Upward curve

By Sekhar Raha
  • Published 2.03.09

The number of standing ovations that Barack Obama received in his first address to Congress was testimony to the inspiration and leadership he conveyed to a troubled nation. The speech leant heavily on John F. Kennedy’s style of countering and balancing individual demands with personal service to the nation. These are very early days for this administration and promises will have to be gauged against delivery. Leaving aside the rhetoric, there are some takeaways which could be lessons for India.

Firstly, the critical issues were limited to just three in number — energy, health, and education — a focused action list that everyone can remember. Secondly, besides dealing with the immediate problems, equal weightage was given to longer-term resolutions to lay the foundation for a more competitive nation. Thirdly, there was stress on audits of performance and fiscal discipline. Repeatedly underlined was the responsibility that the legislators shouldered to leverage the current adverse situation to reform a nation, anticipating tomorrow’s priorities for today’s children.

India is a few months away from a general election. Yet, most people would be hard put to list even three items of substance that their preferred political party will strive for to build a more competitive India. In a few weeks, each party will go through the ritual of standing in a line and holding aloft a manifesto, about which neither the electorate nor the elected members will have much knowledge.

Does it matter? Well, it should. Take just one objective India has in common with Obama’s view — to give priority to education. India is a maturing nation where employment and investment are increasingly spreading from the metros to the mofussil towns, and a deepening of the middle class is moving consumption into rural markets. More people have a stake in how their government performs, not just in hand-outs, but in building a competitive nation for the future. Pivotal to this is the reform needed for the educational system. A child entering school will have to be given the relevant inputs to prepare him or her to obtain employment in 15 years’ time in what will be a very different knowledge economy in an increasingly globalized job market.

Upward curve

To succeed, due consideration should be given to the recommendations of thinking futurist bodies such as the National Knowledge Commission. While recognizing the fundamental right to primary education, politicians must appreciate that this minimum is shifting upwards such that higher education can no longer be regarded as a privilege but as an essential route to imparting the relevant training for an employment market of increasingly sharpened and specific skills. A minister in charge of a portfolio like education should preferably be of an age to understand and share the aspirations of a school-going child.

India has demonstrated that it has the talent to look beyond the here and now. It has performed well during adversity. Eighteen years ago, it turned a national financial crisis into an opportunity to bring about radical economic change. The spreading international reach of Indian companies shows their resultant strength.

Increasingly, the electorate seems to be choosing performance over anti-incumbency. So, one other message from Obama has relevance. Mindful of the expenditure that his programmes would entail, Obama volunteered transparency on government expenditure through a publicly accessible website giving full knowledge of how public money was being spent. India has a sound Right to Information Act. Leveraging it to make public expenditure more transparent is a small step that would be a giant leap forward. Let us hope that the politicians are listening, and that there will be some visionary thinking towards building an environment of opportunity for the future generations.