January 25, 2020
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The Market Is A Donkey

The uncertainty of certainty is India's hallmark. It should apply to growth too.

The Market Is A Donkey
Madhu Kapparath
The Market Is A Donkey
When I wrote a book called No Full Stops in India nearly 17 years ago, my friend Karan Thapar accused me on television of wanting to drag India back into some mythical Golden Age which had never existed. I asked Karan, "Do you want an India true to itself or an imitation America?" Much has changed over those years. India then was on the verge of bankruptcy, the first faltering steps towards unravelling the red tape strangling the economy had not taken the country very far forward. The Hindu rate of growth had been overtaken, but no one was talking about India being one of the economic superpowers of the 21st century. Within the country, optimism was in short supply. Now India has been recognised for what it is, a country with the material and human resources to become one of the biggest players in the global market. It is argued that this change has come about because India has followed the example of the economically successful, Western countries and that it must follow them without questioning. But I still believe in what I wrote in No Full Stops-- "The Western world and the Indian elite who imitate it ignore the genius of the Indian mind. They want to write a full stop in the land where there are no full stops." I have now written a book called India's Unending Journey because I believe the remarkable growth of India's economy makes it even more important not to write a full stop and become an imitation America. (see review)

India traditionally does not write full stops because it understands the uncertainty of certainty, it prefers the middle road, and believes in the perpetual search for balance. So, the answer to any question can never be final, no theory should be closed to questioning, and no policy should be taken so far that it creates imbalance. The West, on the other hand, tends to see things in black and white, to look for certainties, and so to lurch from one extreme to another.

The most obvious evidence for this contrast lies in the different attitudes to religion. R.C. Zaehner, who held the chair at Oxford India's philosopher-president S. Radhakrishnan once held, wrote, "Hindus do not think of religious truth in dogmatic terms.... For the passion for dogmatic certainty that has wracked the religions of Semitic origin they feel nothing but shocked incomprehension." This suspicion of dogmatic certainty is a feature of all the other great religions born in India. Even the religions of Semitic origin in India have been touched by this pluralism. The two theologians who have done the most to persuade the Roman Catholic Church to soften its attitude to other churches and other faiths were deeply influenced by the many years they spent in India. I often tell people in countries that are having problems with religious pluralism that India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, that they are entirely free to practise their religion, and that the suggestion that a Muslim woman should not dress as she pleases would never arise here.

I believe firmly in the secularism that insists no religion should be privileged and no one should be discriminated against because of their religion, or indeed the lack of it. But the problem is that secularism in the West often degenerates into a denial of religious freedom because of that habit of seeing issues in black and white. One morning in Delhi I woke up to hear a politician on BBC World service suggesting that no one should send Christmas cards because they were not secular. When I opened my daily paper I found a front-page picture of a Christmas party the Governor of West Bengal held for children. We hear a great deal about religious fundamentalism these days, but very little about secular fundamentalism. John Gray, who is a professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, has written, "Today religious believers, driven to the margins of a culture in which science claims authority over all human knowledge, have to cultivate a capacity for doubt. In contrast secular believers-- held fast by the conventional wisdom of the time-- are in the grip of unexamined dogmas." Secular fundamentalism is alive and kicking in India too. I know from experience that you only have to mention the word Hinduism to be accused by some secularists of being a supporter of Hindutva.

But unexamined dogma isn't just dangerous when it comes to religion. There are unexamined economic dogmas which are perhaps even more dangerous. When I was a young man, Britain was in the grip of socialism. Monetarists and market economists were comparatively lonely people. Socialism had great achievements to its credit in Britain but it was taken too far. Socialists didn't examine their certainties, see that the power of the state was unbalancing the economy and cramping entrepreneurial initiative, and that management and the trade unions had come to see each other in black-and-white terms, were engaged in a shouting match rather than holding a dialogue. India, imitating the West, took socialism even further and the imbalance that created led to the dreaded neta-babu and licence permit rajs. But it's important not to see Indian socialism in black-and-white terms, to acknowledge its very real achievements-- the basic heavy industries that India with its very limited manufacturing capacity needed, the establishment of a nuclear industry, the green revolution, and others. Is it not surprising that after taking socialism too far, Britain swung to the opposite extreme under Margaret Thatcher. That swing has taken the Labour party with it. Tony Blair has been described as the greatest tribute to Margaret Thatcher. In India, the swing has been less violent but there is no doubt that market economics is dominant today and that for all the questions being asked about the speed of economic reforms, it is accepted as inevitable that India will have to travel on that road.

Following the middle road would mean recognising the benefits of market capitalism but at the same time agreeing with Rajiv Kumar, the economist who heads the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. He once said to me, "The market is like a donkey. If you walk behind it and let it lead you, you will get kicked. If you ride on it, and direct it, it can take you where you want."

What should India want? Who could quarrel with Rajiv Kumar's shopping list-- good education, health services and cheap goods the poor need and can afford. The market is currently delivering the goods and services the elite and the middle class want. Yet, most of the press, and in particular the pink press in India, is in the grip of the unexamined dogma that if the GDP is rising, all is well. The balanced view would be to acknowledge how narrow a measure GDP growth is and to question where the growth is taking place and who is benefiting from it. Doubtless, market capitalists will accuse me of being anti-growth, but I would be the first to acknowledge that India's economy needs to grow. It's a question of examining the certainties of the present pattern of growth, trying to make it more balanced.

The fundamental wisdom of India can be applied in many other fields too. Any society needs a measure of competition to assess people's skills, but too much competition divides a society into successes and failures. On the other hand, egalitarianism taken too far fails to take account of the fact that we are all born different. The sexual revolution which was meant to liberate women and make them equal to men has, in the view of many, taken sexual liberty so far that women have become commodities, and their bodies tools in the hands of advertising agencies. Katherine Rake, who heads a society founded to fight for women's rights as far back as 1866, has said one of the problems facing the feminist movement now is "the hypersexualisation of our culture, a phenomenon that has developed and snowballed with hardly a murmur of dissent". There has been no dissent, no discussion, so no attempt to find a middle road between my childhood, when repressive Victorian sexuality still survived, and today when sex is described as a recreation.

Of course, I would be unbalanced if I suggested that India had always searched for the middle road and for balance, but I would contend that Amartya Sen was right when he wrote in his book The Argumentative Indian about 'India's long argumentative history' and the importance of 'discussions and arguments'. When I was discussing this with historian Ramachandra Guha, who has publicly disagreed with Amartya Sen, he maintained that The Argumentative Indian went too far, that the record showed the glass of India's open-mindedness could be described as either half-full or half-empty. I would certainly agree it is not full but I think India and the world will be a better place if we think of the glass as half-full and try to make it fuller. That is what I have tried to argue in India's Unending Journey.

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