April 14, 2011

The illusion of freedom

There is much to be celebrated about India and the progress it has made since it gained political independence, especially over the last couple of decades. Various observers have pointed that out in bestselling books and articles in the popular press. Indeed, it’s become a cottage industry of sorts to write books on how India is going to be a superpower—if it isn’t one already.

Yet the fact remains that India is an extremely poor country. For instance, half of its children below the age of five are malnourished, and around 40 per cent of Indians are illiterate in the 21st century. India should have at the very least solved the problems of underdevelopment such as widespread poverty and illiteracy since they are precisely what the government of India has ostensibly been focused on ever since Independence. Practically every policy of every government that India has ever seen has avowedly been made to eradicate poverty and its concomitants. Clearly it is not for lack of trying by the government.

Why is India so poor?

Implicit in asking that question is the assumption that there is nothing inevitable about India’s poverty—that it is not as if it were an unalterable fact of nature. That question, hard though it may be to admit it, has to be asked and answered honestly for there to be any hope of achieving that state in which that question is rendered meaningless.

India does not lack any of the necessary ingredients required for prosperity. It has adequate natural resources—granted that it does not have an over abundance of them but neither has nature been exceptionally unkind. India has human resources; indeed it has a super abundance of raw human resources. By all measures, they are fairly close to average in intelligence, motivation, and have considerable cultural and social capital. India does not suffer frequent widespread civil unrest and natural disasters which destroy all the accumulated capital, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

It is worth noting that Indians do quite well outside India. In the United States and other developed countries, they are extraordinarily successful. Their ability to prosper outside India is in sharp contradiction to the inability of their counterparts within India to prosper. Could that imply that it is not nature but rather something in the Indian environment which accounts for Indians not prospering in India? Since it is the government which largely creates and controls the environment, could it be that India’s greatest handicap is the quality and nature of its government?

Robert Solow, Nobel prize-winning economist, observed that poverty is not simply an economic problem and that “underdevelopment is a web of economic, political, institutional, ethnic, and class-related connections with persistent historical roots.” India’s continued struggle with poverty and underdevelopment are the understandable consequences of its governments’ objective. The roots of the Indian government’s “license permit control quota” regime lie in its history of British colonialism.

In 1947, Indians got political freedom but little economic freedom, and only limited personal freedom. Merely changing the people who rule India without changing the rules is superficial change, which does not change the objective of the government. The government’s objective continued to be extractive and exploitative. It was “British Raj 2.0”.

Under the British Raj, the rules were made for the convenience of the rulers. Power was vested in the government and the people were subservient to it. The British government employed a strategy of “divide and rule” effectively and pitted one community against another. The government controlled important sectors of the economy: the railways, telecommunications, power, education. There was no violent revolution that overthrew the British. When they left, every institution that the British had created was left intact. The people who replaced the British realised that the system suited them quite well.

While controlling the economy is good for those in power, it is bad for the economy itself. First, it reduces economic activity and consequently growth. Second, it gives rise to rents (profits made from being able to manipulate regulations), which then attracts the most criminally corrupt to gain control of the government. Rent-seeking, rather than good governance, becomes the sole aim of those in government.

Transforming India into a developed country within one generation by 2040 is possible if, among other things, Indians gain comprehensive freedom. For that to happen, a new set of politicians and policymakers have to enter government and in effect change the government objective. Given India’s democratic setup and the Indian preference for non-violence, change will have to be brought about at the polling booth. This means that the voters have to elect a different set of people to office, people who are honest, committed and visionary.

Change of awareness precedes change in behaviour. Therefore for the citizens to vote differently there has to be a change in their understanding of reality. Most Indians would reject the idea that they are not really free and that the government may not have their best interests at heart. As Ram Dass pointed out, “If you think you’re free, there’s no escape possible.” The illusion of freedom is as good a prison as ever constructed. For India’s transformation, the challenge therefore is to make people aware that they lack freedom and that they have to struggle to get them.

A large country like India cannot be ruled without some degree of popular consent. That the population gives that consent despite the enormous harm the tyrannical government does to them would be inexplicable—but for the fact that the rulers make sure that the population does not ever become informed enough to know that they are living under a tyranny.

Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out over two centuries ago that liberty and democracy are not the same. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence over the centuries to show that democracy can be the enemy of liberty. India’s government is elected by the people. But being popularly elected as a democratic government does not mean that it cannot also be a tyranny and deny the people freedom. The subjugation of the population can be as real in a democracy as in a despotic rule.

Indians have had only democracy for a long time. Indians need liberty as well. Only then does India have the possibility of becoming a rich and developed nation.

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