Author and thinker Gurcharan Das has seen India evolve since her birth. Over these years, he has also transformed from a socialist to a liberal and penned his observations and thoughts in his books, the latest one being ‘Another Sort of Freedom – A Memoir’.
Recently, at a talk at The International Centre Goa (ICG), the octogenarian philosopher offered answers to the audience’s queries from the experiences of India he holds within him.
In a tete-a-tete with Gomantak Times Digital, the prolific writer said, economically, India was in a good place, but today it needs urgent governance reforms. Being a diehard optimist, he believes the world will finally overcome the current threat to liberalism by fascism.
In your last book, you speak of temporary insanity – at the individual and national levels – do you see glimpses of it even today?
I was relating it (temporary insanity) to violence. We’ve had periodic episodes of violence since the partition. The big ones were the 1984 Delhi riots. Then, the 2002 Gujarat riots. I have described both in my book. They were violence the states could have prevented. Since 2002, we’ve not had any violence, only individual and sporadic lynchings. And those are not temporary insanity but murders. They are different from the violence during partition, which was spontaneous.
Are these (murders) a dangerous trend?
Where the danger lies is Muslims feeling insecure in our country. You don’t need 180 million (Muslims) to do anything but just a few 100 could join up with the global Islamic terror and that could undo all the good things that are happening. Strategically, it is not even a moral issue, it is common sense that you don’t make them feel insecure. We (India) have a very moderate Muslim population – a small number joined ISIS or Al Qaeda. Britain and France had much bigger numbers of people who joined the Islamic terror. India stood out as an example of moderate Muslim nation. So, why alienate them? Why make them feel insecure? That’s my only point.
It is an unnecessary problem to take on. The economy is in a reasonably good shape. Best policy for India is 8 per cent economic growth. If we keep at it (8 per cent), we will wipe out poverty in the next few decades. Essentially, we will become a middle-class country.
How do you see the average GDP growth rate of 7 per cent since the turn of the millennium?
Ideally, I would like it to be 8 per cent. In a democracy, it’s very difficult to do an 8-per-cent growth rate but a 7-per-cent-plus is what we have done for the last 30 years. Now, we need to just get the model of growth right, which is a labour-intensive growth that creates jobs. For that, we have to create an industrial revolution. Every country did it that way – through export-oriented and labour-intensive manufactures. The conditions for industrial revolution are far better today than in 1991.
Infrastructure has improved. Road milage has doubled since 2011. Port handling capacity has quadrupled. With GST, we are one market. There were 44 per cent Indians with bank accounts. Now, everybody has a bank account on the phone. If we just focus on that (positive economic growth), the rest is a distraction. Hindutva is an unnecessary distraction. It’s nice for Hindus to feel proud. I would rather it be Indian nationalism than Hindu nationalism.
If you were to write your 2012 book – India Grows at Night (while the government sleeps) – today, would you title it – India Grows at Night (while the government prays)?
We (India) still have to do more reforms and India still grows at night. The big reforms we need are not economic reforms but governance reforms. We need to reform the judiciary. Why should it take 17 years to get justice? Why can’t we get it in few years like everywhere else? Then the police. Why should I be scared to go near the police? Why should the police only work for the chief minister (people in power)? The police should give protection to the opposition as much as the ruling party. We need to give autonomy to the police. Both in the state and the central legislatures, one out of four members have a criminal record. This also needs to be addressed.
I’m sympathetic to what the (Prime Minister) Modi is saying about our country being in an election mode all the time. I like the British system; they have elections twice in five years – once for the national legislature and then for the state legislature. Finally, the bureaucracy also needs to be reformed.
Is India growing despite the state?
I don’t like the Hindutva stuff but in many areas he (Modi) has put the country in a much better position than before. The budgets by (Finance Minister) Nirmala Sitharaman are very much growth-oriented. The big reforms that still need to be done (are) the land acquisition law which he (Modi) tried to do but got scared by Rahul Gandhi’s jibe of suit boot ki sarkar. He tried to do the labour code and farm laws also. Modi also has to realise that these are big reforms.
(British Prime Minister) Margerat Thatcher used to say that 20 per cent of her time was spent doing the reform and 80 per cent selling them. These have to be sold to the people. The market is invisible. That’s why (Scottish economist) Adam Smith called it the invisible hand. Millions of people working for their self-interest, making profit, ultimately leads to the growth of the country.
Do you see crony capitalism taking over free market capitalism?
I disagree. I think the market works. The problem with capitalism is it has a tendency (where) if a big guy gets a leading market share others have a very tough time but that’s how the market works.
(Because of consolidation in the telecom sector), the digital revolution is very real today. That’s why I say our conditions are just ripe for industrial revolution. With disillusionment with China, like Apple phone factories that have come here we can get some of the other MNCs which are disillusioned with China to set up shop here. That way we’ll have made it.
Are we ready for that? We have not been very successful in setting up semiconductor industry in India.
Semiconductor is very expensive. Now, we are saying that as the third largest economy we have got to be self-sufficient. In our case, if China invades Taiwan – which is a possibility – we will be dependent on China for semiconductor. We’ve got to do it for self-sufficiency reason not for economic reason. Economically, we are in a far better condition but if Modi wants to realise his dream of being a developed economy by 2047, he will have to attack the more difficult problem of governance. None of the parties want to do it. I don’t think he (Modi) will do it either.
He has elections to win…
If he wins the next election, he should do it. Even Margaret Thatcher took on the bureaucracy only after the Falklands War. She did two kinds of reforms. First term, it was economic reforms. In her second term, being emboldened by war, she did the governance reforms. She really fixed the state.
In your book India Grows at Night you have suggested India should be a ‘strong society and a strong state’, do you think we have become that today?
On reflection, I would not use the words ‘strong state’. It would be ‘effective state’. I don’t like a strong state. I don’t like a Putin or a Xi – it (strong state) conjures up these autocrats. I don’t like the word (strong state). In an effective state, you don’t have to see anybody’s face. I like Indian being soft…
Like an elephant, not a tiger?
Yes, that (elephant) was my analogy in (my book) India Unbound. We want a state that is caring, bureaucrats who behave nicely with everybody and give respect to the citizens. Frankly, as I said in the book, in India the state was weak (then). Now, you don’t want that kind of a weak state either. You want an incorruptible and effective state.
How would you define today’s state and society? Has the society lost some of its power?
I think the right to dissent is not being accepted. That’s troubling. In fact, I am writing a book called the Dilemma of an Indian Liberal. In the past, we were very proud of our democracy but we were ashamed of our economy because we were one of the poorest economies during the License Raj. Then, economic growth began after 1991 while we were still a good democracy. We had it all then. Now, the economy is strong but the polity is weak – democracy is weakened. It is becoming an illiberal democracy. It’s a worldwide problem.
Why is it happening? Is it a cycle?
It almost sounds like a cycle. Even I have been scratching my head. Everything was well for liberal philosophy. Liberalism had defeated fascism in the second world war. By 1989, communism, which was another competing ideology, had collapsed. Then after 1989, about 70 countries became democracies. The world was turning democratic and market-oriented. But, since the last 10-15 years, two largest democracies – US and India – are both becoming illiberal.
They are becoming like others. In UK also, Brexit, which is for keeping immigrants out, is the basis of nationalism. There is good nationalism and bad nationalism. Good nationalism is about memories of your childhood. Bad nationalism is about power, superiority and imposing on minority. Bad nationalism is the one that started in the Europe in the nineteenth century. It was based on language, religion, ethnicity – being an Aryan race. That got discredited in the first and second world war. Everybody became very shy of that kind of narrow nationalism but it is re-asserting itself now.
What has led to the rise in Hindu nationalism?
We (English speaking elite) are responsible for it. Almost 75 years after the independence all serious businesses of states, as well as the private sector, are done in English when only 15 per cent of India is comfortable in that language. If a bright young person would walk in a meeting that person would feel deaf. Imagine, 85 per cent of people feeling deaf in their own country. It’s (Hindu nationalism) is a resentment against the elite. Unfortunately, Gandhi died too soon.
He used the language people understood – dharma, values of liberalism, equality and all these values he used to convey in the language of the people. Nobody after independence has sold liberal values. People feel our Constitution fell from heaven one day. They don’t feel they own it. This is what Gandhi was doing – giving ownership (of liberal institutions) to the people. The big job for the country today is the one of what Gandhi was doing.
Isn’t it true that religious or any other kind of nationalism always works electorally and is a good political ploy?
Yes, it is. That’s why it’s a sad situation today. Liberal values are so universal. They have done so much good. Democracy, combined with free market, has lifted more than half the people in the world over the last 200 years. I don’t think we are going to lose liberalism so easily. The Indian temperament is liberal. In 1947, China became a dictatorship and we became a democracy. I can’t imagine a dictator surviving too long in India.
You have written both fiction and non-fiction, which one of the two are you more comfortable with?
Fiction requires great imagination and I realise my limitations. Of course, imagination plays a role even in non-fiction but I feel more comfortable with non-fiction. They are literary non-fiction.
This book (A Different Sort of Freedom), perhaps, has been the most satisfying. It’s the story of my life; meaning events that happened but (my) imagination connects the dots and the patterns in my life.
From where did you source the raw material for your memoir?
My mother’s diary, the letters we exchanged over time and my own diary. Those were the raw material. Imagination always takes over, whether you are writing a fiction or a non-fiction. The imagination connects the dot but you still have to be true to what happened and not start inventing. Also, what memory does is it recalls an event but the event happened 30 years ago when you were 30 years younger and now you are thirty years older. So, you infuse that memory with your 30 years’ experience so what you are seeing 30 years later has the baggage of your experiences. I was a socialist before and saw the events with a different eye but the liberal in me sees the same events differently today.