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Friday , February 15 , 2013
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India Grows at Night: A Liberal Case for a Strong State By Gurcharan Das, Allen Lane, Rs 599

I first met Gurcharan Das (picture) on the night train from Delhi to Kalka sometime in the mid-1980s. We were an unlikely trio in a first-class coupe. There was Das, at the time CEO of Proctor and Gamble. There was the professor, Amiya Kumar Bagchi, from Calcutta. And I was there too, a lecturer in economics from the University of Hyderabad. It was like a scene out of a Graham Greene book. We were all headed to a conference on contemporary India at the Indian Institute for Advanced Studies, Simla, as guests of the professor, Ravinder Kumar, the legendary director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. When our journey began at the Old Delhi railway station, I wondered why Kumar had invited Das. The question was answered by the time we reached Simla. Even as a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that I was at the time, I was impressed by this erudite and knowledgeable CEO of a multinational company.

Three decades later, I now regard Das as the most perceptive analyst of contemporary India. His bestselling book, India Unbound, is perhaps the most thoughtful introduction to post-1991 India. His more reflective volume, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma, is without doubt the wisest commentary on a wide range of issues relating to individual morality, society, law and governance in modern India.

The book under review, India Grows at Night, is a logical next book. In his first book, Das revealed the new wellsprings of growth in the Indian economy. Entrepreneurial energy and middle-class aspirations had been unleashed by the growth processes of post-Green Revolution and post-economic liberalization India. Change was visible across large parts of peninsular and northwestern India. Das travelled, saw the change, met the agents, the beneficiaries, the drivers and the victims of change and told a convincing story of ‘India Unbound’ to the world.

But that growth process had also raised issues about governance, both corporate governance and public policy and administration. These, in turn, had raised new questions about ethics, morality, rights and responsibilities. These became the focus of his second book.

By the end of the first decade of the new century, however, it had become clear to Das that inadequate attention to governance had become a constraint on growth. Was India being bound again? Was a combination of red tape and black money — resulting in the phenomenon of ‘crony capitalism’ — holding India back? Have existing political parties — Left, Right and centre — failed civil society? What political solutions must we seek to revitalize the economy and unleash enterprise and middle-class energies once again? Such are the questions that Das seeks to address in this book.

The book is implicitly divided into three parts: the first identifies the problem of India, the second draws attention to some redeeming features of an otherwise distressing scene, and the third offers a possible way out.

Few will disagree with Das’s identification of what ails India today. A “crisis in the rule of law”, as he puts it, resulting in the creation of a “flailing state”, if not yet a failing one. Das is the kind of advocate of economic liberalization that says ‘let business do what it does best and let government do what it must’ — which is provide education and health for all, invest in infrastructure and urban services, like drinking water and sanitation, and ensure national security and law and order. The economic reforms of the 1990s created greater space for the flowering of Indian enterprise and the rise of a middle class, but not enough has been done to reform government and improve the institutions of governance and public provisioning of basic services.

In short, Das suggests, while capitalism is developing, the ‘dharma’ of capitalism has been given short shrift. This ‘dharma’ is more than just the ‘rule of law’. It is a combination of transparent and efficient governance and ‘trust’ between the various segments of society and the market. Governments and markets must function according to their ‘dharma’, says Das, if they have to earn public ‘trust’.

It is a liberal cause that Das espouses. Indeed, the book’s subtitle could well have been reversed. Das makes out a ‘liberal case for a strong state’ as much as he makes a ‘strong case for a liberal state’. Both are the need of the hour. India needs a ‘strong state’ capable of delivering what a democratic state ought to, but it also needs a liberal state and society capable of living up to the ideas and ideals that define our Constitution and the republic.

At the least, a liberal and strong state must deliver, in Das’s view — and rightly so — (a) transparent and rules-based decision making in government with no arbitrary powers being vested in government officials and ministers, and (b) a speedy and efficient justice delivery process. An arbitrary executive and a slothful judiciary have given a bad name to governance.

There is a curious contradiction between Das’s main argument and the title of his book. By suggesting that “India grows at night when the government sleeps” he would be seen to be suggesting that government does not matter. Rather, the main thrust of the book is to seek a more responsive and responsible government that will in fact enable the full flowering of individual capability and enterprise.

Having diagnosed the problems, it is only natural that Das feels tempted to offer a solution. In a tentative manner he suggests that the first step has to be the creation of a powerful liberal voice and platform and he seeks inspiration from the now defunct Swatantra Party. None of the national or regional political parties come anywhere close to Das’s ideal of a “liberal” political party. Hence his search for a new formation. A second best would be for India’s national parties to, in fact, walk their talk about being truly democratic parties with liberal principles. That is clearly a national project worth pursuing and Das’s book would inspire anyone who feels this way.