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It’s been the best of times for us, even if looked like the worst

Friday, 31 December 2010 - 2:15am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

I hope readers will allow me to indulge the feeling that the advent of DNA in July 2005, coincided with a turning point in all our fortunes.

Five-and-a-half-years is not a long time in the history of a nation — or even a newspaper. But just as each generation is entitled to feel that it is living in extraordinary times, I hope readers will allow me to indulge the feeling that the advent of DNA in July 2005, coincided with a turning point in all our fortunes.

In 2005, we were an aspiring economic superpower. Now, we have arrived. We are more than a trillion-dollar economy; we are the world’s No 4 economy in terms of what the rupee can buy. Five years ago, China was the toast of the world and India, a stumbling elephant.

Today, India is a viable alternative to the Chinese model of development. Capitalism was the ruling ideology then. Now, there are multiple capitalisms contending for supremacy: authoritarian capitalism of the Chinese variety, taxpayer-backed capitalism in the west, and India’s muddle-path capitalism.

The electorate everywhere has changed. The US has elected a man whose middle name is Hussein — something unthinkable since 9/11.

In India, too, change has arrived. If the first half of the decade was driven by terror and communal rage, development is the currency of politics today. All governments — at Centre and states — that performed reasonably well have been re-elected. Anti-incumbency is almost a distant nightmare.

As we come to the last day of the decade, it is important for us to see what went right with us rather than what went wrong. It is, of course, customary in the media to call every year annus horribilis since we are seldom lacking in tragedy, skullduggery or reasons to hang our heads in shame. But the more appropriate term for almost any year of the last quinquennium was annus mirabilis — year of wonders.

Wikipedia informs me that the term annus mirabilis is actually a poem dished out by John Dryden in 1667, the year in which London experienced many bad events, including the great fire. Dryden apparently was not trying to say it was a great year — just that it had many high points — and things could have been worse. So thank god for miracles in annus mirabilis.

This is exactly the case with India. We have had a great year in 2010, and almost every year before that during the UPA regime, but we don’t seem to know it. Consider: We had a Suresh Kalmadi running the Commonwealth Games, but everything went off well and we collected our best-ever haul of medals. We have had an Andimuthu Raja making a mess of spectrum auctions, but telecom consumers have never had it so good. Telecom companies (especially the new ones) may be bleeding, but the aam aadmi is having a ball making long-distance to his village for a few paise a minute.

We have had a prime minister fiddling while the treasury is being looted for partisan ends, but the world is in such bad shape that no one is noticing how badly we are running our economy. Rather, the uninformed world opinion is that we are managing wonderfully well.

Since 2004-2005, more or less since DNA was launched, India has been the most fortunate country in the world. We have had terror attack after terror attack — three major ones in Mumbai, and many others in other cities — but terror is not making any headway. The unsaid consensus among all communities is that terror is leading nowhere, and is a waste of time and money.

At another level, it’s almost as if the competence of terrorists has fallen to the level of the people trying to thwart them (our cops and intelligence agencies). The 26/11 terrorists killed and maimed over 170 Indians, but without a clear goal they managed to get themselves killed or caught (sorry, Kasab). The net result is that they brought ignominy to their sponsors — Pakistan. So, even 26/11 benefited India.

But nowhere have we been as blessed as in our economy — once again by accident. Thanks to the stuttering reforms of 1996-2004, when the rag-tag United Front and NDA governments ruled, the Indian economy has had a rollicking time in the subsequent UPA years. The UPA got the credit for a booming economy that it had done nothing to create.

George Bush’s expansionary policies induced “irrational exuberance” in the global economy, and the rising tide of easy money lifted all boats, including India’s. That’s a miracle we need to thank many people for. But if you want something to feel ashamed about, here it is: sub-Saharan Africa did as well, if not better.

Even corruption, mind-boggling corruption of the Raja and Kalmadi varieties, is not an unmixed curse. We may rave and rant against corruption, but we have to reckon with the benefits, too. The problem is that our entire system is built on relationships — not rules. If you need to get something done, you have to know someone. If you don’t, you have to pay someone. This shadow economy probably provides employment to millions of people — and constitutes a sub-system with its own survival capabilities. At the macro level, the fact is you can’t dismantle the system without huge pain and job losses.

On the other hand, the reality is that funny money is driving the India story. Who do you think are the FIIs? Some of them are, in fact, routing mechanisms for illegal Indian money held abroad. That money is coming in from the Mauritius route through anonymous participatory notes.

This inflow is driving the stock markets, which in turn is helping Pranab Mukherjee to balance his books. When thousands of crores are being wasted in pork-barrel schemes, he needs more revenues — and he’s getting it from the markets. If one spectrum auction brought us ignominy, another (the 3G spectrum auction) brought Mukherjee untold wealth — over Rs1,06,000 crore. As foreigners — and Indians routing illegal wealth through FIIs — piled into Indian stocks, Mukherjee reaped another bonanza by disinvesting public sector stocks. Coal India set the ball rolling, and there’s more to come. The black money stashed abroad is helping the exchequer. So who’s the villain here?

Let’s also look at corruption and crony capitalism another way. If the big boys are seeking global glory (Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis and Mahindras, among them), regional capital is rising within India. The real story of the last five years is not about the big boys going global, but regional capitalists going national with political help from state-level satraps. Just in case you haven’t noticed, the rise of the Adanis, GVKs, GMRs and Marans has been made possible only because they have been able to leverage their regional political connections to the hilt. They are now powers to reckon with. They are creating wealth and jobs — even if one wonders about their ethical deficit.

The best part of it all is that our polity has matured — even if our intellectuals have not. When the Allahabad high court gave its Ayodhya verdict, politicians were disappointed when there was no communal fallout. Our intellectuals tried to whip up passions by saying it was loaded against Muslims. The latter, sensibly, decided to let the courts take a call. When the Kashmiris renewed their call for azadi with stone-throwing vigour, it was the team of interlocutors and intellectuals like Arundhati Roy who tried to fan the flames unnecessarily. The rest of India was not amused.

Our liberals are really fighting yesterday’s battles. They believe that human rights is about criticising the state, but the biggest rights violations are being perpetrated by non-state actors — whether it is the al Qaeda or the Maoists or the Kashmiri bigots who drove the minorities away to Jammu. The state’s violations of human rights are a consequence of the actions of non-state actors in an era when a few committed individuals can hold entire societies to ransom and blow hundreds of people to bits.

I would like to conclude on an optimistic note. Warts and all, we seem to be getting many things right — even if the process by which we get things right is wrong. At DNA, both in the news sections, and in the opinion pages, we have tried to chronicle the saga of a nation coming to grips with its own destiny, with its own true potential. It’s messy, frustrating, and infuriating for people who want to see the country move faster. Very often, we head in the wrong direction before correcting course at the last hour.

DNA’s journey has been as exciting as India’s over the last five years, and as I serve out my last day as editorial head of this newspaper, I would like to thank all my readers and stakeholders for giving me this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hold forth and be heard. Goodbye.

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