New India is consumed by guilt

RAJKAMAL RAO | Updated on January 09, 2018

Killing pressure To perform to perfection   -  STRINGER/INDIA

Rather than build on the post-90s’ free spirit, the state now subjugates its people by demanding sacrifices of them all the time

Something strange is happening in ‘New India’. Rather than savour our victories and be happy for what the country has achieved since the economic liberalisation of the 1990s, we now appear to be in a state of guilt over the nation’s ills going back centuries.

On every train ticket and on the IRCTC website is this information: “The Indian Railways recovers only 57 per cent of cost of travel on average.” What exactly is the purpose of this message? We cannot possibly go to the ticket counter and make good to the Government the 43 per cent portion that we are supposedly getting a free ride for. So why make us feel bad?

Honesty is a virtue that we are taught to practice in our private transactions. But not anymore. During vigilance week, banks reminded customers to take the ‘Integrity Pledge’. If you agree to neither take nor offer a bribe and perform tasks in an honest and transparent manner, among other commandments, you can download an e-certificate in your name from the Central Vigilance Commission to “support the cause of a Corruption Free India”. Never mind that this document is simply a feel-good certificate which has no practical applicability. Then, what is this fanfare about?

What lies beneath

The subliminal message in each of these campaigns is clear: This government was elected to bring in better days — and to do so, we need to be bound by a sense of guilt not to ask anything for ourselves. Righting past wrongs is essential and requires vast amounts of resources, social contributions and sacrifice. The Government is also the sole saviour and all-knowing. Because its goals are worthy and is led by someone with impeccable personal integrity, credentials and commitment, it is entitled to utmost deference. Individual government actions therefore, even if faulty, deserve to be overlooked.

Speaking at a conference in Beijing last year, the finance minister predicted that the country would need $1.5 trillion in new investments in the next ten years for rural sanitation, airports, seaports and railroads. This amount is astoundingly eye-popping for a relatively poor country.

The Government is so hungry for revenue that even asking about it is unpatriotic.

In September, Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan chided reporters when they questioned him about high petrol taxes, insisting that the Centre needs funds for implementing various development and welfare projects in the country. “Don’t you think we should give clean drinking water to citizens? Previously, for the housing scheme (for the poor), the Government was spending ₹70,000 per unit. Now we are spending ₹1.5 lakh.” The problem with this logic is that things are never enough. Why not spend ₹5 lakh or ₹10 lakh? Where is the end?

The sacrifice bait

The political strategy that humbles taxpayers into a sense of sacrifice to achieve larger socio-economic goals has not generally tested well in other democracies. JFK famously asked Americans to do more for the country than the other way around. Lyndon Johnson exploited this and ushered in rapid, dramatic changes in the social and fiscal order not seen since America’s founding. Economist Paul Romer summed up this in 2004: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

But governance for Johnson became so difficult afterwards that he chose not to run for re-election. Fifty years later, America is fundamentally divided over every aspect of government — indeed, divided over the very role of government.

The problem is that globally, the trust that citizens have in government as an institution is low because they know that leaders come and go. With the exception of the armed forces, most government departments are seen as uncaring, arrogant, inefficient and bureaucratic. The messenger’s credibility is more important than the message, and sacrifice demanded by a central authority tends to tire over time.

Worse, India’s social injustice problems are so large that no matter how hard we try, we will likely fall short of our goals.

Are righteousness and a sense of fairness driven through a powerful Centre more important than the laissez faire principles that got us lip-smacking private economic growth unheard of in modern times, growth which lifted millions out of poverty?

Is rooting out the informal economy more important than allowing millions the dignity to earn a living even if it is financed from the elites’ undeclared income? The next general election will come down to this basic question of moral philosophy.

The writer is MD of education consultancy Rao Advisors LLC

Published on November 19, 2017

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