The Sagacity Of Change...Or Continuity

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jun 3 2004, 05:30am hrs
There is near unanimity that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is widely admired for his integrity, sincerity and non-political nature. In fact, India is fortunate to have two highly respected people at the helm. But despite his presence, there is concern that we may dilute gains or momentum of the past decade. This includes the countrys image.

It is, of course, both silly and wrong to do things just for the sake of form or to please others, but image and perception are increasingly important in the larger geo-political and geoeconomic dynamic. In the modern age of media coverage and intense public debates, a countrys image often helps shape the degree of sensibility shown by others and the extent of soft leverage a country can build to defend and propel its interests.

Lets go back to a bit of history. Till the end of the Cold War, India ploughed a lonely path in global affairs and international trade, contrary to whatever self-image we may have cultivated as a leader of the Third World. Whatever goodwill we enjoyed then was less due to any strategic importance and more due to a nebulously derived moral stature, and the fact that we were seen as a Western-style democracy. But that too began to change as India got more embroiled in sub-continental hostilities, poverty, socialist mantra and dubious diplomatic postures.

By the middle of the 80s, the Non Aligned Movement became the main perhaps the only forum through which India exercised some influence, though even that was never as high as imagined by local media and intellectuals. By that time, many of Indias fellow Third World travellers, especially in Asia and Latin America, had become relatively prosperous in a single generation and hence shared few fraternal bonds of the old days.

Since then, our path has been more home-bound and full of either hiccups or hype, but the sheer focus of minding the store rather than preaching to the world on every issue, and also being pragmatic, have paid dividends. Traditional strategic thinkers and analysts, at least in India, are only now learning about the power of media and public perception.

The India-Pakistan-US relationship triangle is the perfect example: Whatever be the near-term trajectory of events, we are miles ahead of our neighbour in the long haul precisely because of our image in America, and in much of the West, as essentially a stable democracy with progressive impulses, a vibrant and free media, rules of checks and balances (even if the structures are slothful), a non-extremist populace and a talented hi-tech industry. As most Indian travellers will testify from personal anecdotes, our image has gradually climbed, leading to all manner of small but real opportunities.

Not all of this was the BJPs doing for one, Gujarat was a huge blot and setback and much of the initial groundwork was laid when Manmohan Singh, as finance minister, started moving India away from firmly embedded Nehruvian ethos, both economically and socially. It is amazing that the Congress party rarely acknowledges its biggest achievement ever, the abandonment of dogma. It is the only Indian entity, collective or personal, that I have ever heard say, We were wrong, and we are going to change. You do not hear those words often, or ever, in senior circles in India.

Of course, the party did not say anything close to those exact words, but its actions in 1992 sent out precisely that message, which in turn gave the country a domestic energy recharge and an external image boost that still thrive. Not everything has turned 180 degrees and popular stereotypes of noisy bazaars, exotic palaces, camel-mounted natives and endemic impoverishment still persist (to a great degree, they apply also), but that is now overlaid with a neo-modernist recognition of the potential of the country and its people.

There were many minuses about the BJP: Its social world view in general and its relationship with some really rabid organisations, in particular, have always been a matter of deep concern. But it also navigated the post-Pokharan global environment with prudence, brought about the first genuinely free elections in Kashmir, initiated some right moves with Pakistan and other neighbours, and pursued sensible economic policies. Yes, some of its actions, like the needless IIM controversy, the equally needless CAS double-flip, and the imperious haughtiness of disinvestment were both stupid and counterproductive, but in the larger sense the regime did do many things right.

It is easy for the winners to be moralistic and preening. But what will serve the country and ruling party far more is to be gracious and judicious. Charting out new priorities and reorienting policy are the privilege in fact, an obligation of any new government but what may be dangerous is a complete revisionist approach to everything done or attempted by its predecessor.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors