“Imagine we’re sitting in, let’s say, a large country somewhere else in the world (other than India) that is attracting lots of foreign investment attention and plaudits for its emergence on the world’s economic and diplomatic scene. We’re on our first visit, and haven’t had time to learn much before we came – and now we’re wondering why we’re here.”
That’s how I started a talk at a dinner last night, when I had just got back to Delhi after six weeks away, observing India and all its troubles and contradictions from afar. Here’s what I said:
“ We’ve only been here a day or two, and already we’ve discovered that a quarter of the country we are visiting is controlled by left-wing rebels bent on gradually decimating democratic rule and established government structures as we know them. There is also occasional devastating religious terrorism by opposing faiths, plus a province in the north that is on the brink of its second foreign-backed insurgency.
There are two tiresome neighbours, one riven with religious-based terrorism that its extremists want to export. The other far bigger neighbour is a long-term threat, and has for years been encouraging the smaller neighbour to do its worst. The larger neighbour, by the way, is thought to be planting bugs in the country’s telecoms (and probably also defence) software systems, but our hosts don’t seem too worried.
We can’t travel very much round the capital because most roads and markets have been dug up by corrupt contractors feeding the greediness of municipal politicians and bureaucrats.
The prime minister is a nice well-meaning elderly guy, but he’s run by a foreign-born lady whose main interest is said to be to make sure her son becomes prime minister one day – or her daughter if he refuses to knuckle down and get married – that’s vital for dynasties.
The PM can’t control many of his ministers, who mainly want to make money for themselves and or their regional parties, thus undermining key areas of the economy such as airlines and airports, telecoms, and mining, and sometimes industrial and other policies such as foreign direct investment, special economic zones, petroleum, agriculture and food supplies
Most parliamentarians – a meaningless title we’ve discovered since most of them do little that’s constructive in parliament – are dynastically getting their sons, daughters, wives and even mistresses into politics. Somehow we can’t believe that’s done for the good of parliament or the country.
Elsewhere personal greed seems to govern sport, ranging from chaotic preparations for some imminent regional games to an astoundingly successful and lucrative private sector cricket league, plus illegal betting (along with the smaller neighbour) on cricket matches. Businessmen and politicians are also conniving to plunder the country’s mineral wealth with scant regard for the environment or the law.
And you can’t even believe what you read in the newspapers – well you can’t anywhere can you, but here the country’s biggest and most famous newspaper prints what it’s paid to print and also gets commercially involved with its advertisers by investing in their stocks and managing their advertising budgets. Paid News it’s called, and if you don’t pay when they want you to, then watch out for unpaid bad news about you.
Oh, and I almost forgot, the capital is wracked by a mosquito-spread deadly fever that’s sprung out of all those construction works I mentioned earlier.
And the other thing I almost forgot is that a few months ago everyone was worried about a terror attack next month during those regional games, but now they’re more worried about all the pot holes and collapsing venues and traffic chaos. Odd isn’t it how priorities change. Let’s hope the terrorists have left, deciding it’s not worth trying to break through all the bedlam – after all, could anyone ever do more damage to the country than it’s doing itself?
But it’s odd, the people living here don’t seem too worried about all this chaos and, even more surprisingly, nor do investors. After all, we haven’t yet fled.“
That was the end of my caricature of today’s India, and I balanced it by saying that there is of course good news. There’s a growth rate nearing 9 or 10%, an increasingly capable and internationalising manufacturing industry, and a highly competitive software and IT industry. India is a brainy country with huge human potential, amazingly achieving what it is with only about a third or so of the population actually contributing much to the growth.
Manmohan Singh, I said, is a caring thoughtful prime minister who tries to do good wherever he can. Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, despite her dynastic preoccupations, has done an outstanding job in transforming herself from a housewife into a national figure, saving the Congress Party and leading it to election victories.
There are also some excellent ministers genuinely trying to make India a better place – notably Palaniappan Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh, and Kapil Sibal, all trying to overcome a decade of mostly poor performance in their ministries, while Pranab Mukherjee manages the stresses and strains of a mixed economy and an even more mixed coalition.
No one at the small dinner I was addressing (in the luxurious cocoon of a private dining room at China Garden in Delhi’s Hyatt Hotel) attacked my spoof. They all – Indians and expats – knew it was valid. We discussed the need for better more focussed politicians, the real causes of corruption and Naxalism, and the over-riding need for dramatic improvements in education.
The sad thing though was that my spoof could not be challenged. That is India as it is today!