Why India is not functioning

John Elliott - Implosion

John Elliott talking about his book

John Elliott, a  journalist in Asia since 1983, initially for The Financial Times and then for The Economist and Fortune magazine, has written a book on “how India works and how it could work better”. As he thinks it doesn’t work so well, the book is titled “Implosion”.

“I didn’t set out to write a negative book, even though people think it is,” Elliott said when he talked about his opus at the Foreign Correspondents Club.

Elliott explained he describes how slowly and gradually all institutions and organisations, that support a functioning democracy, are imploding in India. He asks if a society can be successful when it is based on “jugaad” and “chalta hai”. “Jugaad” is the art of coming up with unusual, quick-fix solutions for problems, “chalta hai” means “it’s alright, don’t bother, it doesn’t matter (e.g. rules), it’ll be alright”.

Interestingly, Dean Nelson, the South Asia Editor of The Daily Telegraph, doesn’t see jugaad in the positive light many do, because it generates great ideas due to a shortage. He believes that rather it holds India back.

For example: When Nelson moved to India, everybody told him he had to buy a converter. Why do I have to buy one?, he asked. Because there are a lot of power cuts, came the answer. Why are there regular power cuts? Because there is not enough supply, he heard. But why isn’t there enough supply? Because no one is tackling the structural shortage. So the real question is, why is no one tackling the shortage?, he finally asked. Because the politicians and businessmen have converters.

Shouting, undressing and the use of pepper spray

India’s parliament set all sorts of unwanted records in the five-year term that just ended.

Never before in India’s history did a parliament work fewer hours, and this house was also passing the least number of bills. Proceedings were in fact disrupted so often, that the productive time of the lower house, or Lok Sabha, stood at only 61 percent.

Among the more frequent forms of protests were shouting down the speaker and each other, snatching papers from officials and waving placards in front of the speaker’s chair.

At one point some parliamentarians also got rid of their clothes to protest with their chests bared. Others pushed each other around, uprooted microphones, smashed a glass and a computer, and one guy even used pepper spray.

Every now and then some MPs formed a wall or circle around someone who was holding a speech to protect him or her from other democratic leaders. Even the Prime Minister was fenced off like this, while his words were inaudible as the protesters didn’t even stop their shouting for him.

the house of democracy

Gandhi watching the house of democracy. If he would have approved the proceedings inside?

PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based research organisation, meticulously compiled the data on this parliamentary session and pointed to the democratic flaws stemming from all the adjournments and disruptions. “Of the 116 Bills passed by the 15th Lok Sabha, a significant percentage of Bills were passed without adequate debate in the House. In the Lok Sabha, 36% of the total Bills passed were debated for less than thirty minutes. Of these, 20 Bills were passed in less than five minutes,” they write.

Another point of concern: “With the last session of the 15th Lok Sabha having ended, a total of 68 Bills will lapse.” These include the Women’s Reservation Bill (one third of the seats of all elected bodies, including the parliament, were to be reserved for women), Direct Taxes Code, Micro Finance Bill, Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill and the Bill enabling the introduction of Goods and Services Tax.

But why on earth do the parliamentarians disrupt the sessions? Well, any reason seems to be justifiable. I saw protests against the government reaction after the detention of Indian fishermen in Sri Lanka, the answer after the death of an Indian prisoner in Pakistan, the perceived lack of retaliation after an incursion by Chinese soldiers, missing official papers after a debated allocations of coal mining rights, alleged financial scams involving the federal government, and so on, and so forth.

Do politicians from the opposition or the ones in the ruling coalition who have deviant opinions think there is no other platform to make their voices heard if they disagree with the government?

Here is a suggestion: Just talk to us. So far, hardly any top politician grants media houses interviews and uses this way of speaking out. Are you afraid of our questions?

How to prove you are Indian

India is arguably one of the most diverse countries in the world.

Just to give an impression: a staggering 780 languages are spoken on the subcontinent, and 66 different scripts are used, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) recently found out. “Another 100 languages spoken in remote areas have escaped our attention and the total is around 880,” said linguist Ganesh Devy,  who was in charge of the project.

But: Many Indians are not aware of the ethnic and racial diversity. Especially the people from the remote North-East complain about being treated as outsiders in their own country. They have paler, more Central or Eastern Asian features than other ethnicities from central or southern India, and are considered to be more closely related to people in neighbouring Myanmar and China – which leads to harassment and often even physical assaults.

After the death of 20-year-old student Nido Tania, from the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, after a suspected racist attack, the media is discussing the problem. And Sanjay Panday, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, recounted a telling story to “The Hindu”:

national anthem

Is Delhi the most polluted city in the world?

air quality boardEvery morning, I ride my bicycle along the digital display in front of Mausam Bhawan, the Meteorological Department at Lodhi Road. In the winter month, I very often only see one colour there: red. Which means that the air quality is very, very bad, unhealthy, and, in fact, beyond measurement.

So far, not many people are concerned about that in Delhi. In fact, the choking hazyness is mostly referred to as “fog” instead of “smog”, which it actually is.

After the Hindustan Times ran a front-page report , which said Delhi is now the most polluted city in the world, and had actually surpassed Bejing, that previously was regarded to hold this doubious honour, the Indian media finally woke up.

But: Only the media. I haven’t heard of anybody buying a mask now or purchasing an air purifier (well, I might buy one pretty soon for me as well as the office). And the official reaction was – instead of banning cars from the road or slashing out fines on polluting industries or trying to step up electricity supply, so that the poor don’t have to burn waste in the streets to warm themselves and the rich don’t use their diesel generators – so instead of thinking of any logic measure, politics is in a status of denial.

The Ministry of Earth Sciences issued a statement, saying that “unusual meteorological conditions are playing a pivotal role in increased frequency of extreme pollution events dominated by fine particulates”. So, basically, “cooler temperatures” and “calm winds” are to blame.

Then the ministry goes on talking about the “fact” that levels of the very dangerous pollutants with less than 2.5 microns in diameter — scientifically called PM 2.5 — are much lower in Delhi than in Beijing. (These tiny beasts are able to get into the blood and are therefore considered being especially harmful and causing cancer.)

But are the levels really lower?

When I looked up the measurements of the US embassy in Beijing and compared them to the ones from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee at Punjabi Bagh, I found there were more days with a PM2.5 level above 301 (“hazardous”, according to the US embassy) in the Indian capital than in the Chinese city.

By the way, the embassy’s advise at this level is: “Everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.” Well, I ride my bicycle…

For that I got scolded by researcher and activist Kamal Meattle, who grows his own fresh air. Really. After being told by his doctors that Delhi’s air will kill him some 20 years ago, he started experimenting. And found out that a combination of three common plants in a house or office building lead to measurably cleaner indoor air.

Nowadays, at his Paharpur Business Centre, all air is sucked in at the top, then water filtered, enriched by the plants, further cleaned, and then pumped into the different levels of the building – which is under permanent overpressure, so that no bad Delhi air is coming in through small gaps.

He claims, and I believe him after inhaling the good air in the building, that people inside have less eye irritations, breathing problems, headachse and in fact actually work more efficiently. (Here is his TED video.)

But back to the pollution levels outside.

Smog over Ring Road

In a study by Yale university India lands on rank 174 of 178 countries in terms of air quality. Looking more into detail, in the category “Air Pollution – Average Exposure to PM2.5”, India slips to rank 177. Guess who is 178? Right: China.

The new government under the “common man party” doesn’t seem to be looking into the problem. And so there might be more denial to come. Last year’s infamous words of the then Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit still ring in my ears, when she told “The Hindu” the real reason for the smog: “And we discovered that much of the smoke which is hanging over Delhi is actually due to burning of rice stalks in the paddy fields in neighbouring Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. It is as if it is deliberately being done to choke Delhi.’’

Jaipur Literature Festival, on the elections

Many conversations at the Jaipur Literature Festival circeled around the upcoming general elections. The talks had titles like “Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the rest” or “Why India votes” or “India at the crossroads” or “Conquering the chaos: empowering the future”.

India's elite listening to Mukulika Banerjee

India’s elite listening to Mukulika Banerjee

Mukulika Banerjee,  Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, for example asked: “Can a larger vision for basic needs like health and education come from within the current system, from the elected citizen elite?”

Yes, answered Dipankar Gupta, Director of Centre of Political Affairs and Critical Theory at Shiv Nadar University in Noida. But for that it is of utmost importance that leaders have a vision, an utopia. Governments like the one from Basque region first invested in health and education, and the once backward region became one of the shiniest parts in Europa in a matter of 20 years, Gupta said. “Unless you take that risk ask a leader, you cannot make democracy happen. You cannot play sick.”

Lily Wangchuk, president of a the political party Druk Chirwang Tshogpa in Bhutan, believes in the wisdom of society as a whole. “Good people are out there. They need to be given a chance.” Gupta adds, that sometimes only a handful of poeple can bring the change. “A small number of poeple put the others in action. Once they come togethter, the magic starts working, and goes out from there.”

Where are the people who can shape India's future?

Where are the people who can shape India’s future?

Gupta also believes that bribing the people into the elections doesn’t work anymore. “You give them rum and rupees, but that doesn’t mean the people are voting for you. They have a very clear vision of who they want.”

Banerjee, author of “Why India votes” pointed out that “the Lok Sabha election is the largest humanly organized event in the world“. It’s a festival, with noise and visual pollution, and a huge voter turnout. People go to the polls because of the peer pressure that the inked finger incites, she thinks. The index fingers of those who have voted in India are marked with indelible ink.

On another panel, she talked about her research village in West Bengal, and stated that issues which are discussed on the national or international level are often not known in the villages and not important for their decision for whom to vote. “For them it’s what has materially changed, like if there is water or electricity.” And: “India’s growth rates mean nearly nothing to the common man, if it doesn’t make a material change.”

Political scientist Louise Tillin sees a decline of the Congress-dominated politics, which was seen as a constant. “1985 was the last time there was a democratic single party government,” she said, then the regional parties surged. Now people are longing for a strong leader, instead of looking into good coalition building.

“The record of regional parties contributing positively to the central government is rare, if not non-existent,” backs her journalist and author John Elliott. All they want are positions so that they can get money through that.

Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member of Parliament and a former finance minister and foreign minister, believes “India is a functioning democracy“. If a tea seller can become a prime-ministerial candidate, the “majesty of the Indian democracy” shows itself, he said. He seemed absolutely confident that India would overcome the current problems and march ahead of the countries that now are heading.

The average age in India is 27, so the young ones will decide the upcoming elections

The average age in India is 27, so the young ones will decide the upcoming elections

The former Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla pointed out that since the state was founded in 1947, there was always an orderly transition of power. “Elections were always held on time,” he said. “These are no mean achievements.”

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a biography of BJPs prime-ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, says Modi has very consciously shaped the religious identities. “There is a very, very dark side on Narendra Modi, which I feel very uncomfortable with.”

Modi was the first to realise the power of social media, Mukhopadhyay believes. But: “In most of India the niceties of the modern societies, which we in the urban areas use on a minute to minute basis, are not there.”

Jaipur Literature Festival – on Aam Aadmi Party

Hardly any political discussion at the Jaipur Literatur Festival went by without mentioning the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or Common Men’s Party, whose members surprised everyone (maybe even themselves) when they managed to grab 28 out of 70 seats in the Delhi assembly elections, and are now even forming the government.

Nobel laureate and Harvard professor Amartya Sen was “inclined to cheer” at the Aam Aadmi party’s success. “It was wonderful to see that a party could appeal to the grievance that has gripped the country and sense that we need something different,” he said.

But, he added, some of the measures taken were not well thought of, clearer ideas were necessary. Cuts in prices for electricity for example are not reasonable, he argued, as one third of the people of Delhi doesn’t have power. “All you achieve is that the room temperature in hotels sinks from 17°C to 14°C.”

And the party really should ask itself: “Who are the ‘aam aadmi’?” Mr Sen advised. Are they the ones that need cheaper power and cooking gas and diesel, or the ones that don’t have access to these amenities at all?

Some of India's 1 billion or so Aam Aadmi

Some of India’s 1 billion or so Aam Aadmi

Dipankar Gupta, Director of Centre of Political Affairs and Critical Theory at Shiv Nadar University in Noida, pointed out that the AAP “is still a movement, is in the movement phase even now”. So far they came out with just one or two goals – fight against corruption and cleanliness and accountability of governance – but for being a party they need more substance.

But, Gupta adds, the new party changed the political campaigning. “In the past, elections were always about cast, religion, language. This time it isn’t. This time the parties talk about delivery to the citizens, delivery of things they demanded – rightly so.”

Gupta sees similar movements like the anti corruption protests, from where the AAP comes from, all around the world. Simple slogans that seem to make a big difference have mobilised people, he says, like “I’m Anna”, “We are the 99 percent”, or “indignados”. “These people say: ‘We are the citizens, so listen to us'”, explains Gupta. The feel they have to do something, as the current politicians can’t deliver, their ideologies don’t work anymore.

AAP members also assembled at the festival and rose their voice there

Aam Aadmi party workers also assembled at the Literature Festival and rose their voice there

Sunil Khilnani, professor of Politics, and director of King’s College in London, sees “great achievements”. The AAP has exercised great pressure on both the big parties to look into corruption, he states. Also both Congress and BJP now have to listen more to the common man. “That’s a huge shift, because in the last twenty to thirty years, politicians went away from the ordinary people.”

He also likes the fact that people now feel motivated to take action. “After Kejriwal asked the people to film corrupt bureaucrats, the sale of mobiles with video cameras went up – that’s great, people are taking it into their hands.”

Essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul thinks what the world, and India, needs, is not good management, but a revolution. “People are looking after new ways of becoming part of the system, they want to participate.”

Navin Chawla, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, said the AAP is putting two djinns back into the bottle: money power and muscle power.

Former Indian ambassador Neelam Deo sees a “broad frustration with the incumbent governments”. The AAP is challenging the system, as the campaign differently, got their financial support differently, are acting differently once elected, are expressing frustration differently (dharna). “Howsoever the saga of the AAP will go, it changed the discourse of the upcoming elections.”

Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member of Parliament and a former finance minister and foreign minister, felt like he had to defend himself and bragged that he didn’t come with police escort, supporters or driver, but “all on myself”. Back in the days, when he was an IAS (Indian administrative service) officer, he even went on the motorbike to work. “We all tend to set standards.”

Jaipur Literature Festival, on partition

Mohinder Singh Sarna was a witness of what his son Navtej Sarna described as “immense scale of bloodshed and killings on both sides of what later became the border”. The son never heard his father speak of the partition between India and Pakistan, about the “absolute terror, absolute hatred, when innocent people were being massacred for no reason whatsoever”.

But his father handed down his stories. In order to let more people know about what happened in 1947, Navtej Sarna translated the harrowing accounts from Punjabi, and had them published. The result is “Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition”.

“In some stories the marginalised or even the animals are better than humans,” he explained. But a lot of the tales are also about deep friendship. When Sarna read out the shortest of the narratives the audience at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the people fell dead silent and listened intensely of how a Moslem driver sacrificed himself to safe a Sikh family.

Urvashi Butalia and Navtej Sarna

Navtej Sarna in conversation with Urvashi Butalia on “Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition”

Gurudwaras (places of worship for Sikhs) were giving out little portions of poison, so when women were in fear of loosing their honour by rape, they could swallow it. Some groups of Punjabi Sikhs took a vow to kill all their wifes and daughters to keep them from abduction. These were two of the many terrible side stories that transpired from the conversation of Sarna with publisher Urvashi Butalia.

They also talked about the “reluctance to confront this bloody period of grief and despair” in the Indian history. “All life was destructed. The human instinct tells us to cling on, to rebuilt, to look forward. Only after a while we look back, we reflect, and pass it on to our children,” Sarna said. This is the time when books are written or translated.

He  experienced this in his own family. Nobody in the house would talk about partition – as his own sister was killed during the time. “Silence was a trick of survival.”

Butalia gave some further background information: 100 000 women were possibly raped, abducted and sold during partition, and many of them committed suicide, for example by throwing themselves into wells. The silence, she analysis, was also a way of cutting these women out of family history, because “the stigma of rape stays not only on the woman, but is also transferred to the family”.

So far, both the conversationalists concluded, not enough of retrospection, documenting and conviction is done. “That would help to heal,” Sarna said. But, for example, there are only two or three movies on partition. And: “In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, we all have been really silent. If we would have spoken out more, we would be more tolerant, more understanding.”

Urvashi Butalia

Publisher and author Urvashi Butalia

Another panel of four talked about “Reimaging Partition”. It was lined out that the partition between India and Pakistan included the largest forced mass migration in history: twelve million people had to move in a matter of a few month.

“We have to remember partition so we can deal with the consequences and ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Butalia said. And people should grow aware of the fact that there were no clearly good or bad guys, there were victims and aggressors in sikh, hindu and muslim communities,  the publisher said. People don’t recognise how deep it lies inside them and how it remains unresolved.

These days, Butalia thinks, we listened to many a story about Sikhs and Moslems. So it should be about time to go deeper and see the layers beyond: What happened to the Christianes, the Dalits and other minorities, the second generation, and so on.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, curator of “This Side That Side”, a collection of stories about the partition

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, a graphic novelist and artist based in Delhi, believes that the second generation is the biggest in denial, because they hear many stories from their parents, but stick to the thought: “I wasn’t born then, it doesn’t affect me.” They are also too busy re-building and setting up their own life.  But Ghosh reminded the audience that in West Bengal the refugee camps of 1947 still exist, as some people there still live on rented government land.

“We need more writers who tell in graphic novels or short stories or movies or write online,” Ghosh in order to communicate to different people. And anyway, every retelling of a story is a transition, he thinks.

Ahmad Rafay Alam

Ahmad Rafay Alam

The Pakistani environment lawyer and activist Ahmad Rafay Alam recounts how he had to go to another country to find literature on 1971, when Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan. “There is still an element of denial in the Pakistan establishment,” he said. But: the people should come to a point of acceptance.

Today with social media we have much more documents which can be fast and easily be shown around, Alam continues. But so far there is no museum on the partition in Pakistan, even though historians collected 15 000 interviews and 80 000 documents.

There is an urgent need to remember this part of history, but at Purana Qila in Delhi, where the biggest refugee camp was situated, there isn’t even a plaque, Butalia laments. But the good thing is, she continues, that the third generation can now deal with it, and there is more literature on partition coming at the moment.

Butalia recounted the story she heard so often in the villages of Punjab of the “Madman Radcliffe“. Sir Cyril Radcliffe apparently came to the subcontinent and couldn’t handle the task of finding the line on which to divide India and Pakistan. So all night long he got drunk, and in the morning got out a pen, and because he couldn’t draw a straight line anymore on the map, the border nowadays is ragged and totally random: this stone is in Pakistan, and that one in Bangladesh (former East Pakistan).

Jaipur Literature Festival, on the Elephant in the room

“The elephant is a big, gentle creature, eating grass, eating bamboo, and fairly peaceful most of the times,” said diplomat Neelam Deo when she opened the discussion titled “Elephant in the room – India and it’s neighbours”.

Bangladeshi writer and columnist K. Anis Ahmed believed that even though India is a big elephant, it has not come to it’s own sense as a super power, as it always acts defensive in it’s relations with it’s neighbours. “India is diluting it’s potential by these defensive policies,” he said. In Bangladesh, relations with the big neighbour are by now less front page news than, trade with the EU and US.

the elephant in the roomBhutanese politician Lily Wangchhuk spoke about the connection to another small neighbour in the Northeast: “Until now, the relationship was considered sacred and unquestionable.” But when India interfered in the elections by withdrawing gas subsidies, there was criticism in quite some part of society, she said.

Speaking about his homeland Pakistan, columnist Ahmad Rafay added: “India remains engaged in the security establishment, but has yet to make inroad into society.”

How India perceives it’s own appearance in the region and what it really is, are two very different things, said Aunohita Mojumdar, editor of Himal Southasian, the only regional magazine of Southasia (that, by itself, speaks volumes). Rafay lamented that a lot of conferences and other events, where South Asians could gather, had to be held in Dubai or London, because visas for all participants for these cities were easier to get than for the region.

He also deems it a huge deficiency that there is no legal treaty, or even initiative, between India and Pakistan on who is allowed to extract water on both sides of the border. There is only the Indus water treaty which deals mostly with the question if India is allowed to built damns. “This is the area where India and Pakistan have to start talking, and not again get into the gna gna gna, like children,” Rafay said. He also finds it strange that both sides have an army on the Siachen Glacier, “a region that is uninhabitable”. And because the soldiers are there, no scientific research is possible in that sensitive region. “But sense doesn’t go beyond 15 000 feet.”

All panelists concludes that it’s high time for India to promote good neighbouring, and change it’s present policy. “In recent years, India’s relationship with it’s neighbours was largely unfriendly,” Wangchhuk said.

Whereas some saw SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, as a good platform for that, others disagreed. “I sometimes think SAARC was set up to bury the idea of South Asia,” Mojumdar said. Ahmed added for consideration, that strong regional cooperation like the EU and ASEAN are functioning because they started with similar sized and similar powerful countries. “Here India is just too big, and therefore thinks it’s interests are better served in bilateral treaties.”

Jaipur Literature Festival, on state affairs and chaos in India

Ravi Venkatesan, former chairman of Microsoft India, painted a really gloomy picture of India’s future. “We should be seriously concerned about the country we are living in, if even we as elite can’t get justice.” The judiciary and law enforcement doesn’t work, he stated, and told the tale of how he can’t get a tenant out of his house who isn’t paying the rent.

“India is maybe the hardest market for anyone, local and international,” Venkatesan went on. The employees are unemployable, the judiciary doesn’t work, development banks have disappeared, the paperwork kills the companies – this chokes and suffocates the whole country, he said. Too much business in India is still based on privileged access to resources, he stated. Companies think: “If the whole pie is inedible, I’m starving as well.”

One big reason for the “mess” is, according to Venkatesan, that the middle class is withdrawing from society. The public schools are bad, so they sent their kids to private ones, same goes for hospitals. And because there is no electricity, they buy generators, instead of tackling the problem. “The classist society is back, which we once thought overcome,” adds essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul.

A mother and her children at the Jaipur train station

A mother and her children at the Jaipur train station

Journalist and author John Elliott sees a slow implosion of institutions happening in India. “Democracy is there, people get elected, but it doesn’t work, as the representatives leave the people high and dry.” The political dynasties are looking more after the family wealth than the good of the country.

Mukulika Banerjee, professor in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, described the plight of the farmers who switched to new types of grains, given to them by international companies. First, they generated good yields, but these varieties were very thirsty, so the water table dropped, and because of the rich harvests, the prices fell. “So when the growing of paddy wasn’t possible anymore, the went on to sand mining, brick making, growing poppy seeds, pilfering coal from trains.” They knew that it is illegal, but they couldn’t do anything else and had to survive, she said.

That’s also the reason why we see so many farmer’s suicides, adds Ralston Saul. What we need are other models of productions, for example the milk cooperative model in India, where the income is sufficient to live on.

Sunil Khilnani, professor of Politics, and director of King’s College in London, saw the professional standards for lawyers, doctors and others go down in the last decades. “Now you can buy a licence to fly an airplane – that is worrying,” he said. A lot of what happens in the country is a fix-it-deal instead of real politics.

He also complained about the fact that everybody has the right to be offended – and by doing so narrows the space for freedom of speech. Author Peter Godwin took the same line, when he said about cultural events: “If you don’t like something, you just threaten violence, and then the government says: Oh no, we can’t do this because of public security. That is threatening.”

The always present, but often not so attentive and hands-on police

The always present, but often not so attentive and hands-on police

One positive thought came from Khilnani as well: In Tamil Nadu one could see that Chief Ministers come and go, ministers come and go, but because bureaucracy is in place and organisations deliver, the state does well. “So we don’t always need great leaders.” Actually he thinks that people will one day be able overcome India’s petrified system. “This is a country with enormous potential, with young passionate people, great national resources, a great history, and people who actually believe they can change things, who are more and more passionate than the generations before.”

The temptation for honest bureaucrats and politicians to accept a bribe is huge, said John Elliott. If someone climbs up the ladder and then has the possibility to get several Million Dollars – that would change his whole life enormously. “In one little decision, he can change the prospects for himself and his family.”

Elliott thinks the petty corruption can be tackled, the one citizens worry about on an everyday basis, like to get a police officer to register a case, get a water connection, get into hospital, get the child to school. “But the big one? Hardly possible.” Also because politicians in India need a lot of money to get up the ladder, so they have to borrow money, and then pay it back by doing favours.

He also complains about the government which is more concerned about issuing new schemes – “normally with some name of Nehru or Gandhi attached” – than putting the existing one into place.

Ravi Venkatesan, the Microsoft India Ex-chairman, went on on another panel: For most mulit-national companies, India is not a relevant source of revenues and growth, because they aren’t successful here. Because of that, India is loosing out on investment, know-how and the opportunities these companies could bring. “Particularly in the last four years the amount of chaos was going up and investments were going down.”

Dogs fighting over the little bit

Dogs fighting over garbage which is still collected by hand all over India

“50 years ago India was described as a functioning anarchy. This still seems to be true,” Venkatesan remarks bitterly. This is visible, for example, in the terrible rankings the subcontinent has in the Worldbank’s Ease of Doing Business rating, he says. Companies would rather look towards Indonesia or Nigeria for investments.

For Venkatesan, chaos is everything that makes life difficult: uncertainty of governance, too much bureaucracy, bad infrastructure like roads and electricity, corruption. But somehow, he says, the companies have to cope with it, because India’s consumer market is number five worldwide and can’t be overlooked. “C0mpanies that somehow succeed here, like Samsung or Suzuki or Hyundai, can succeed everywhere.”

But unterstanding the market takes time, Venkatesan goes on. “You can’t come in and be arrogant and think, just because a formula worked in the US or Europe, it will work in India as well.” It took McDonalds eight years to figure out how to run successfully in India, he says. First they failed miserably before they adopted.

The chaos overwhelmes many a company, means Venkatesan. Not just internationals, but locals as well, who increasingly invest outside of the country.

Yashwant Sinha, a BJP member of Parliament and a former finance minister and foreign minister, doesn’t think a growing GDP and progress is all that should be looked after. In the villages of Jharkhand, he said, people are still living like in the 5th century when Buddha was teaching. “We have to ensure they get employment opportunites and we have to give them basic amenities,” Sinha said.

Local traditions still play a huge role in today's India

Local traditions still play a huge role in today’s India

Jaipur Literature Festival, on world powers

What if Latin America ruled the world? is a book by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, a lecturer of law in London. At the Literature Festival in Jaipur he gave the answer: “We had dancing and great football everywhere.” Delhi-based Professor Dipankar Gupta added that Indians for sure are not in the run for world domination. “We are neither black nor white, a mere brown in the middle. That in itself is a kind of non-starter if you want to rule the world.”

Indian reading

Welcome to the debate named “Who will rule the World?” Pretty soon the panelists – two China experts, two Indian academics, a member of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords and a senior lecturer at Birkbeck College – re-framed the question and asked not who will rule the world, but who should.

Above mentioned Guardiola-Rivera argued that South American countries made a good example as they gave power back to the formerly oppressed in recent years. “In Bolivia and Ecuador now, the indigenous people who are back in control are proposing to us all that we should think of nature as having rights of its own.” So the decision on world power should depend on who makes the right choices – decisions like not to develop nuclear weapons, not to engage in violence, not to destroy nature.

Director of the Centre of Political Affairs and Critical Theory in Noida, Dipankar Gupta,  touted another model of governing excellence, namely Scandinavia. “Look at Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden. They don’t think about ruling the world, they worry about ruling themselves.” Especially India should first look inside, before aspiring to control others, he continues. “That Indians rule Indians – this is yet to happen.”

Lord Meghnad Desai, a peer in the UK House of Lords, took the view that it is not necessarily a nation state that should rule, but a system of governance or an ideology that could be represented in various regions at the same time. “You may not like it,” he told the audience, “but capitalism rules the world, Google, Microsoft, Coca-Cola”. Because their penetration reaches deep into our lifes.


Rana Mitter, professor of history and politics of modern China at Oxford University, however believes that countries will remain important, “because that’s where democracy expresses it’s best”. One panelist predicted that next to the states, the United Nations will keep on dangling along, as they did over the last 60 or so years. “I’m happy as long as they are not part of the problem. But they won’t be the answer either.”

China, normally the favourite topic at forums like these, also got it’s (fairly small) share. Chinese author Xiaolu Guo pointed out that her country might be economically mighty, but it’s cultural influence remains uncertain. “China is number two after the US economically but the power or culture is still with America, from the Eskimos to New Zealand,” she said. In the West no one, for instance, speaks Chinese, whereas the educated people in China speak English. “American culture percolates everywhere in the world but while China is affected by Americanization it’s a one way cultural exchange.”

Delhi Encounters

(Daily) News from Delhi

Experience - The Blog by Ash Bhardwaj

Culture. Travel. Physicality

India Real Time

Unique analysis and insights from The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires on the daily news in the world's largest democracy

India Ink

(Daily) News from Delhi