Two ideas of India

A fortuitous coincidence caused me to hear Amartya Sen talk about what he believed was wrong with the Indian development model in the same week that Narendra Modi expounded his economic ideas before students of Delhi University. And, it was for me as if I had accidentally come upon a two-sided mirror that reflected two completely opposite images of India. The image that Dr. Sen conjured up at the Kolkata Literary Festival was bleak, old, sad and hopeless. The one that Gujarat's Chief Minister conjured up for the gathering of students was vibrant with hope, dreams and possibilities.

Dr. Sen was not wrong in what he said. He pointed out the horrors of half of Indian households not having toilets and of half of India's children being malnourished. And, he talked of the need for drastic improvements in public healthcare and education. It was his analysis and solutions that were worrying. He appeared to believe that healthcare in India had been privatised. 'India is the only country in the world that is trying to have a health transition on the basis of a private healthcare that doesn't exist.'

The truth is that more than 80 per cent of Indians are forced to use private healthcare because public healthcare is so appalling. The same is true of schools. Dr. Sen saw the National Advisory Council's new food bill as the solution to malnutrition in Indian children. It is not. It will be just another expensive mistake because the solutions to malnutrition in children cannot come from massive centralised schemes but from interventions at the village level.

It is Dr. Sen's ideas that have prevailed ever since Nehruvian socialism became the Indian state's economic ideology. It has been a return to 'socialist' economic policies in the past four years, and big government spending on supposed poverty alleviation that have brought us down to 5 per cent GDP growth which is the virtual equivalent of the old 'Hindu rate of growth'. And, it is schemes like MNREGA that have revived the 'maibaap sarkar' mentality.

Narendra Modi took the opposite view to Dr. Sen. He talked of how India could become the most prosperous country in the world simply by using her resources better. He talked of how having the youngest population of any country could be turned into a huge asset by skills training. He talked of Adivasi people in his state exporting bananas to Finland and coming to him with a request that he improve their roads so that their produce could be transported with less damage. He talked of how if you ate tomatoes in Afghanistan or drank milk in Thailand, it was likely to have come from Gujarat and he explained that this new vitality in agriculture had happened because of concerted reforms.

He talked of how tourism could bring prosperity and, as far as I can remember, became the first major Indian politician to do so. Some of our poorest states are poor only because they have not understood how to use pristine beaches, high mountains and magnificent temples as their unique selling point. The real advantage of using tourism as a tool for economic growth is that the infrastructure tourism needs benefits local people even more.

Roads, modern telecommunications and high standards of civic infrastructure are not things that benefit only tourists. But, since tourists do not come to places that do not have them, state governments investing in tourism build them with speed. Sadly, more often than I can recount I have heard important political leaders tell me that tourism is only for people who can live in 5-star hotels. Mr. Modi appears to take a different view.

It is his bad luck that some of his colleagues in the BJP and the Sangh parivar are unlikely to rally behind his new economic vision for India. They remain so blind to India's new realities that the BJP president did not notice as he washed his sins in the Kumbh Mela that he should have said something about the horribly polluted rivers he was dipping himself in. The head of the RSS meanwhile tried to stir up old passions for that temple in Ayodhya without noticing that not even the gathering of ascetics and 'saints' he addressed was seriously impressed. Young Indian voters lost interest long ago.

The campaign to malign Modi is so powerful that it is possible that he may never become prime minister. So let us at least hope that the next general election throws up a leader who can commit to moving India towards an idea of development that involves the active participation of the people. The old idea of the beneficent welfare state is now definitely defunct. And, if it is not, then it should be because it is founded on the principle that there must always be poverty to 'alleviate'.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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