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Out of my mind: An election for future India

2014 Lok Sabha Polls, Meghnad Desai column, Indian Express column General election, Rahul Gandhi, NArendra Modi,  Arvind Kejriwal

Just think of it. The  three main contenders most often mentioned as likely prime ministers, or even the next seven or so, were all born after 1947. Except for PM hopefuls Lal Krishna Advani, Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav — all else are children of independent India. The majority of electors were also born post 1947 and a large proportion after Emergency.

Had Rajiv Gandhi lived and become PM in 1991, Indian politics may have shifted to a younger generation. But that moment was lost. The premature deaths of their fathers has also propelled some yuvarajs into frontline positions, but in the Congress they cannot get to the top as the slot is pre-booked. The Janata Party movement brought students into politics. Hence, we have Lalu Prasad (born in 1948) and Nitish Kumar (1951) in Bihar. Narendra Modi (1950) is of Janata vintage, while Arvind Kejriwal (1968) and Rahul Gandhi (1970) are bachchas. There are also, for the first time ever, three women contenders for the PM position — Mayawati (1956), Mamata Banerjee (1955) and Jayalalithaa (1948). The times they are a-changin’.

It is not merely age which is the new element. Attitudes are also different. Old India was ambivalent about the world outside. As far as the West was concerned (and Indians don’t care about the rest),  Indians craved approval but harboured resentment at the slightest hint of being ignored, or worse, being treated like everyone else. There was an exaggerated fear about the outside world ganging up against India or being unfairly stronger. Young India is not afraid. The world is just a short airplane trip away and they can be as good at managing their father’s kirana shop as any multinational in New York. There is nothing young India thinks it cannot do and it has role  models to follow. Satya Nadella is their representative as is Indra Nooyi. At home, they have Viswanathan Anand and Sachin Tendulkar.

Politics has not quite caught up with this India. It still lives in an India where there is a suspicion of markets. India began with excessive faith in the efficacy of government policy and State ownership of industry. The result has been there for all to see — crony socialism as well as crony capitalism. Getting a subsidy of one rupee to a BPL household costs more than three rupees. Coal India and Food Corporation of India as well as the many  PSU banks burdened with bad loans (mainly given to politicians) tell us a story of corruption and inefficiency.

Young India is  not afraid of markets. It is savvy about online information as to what prices are and how they move. Old India thinks in terms of caste politics and vote banks, especially in its most backward parts. It fusses about BPL and inclusive growth while young India is aspirational and wants to get out and compete. Old Indian politics is about patronage with the politicians as the agents who you need to get what you are owed. You end up paying the agents instead. Young India wants its rightful claims delivered as required. It wants the politics mired with sleaze and corruption out of the way. It wants an efficient machine, not a paternalistic one.

The government elected after May 16 has the opportunity to respond to this future India. There is a chance to remove many of the tired assumptions of old politics — its inefficient Statism, its undemocratic practices in political parties, its secretiveness about party funding. If it is bold, it can dismantle the moribund structures of State-owned banks and companies and free the system from the possibility of cronyism. The Indian State should divest most of its possessions. If nothing else, this will make it possible to reduce the burden of interest charges which eat up 10 times what the government spends on health.

India has been an open trading economy for much of its history. The British introduced us to Statist policies in the 20th century. The licence and control regimes date back to the Second World War.

They infected  us with the nationalisation syndrome. The British, themselves, have moved on. The time has come to move on ourselves.

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