Saturday 7 November 2020

Minimum Government Essential for Remaking India (Sunday Guardian)


Surprisingly, the first Economic Survey of the Modi government magnanimously gave high marks to its predecessor.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, with assistance from Satyen Pitroda, ensured that the days of waiting for hours and even days to put a long-distance call through ended. The flaw was that new private players were kept out of the telecom industry, while only those with connections to the ruling establishment were allowed in most sectors. Mani Shankar Aiyar sought to nudge the Congress government into decentralising its financial and administrative authority to the state and local level. This led to signs of panic from both the Central bureaucracy and the owners of large hotels in Delhi. Most of the customers of such hotels were businesspersons and others who visited the capital to persuade politicians in power and the bureaucrats clustered around them to sanction the many permissions needed to undertake most activities in India. It was Narasimha Rao who launched Reform 1.0 by the simple process of throwing into the dustbin several of the regulations that had been put in place over decades of growth that by the standards of East and even Southeast Asia was paltry. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee launched Reform 1.5 by making the working of government less burdensome for enterprises and gifted the UPA an economy improving in health. The numerous policies of the UPA over its decade in office had the effect of damping down the economic potential of India. Surprisingly, the first Economic Survey of the Narendra Modi government magnanimously gave high marks to its predecessor in contrast to the many statements made by the BJP during the tenure of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This was presumably because of the fact that it was drafted by the same officials who had held high positions during the UPA period. In a gesture that was Gandhian in its forbearance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given an honoured place in the new government to those officials who had served in high positions during the previous decade, just as he gave pride of place to those who had been prominent in the government headed by Vajpayee. When he was sworn in as the 44rth President of the US in 2009, Barack Obama similarly filled his team with those who had been in the Clinton administration rather than focus on bringing the change in personnel that was anticipated. Presumably, Obama felt that the mere fact of being the first African-American President of the US was change enoigh, and went ahead with a Clinton Lite administration. It was only during the concluding phase of his eight years in office that Obama broke loose from the Clinton shadow, and went ahead with initiatives in Cuba, Iran and India that broke substantial ground where relations with the three were concerned. After moving to the White House in 2017, President Donald J. Trump reversed his predecessor’s breakthrough “sunshine” policies towards Teheran and Havana, but doubled down on the convivial relationship between Washington and Delhi that had been started during the post-Clinton period in the Obama administration.

While President Trump was certainly crucial in the evolving Indo-US partnership, the credit should also go to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The  Bush administration had taken the unwise step of denying a visa to the then Gujarat Chief Minister, an error continued by the Obama administration till the people of India gave a parliamentary majority to the BJP in 2014. On his part, Modi did not allow this and other hostile policies towards him to affect his focus on bettering ties with the US. Unexpectedly for those unaware of the policy focus of Modi and Obama, the two bonded immediately. It helped that the National Security Advisor to President Obama was Susan Rice and that Ashton Carter was the Secretary of Defense. Both understood the centrality of an Indo-US partnership in the Indo-Pacific era, although it has yet to be seen if a President Biden would include Rice and Carter in his administration. The fact that he chose Kamala Harris as his running mate has been an encouraging sign that Joe Biden has moved beyond the obsessively Atlanticist shadow of the Clintons. He has an asset in his spouse Jill. According to those who know her, it was fortunate for newly elected Senator Biden that he met Jill, whose exceptional qualities resemble those of Biden’s eldest son Beau. It was a tragedy not only for the family Beau Biden left behind by his passing but also for his country that Beau had his life cut short by a fell disease. Biden’s second son has been controversial, and the generous payments made to him by entities controlled by the Chinese Communist Party have been used by the Republican Party as evidence of Joe Biden being in Beijing’s pocket thanks to his surviving son. However, what is more likely is that Hunter may simply have been following the “American as Apple Pie” policy of pocketing dollars, wherever they may come from. There is therefore almost no chance of Hunter Biden having any affinity to China. He appears to be a go-getter who would have accepted big payments from almost any country without any attachment except to the money. Even were Hunter Biden to be in thrall to the PRC, it is impossible to believe that a President Biden would, as a consequence, soften his policies towards China during Cold War 2.0. In this context, it must be remembered that it has been President Trump who has imposed harsher measures on Russia than even Jimmy Carter. Compared to President Trump, President Bush was a “panda hugger” during almost the entirety of his eight years in the White House. This when the Democratic Party has endlessly repeated Hillary Clinton’s 2016 charge that Trump was a Russian puppet. Judging by the sanctions on Moscow during the past three years, if this is how a puppet behaves, Washington needs more of them.

Although there have been incidents in the past, such as senior officials refusing to meet individuals who are prominent in the Democratic Party such as Pramila Jayapal, it is a certainty that the interests binding Washington and Delhi will combine with the diplomatic skills of Narendra Modi and the genial personality of Joe Biden to ensure that the relationship between the leaders of the world’s two giant democracies will be as close as those between Modi and Obama, and that visits by each to the other country will take place soon. Apart from the fact that it is certain that the soon-to-be Vice-President of the US is certain to visit Chennai after the obligatory stopover in Delhi. Reforms have accelerated during Modi 2.0, and changes are needed, such as allowing security and defence partners to have their companies set up 100% owned entities in India. And that for Covid-19, a President Biden saves millions of lives the way President Bush did for the HIV pandemic by sourcing from India 90% of essential therapeutics for preventing HIV from being the killer it had been. Another partnership between the US and India would ensure that drug cocktails of very low cost could be disseminated across the world to sharply bring down death rates from the novel coronavirus from the present levels. Should Biden make India the priority that Obama and Trump have, he would ensure a partnership that could decide the result of Cold War 2.0.

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