The escape velocity for big ideas and messed opportunities
By Shankkar Aiyar | Published: 13th October 2013 06:00 AM |
This week, the Congress Vice-President introduced rocket science into the political discourse on empathy and entitlements. Specifically, he spoke about escape velocity—the speed that an object needs to be travelling to break free of a planet or moon’s gravity. It is a welcome addition to the political vocabulary. It is also tempting to apply the go-Google phrase on the UPA’s track record and the series of missed and messed opportunities.
In a curious coincidence, the big ideas of this regime have occupied prime time news space in recent days. The Wal-Mart-Bharti split also brought home the fact that nearly a year after the opening of FDI in multi-brand retail, no big-tag investor has walked in. The diplomacy surge across time zones from New York to Bali seems to be dominated by haggling on the nuclear liability code. It is also a grim reminder—seven years since the nuclear deal—that the promised megawatts are yet to materialise. The strategic partnership with the US which showed great potential is stalled. India, it would seem, misses the exceptional attention of George W Bush. The Americans have their share of grief too—they miss action on promises. The Indo-US strategic partnership is now described in Washington as the ‘Indo-US Squabble’.
This begs the question: what is the required escape velocity for ideas to take off in the UPA regime? What would be the force multiplier to overcome the gravitational pull of competing political intent and conflicting individual interests? Trendulkars and golf aficionados will vouch that winning scores and strokes are as much about follow-through as they are about back-lift. The distance, trajectory and speed at which the ball or an idea travels depend on a balance of back-lift and follow-through—as in sports, so in governance.
Consider the earliest of the big ideas—Special Economic Zones. They were meant to revive manufacturing, make it globally competitive and shift labour from farms to factories. The idea was legislated as SEZ Act in 2005. It should have resulted in new cities, industrial clusters, investments and creation of jobs. Instead, between the gravity of bureaucratic sloth and the pull of political pelf, it was reduced to a real estate game. The biggest SEZs pulled out, many of those set up were tax-friendly relocations. Of the 577 SEZs approved, only 170 are functional. This week, India was informed that manufacturing growth was negative between April and August.
FDI in multi-brand retail was another big single on the UPA’s billboard since 2006. That India needs a more efficient post-harvest storage, distribution and processing system is not exactly, well, rocket science—particularly, given the persistence of food price inflation, the wastage of nearly $10 billion of food and the potential for job creation. The government staked its existence in Parliament to push FDI in multi-brand retail. Enroute, like the father and son taking the donkey for sale in Aesop’s fable, the government accommodated every passing compromise. A year later, the policy seems dead on arrival.
India’s pathetic record in public services is caused by inertia—a phenomenon long studied by physicists and political economists. Administrative reforms were on the first list of big ideas. In April 2005, the government constituted the Second Administrative Reforms Commission under Veerappa Moily. ARC II submitted 16 reports by 2009. On Thursday, the government of Punjab taunted the Central government on administrative reforms. It suggested the abolition of the culture of seeking attested copies of documents from citizens applying for public services. Perhaps the suggestion of doing away with attested copies was not among the recommendations. Perhaps it was. Nobody knows, for nobody is sure what was, or what was not, implemented from the 16 reports.
Look at the mess in Andhra Pradesh. Ironically, immediately on coming to power, the UPA regime considered forming a commission for the reorganisation of states and proposed a GoM to draft the terms. It was part of the promissory discourse with TRS. Obviously, the idea didn’t suit the regional satraps who provided the maximum political capital in 2004 and 2009. In 2013, no side is happy in Andhra Pradesh and half a dozen other agitations are brewing across India.
There have been other big and small ideas. In 2005, the government constituted the Knowledge Commission chaired by Sam Pitroda. It made 300 recommendations in 27 focus areas—mostly waylaid or buried. In 2004, the government constituted the Investment Commission headed by Ratan Tata which submitted a voluminous report with detailed recommendations. That companies prefer to invest abroad is an eloquent testimony to the state of affairs.
Over a hundred years ago, Abraham Lincoln remarked, “Nearly all men can stand adversity. But if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” With two terms under his belt—the second with increased political ballast of 206 Congress MPs—Manmohan Singh is the longest serving PM in 25 years. Longevity hasn’t translated into a legacy—now stranded between promise and promises.
The future though, it seems, will be defined by the chant of NaMo or to the tunes of RaGa. Whoever is chosen by the people will imperatively need to discover/engineer the escape velocity required for ideas to take off. For, a younger, informed, impatient India will be ready with calculations on the escape velocity for regime change.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change