Friday 20 September 2013

SA remains an international joke (PO)

MD Nalapat
Friday, September 20, 2013 - Seven decades after getting free of the British, South Asia is an international joke. Cities across the subcontinent are filthy and with very little evidence of planned development. While those with political connections have become very wealthy, spending increasing amounts of time out of their countries and in Europe and North America, the majority of the population remains under-educated, underfed, poorly housed and desperately poor.

More than four decades ago, this columnist used to walk around streets near his home in Mumbai in the early morning, to refresh himself in the open air after having pored through books for hours. Everywhere, there would be beggars and other destitutes, some asleep but most too hungry and too consumed by pain and discomfort to rest. This columnist was certain that within twenty years, such scenes would disappear into history, when India would be freed of the more extreme manifestations of poverty.

More than double that time has passed, and the only difference between then and now is that the streets are no longer safe for walkabouts during the early hours of the morning. As then, there are destitutes at each street corner, stretching out their hands to beg for a few coins so that they can, for some time at least, still the fires within created by hunger and malnutrition. Historians in India continue to author laudatory tomes on how selfless and magnificent the leaders of India have been, and are.

Recently, a book was written, apparently by someone living abroad, about Sonia Gandhi, in which the architect of India’s 21st century economic collapse is portrayed as a saint who spends much of her time cooking, washing and performing other menial chores for not only her family but staff as well. Another book, just out, is about the youthful Chief Minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh. The only qualification which enabled Akhilesh Yadav to be appointed the Chief Minister of UP is that he is the son of Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav. Birth and marriage certificates are essential to progress in the Byzantine alleyways of Indian politics. Both Akhilesh as well as another Chief Minister who has similar qualifications to the UP politician, Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, have been failures in their job.

They have presided over incompetent administrations that have further lowered the already abysmal level of social services and integrity in their respective states. That has not prevented a well-respected journalist, Sunita Aron, to allow emotions to get the better of intellect and write “Winds of Change”, an account of Akhilesh Yadav that is as tinted in roseate hues as the numerous books about the originator of the (2%) “Nehru Rate of Growth”, Jawaharlal Nehru. When Nehru took charge of India, this country was far more developed than (war-ravaged) Japan or South Korea or indeed almost every country to the west and east of India, including China (whose national product was at that time half of India’s size).

Thanks to his slavish adherence to colonial laws and methods of administration, the country which Nehru inherited has become the home for nearly half the globe’s desperately poor people. Although some efforts at economic reform were made during the 1990s and a bit beyond (till 2003,when Atal Behari Vajpayee’s efforts at change ran out of steam), since Sonia Gandhi took de facto charge of the country appointing Manmohan Singh as the de jure leader, opportunities in India have been further constricted by a raft of new regulations, each clearly intended to generate bribes for avoidance of their penal provisions. Civil servants in India have become masters in obliging politicians by tweaking the system and making changes with the sole objective of multiplying the avenues for corruption.

Till about four years ago, before the malefic effects of the harsh regulatory network masterminded by Sonia Gandhi became clear, India was considered an outlier within South Asia. The country was viewed with some respect, and citizens appearing at immigration counters across the globe were treated with respect. Not any more. Once again, India has become - together with the rest of South Asia – an international joke. Textbooks on geopolitics and governance use South Asia as the best model for what to avoid. They point to the region as a cautionary tale of what takes place when the leadership of countries falls into the hands of those whose only objective is to make as much money as possible out of the system and send this to offshore banking havens.

Of course, all the while they talk about the poor and how all their waking hours are spent in working for the underprivileged. It is a wonder as to how those with such frank hypocrisy manage to sleep at night. Clearly, their consciences have long ago shrivelled into insignificance.

The reason why South Asia remains a puddle of graft and mismanagement is that many of the subcontinent’s leaders still believe that the era of colonialism continues. That their people are a subject people, needing not to be assisted but to be exploited and drained of their substance. That their task as masters of the administration is to grab for themselves and those close to them whatever they can get.

Such a colonial mentality afflicts not only politicians but several civil servants and businesspersons in India as well, none of whom have any hesitation in enriching themselves at the expense of the general interest. At its base, the malady that South Asia suffers from is putrid leadership. And until better alernatives emerge from within a flawed political system and finally take charge, the way Deng Xiaoping did in China or Chiang Ching-kuo in Taiwan, there will remain clusters of destitutes at street corners, silently rebuking with their agony those responsible for such a fate, the VVIPs passing by in their motorcades. These, of course, will never see any beggar, for all such unfortunates would have been taken away and deposited out of sight before the VVIP passes by.

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