Time for India to be democratically selfish

Globe global globalisation a direction called West is now under question
Voices Monday, June 27, 2016 - 17:26

Brexit is an opportunity for India. At the risk of sounding boastful, I want to share a sentence from my 1997 book India is For Sale. “In the Western world, governments have globalised with and not at the expense of their people. It has been painful, but it has been done. Where did we go wrong? Which globe will we be standing on in the next century if we are led by people who make a virtue out of their stupidity.” I will come to the context of this book in a moment.

The opportunity for New Delhi is not in wondering what will happen to the United Kingdom (UK) or the European Union (EU) or for that matter any country or trading bloc in the world. It is in making it happen for India, in negotiating new relationships, in playing India’s market potential to the hilt, in getting out of trade-bloc thinking as well as G-20, G-7 and other narratives which are structurally tilted against India. It lies in not banking entirely on economists, lending institutions and number crunchers to the detriment of people, culture and practices.

Economists do not make economies. Governments and voters do. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the market rhetoric has been shrill and ruthless. A section of economists, bankers and management consultants principally based out of Washington, New York and London contributed their bit by spinning the market language out of control. BRICS was one such creation – the jury on what India gained from this acronym is in. It meant nothing economically, politically and certainly not regionally.

Few people having most and most people having lesser and lesser of the world’s riches and resources could not have continued endlessly and something had to give. That something is Brexit. Till the last minute last week Londoners speaking to other Londoners believed it would not pass. Something like pre-2014 New Delhi hoping that Narendra Modi would fall short of a majority forcing him to go around looking for allies. Elites in all countries and between them think and talk alike.  Self-preservation is their only and only interest.

The overriding message emerging from Brexit is this – markets and laissez faire policies do not address all issues. Neither do banks. Banks lend to rich people and markets cater to those with buying power. An estimated 300 plus million people in India – as many people there are in the US - live under $1.25 a day. The second message is that people also vote with their hearts and cultural impulses with an eye on their immediate needs. The Brexit heart was afraid and culture was confused and irresponsibly threatened. To make matters worse, Brussels had become deaf, dumb and uncouth, its trade deals and requirements a hurdle to national ambition, jobs and growth. Wondering about whether this is right or wrong is not as important as accepting that it is a given now. All this didn’t matter when countries like India and Brazil were making the same arguments. Now the difficulties have come home – the hypocrisy is blatant.


Lets us call out the hypocrisy among world leaders including Indians. As a reporter covering the Uruguay Round of trade talks in the 1990s, I was alarmed at the bulldozing and acrimony developing countries were subjected to. In the beginning I blamed the West till a close member of my family pointed out that nothing was forcing India to crawl. Grow a spine, play your market potential, profile India’s institutions and its robust democracy were some points raised as part of this discussion.India is For Sale was a result of reporting on various negotiations ranging from trade talks to telecoms, human rights, trade and India’s spy versus spy activities in Davos from that optic.

 The Uruguay Round was the most ambitious of all trade talks post World War 11. Unlike those that preceded it, this round went much beyond facilitating trans-border trade in goods mainly through tariff cuts and selective lowering of non-tariff barriers (NTBs). As country after country fell in line, it was clear that the attempt of the US, EU and Japan was to freeze developing countries permanently in a situation of want of capital, goods, technology and service. It is a matter of no small irony that the Geneva-based South Commission – former Indian Prime Minister was once its head – summed it all up when it noted that “…in a number of respects the outcome of the Uruguay Round may vitally affect the domestic development and future of developing countries.”

 The globalisation unleashed by the Uruguay Round and the fall of the Berlin wall was largely a direction. Its free movement of goods, people, capital and services was supposed to unleash opportunities for or all countries. But it resulted in consolidating trading blocs where the US and EU decided the rules. The last two decades have seen a further strengthening of such power bases aided by multilateral and bilateral lending institutions. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to a significant extent even the United Nations (UN) have contributed to this. China is a power-centre on its own playing all cards to its advantage.

What next?

For a start, this is an opportunity for India to cut to chase with responsible hope. New Delhi must take Make in India beyond a slogan to mean make in India for Indians, a market that the whole world wants to enter. New Delhi must use trade laws creatively to protect Indian sectors that need them. Market access is a precious weapon to further national goals. There is no hypocrisy in being India-centric when it comes to defending national economic interests. All countries do it and they are respected for it. This is also called growing a spine.

We must stop dumping language Indians do not recognise. The worst ones doing the rounds are “disruption” and “risk.” As a people Indians are risk averse. Besides how many people pushing others to take the plunge have done it themselves? As for disruption, daily life in the country is one – why seek something that is a hand-me-down from an entirely different context, principally from privileged communities in the US?

And finally, get real about India. The country’s potential is massive. The reason it has not yielded significant results is because generations of self-centred and free loading Indians have reduced national ambitions to mean that of theirs. This seminar – television crowd balks at the slightest challenge to their territory foolishly unmindful of the changes that are occurring across India.

It’s time for New Delhi to be strategic, single-minded and selfish. It’s time to release a flurry of engagement with countries in ways that ensure India’s economic and military interests while at the same time taking care of its cultural diversity and differences. Anything else would be hypocritical and a failure to rise to the challenge that Brexit affords.

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