turpitude. The list of requirements is quite long!

Some of these points I make above may appear dreamy-eyed. But, if we do not achieve those standards, no amount of policy-making or foreign investment is going to get us on a path of economic freedom with strong values. We will rake in the money, yes, but at a price that is potentially irreversible i.e. loss of values. There may be arguments that money and values may not go hand-in-hand. But, that is the example that we as Indians should strive to set, for the world to follow. Wouldn't that be great? It would make me a very, very, proud Indian!

What India needs in 2014

The national elections in India are still a few months away (though some believe that the mega event could happen sooner rather than later). I am not political science student, nor a trained journalist or any other expert on politics. My only credential is that I am a right-thinking citizen of the country who just wants some solid governance.

In preparation for 2014, here's my wish list of what Indian officials need to do long before the elected members reach the hallowed portals of the Parliament House in New Delhi. Some of the items on my wish list may be a bit dreamy-eyed, but it might just warrant inclusion given the sheer lack of ideas in any case.
  • We need some concerted efforts by the Election Commission with other authorities such as the Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax, etc on all current politicians who are likely to contest in 2014.
  • Start procuring latest information and conducting a background check on all the current members of Parliament. Look at their income tax returns, their financial standing, and their known sources of income. See if there is a case of disproportionate assets. Any discrepancy here, or litigation that is not yet resolved, or unlikely to be resolved are clear grounds for disallowing the candidate to contest
  • Bring in some performance measures - look for contributions made by the existing politicians in terms of bridges built, schools started, hospitals built, etc. What sort of role have they played in infrastructure building in the country? This could be for any part of India, but, at the very least, needs to be for their own constituency/state
  • Does the politician currently holding an office have a criminal background? Disallow him from contesting again.
  • Check whether the current crop of politicians is educated or not. At the very least, they should have a Bachelor's degree. If not, they have no standing to represent the people they claim to represent now, all over again
  • Technology - have the politicians from a particular province created an environment where the local population has access to technological means of governance i.e. internet cafe, online learning
  • What has the politician done to make people in his province more employable? Has he created an environment for learning, made education more affordable and accessible? Has he brought in a few companies to invest or start operations in his locality? Even if long-term, has he at least thought of such initiatives?
  • Look for the number of foreign visits made by the politician in his current team and the costs of such trips to the exchequer. Based on that, look for how many of such visits translated to core economic value to the country? Did it result in attracting investors to the nation, or, did it result in some solid brand building in foreign political circles that helps India's perception in the world etc. If it was a leisure trip, disallow such politicians from contesting again. They cannot use the taxpayer's money for their pleasure.
  • Check contracts - for every politician worth his salt, and who has signed on a contract or has been a party to a contract signed for or on behalf of the government, check antecedents.  Check if the transaction was a clean one and that there were no kickbacks. If found guilty, punish him and disallow contesting elections.
  • Influencing the law - just like we have seen in Railgate, Coalgate etc, there must be reasonable grounds in many parts of officialdom to suspect influencing things that are outside the rules. While it is not possible to check on every potential decision made in government, any behavioural or procedural deviation from normal protocol should be considered suspect and investigated. We do not need people in governance to misuse their position for private good. Any act done for public good, even if via correct use of influence, is still tolerable and can be allowed. Not otherwise
  • Corporate governance on politicians - all of us are aware of the corporate governance norms that are applicable to companies. Is there any way for election authorities to prescribe some such governance framework for politicians that are measurable, doable and most importantly reportable? 
  • Election budgets - politicians are known to spend truckloads of taxpayers' money for election campaigning, propaganda, publishing materials, using strategic offices across the country, and travelling etc. We need a serious propriety audit of these expenses, not just a regular statutory audit. Sources and applications of funds need to be very clearly identified and be traceable. Any deviation here or lack of transparency, are again clear grounds for dismissing the candidate. This is equally true for non-election expenditure that the politician would have incurred in his current term in office.
I am sure that there are more ways to tie down politicians in order to curb any behavioural, financial or other excesses. I am only pointing out that for clean, good governance, there needs to be a far greater sense of getting ready for an election, rather than starting on building checks and balances at the eleventh hour. Advance preparation with the intent of providing the citizens the option to vote for clean, good, dependable candidates will go a long way in the prosperity of the nation. It needs will, and for a change, administrative and judicial will, as against the usual political will. 

Can we do some of these recommendations, at least? Or, are we going to allow ourselves to be ruled by another set of corrupt officials and then crib. The choice to be proactive is ours, and is now.