Saturday, March 08, 2003

the capitalist case for india

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in March 2003).

The Elephant Paradigm: India Wrestles with Change by Gurcharan Das

Gurcharan Das is a novelist, playwright, venture capitalist, Harvard graduate and former chief executive of Procter & Gamble India. But more than anything else, he is an unabashed capitalist who believes privatization is the panacea for all of India's social and political ills. "In the short term, the [economic] reforms will have little impact on the poor - let's admit this honestly," he writes in his new book, The Elephant Paradigm: India Wrestles with Change.

Das's paradigm is right-wing Thatcherite economics. Here is Das, former chief executive of a multinational, at his best: "It is more important, I believe, to raise the living standards of the poor than to worry about inequality. We have to realize that economic reforms are bound to increase inequality that comes from open and free competition, but that does not mean that they will worsen the situation of the poor and the most disadvantaged." And again, Das, the patronizing proselytizer: The ordinary citizen in India "does not understand how economic reforms will help improve his life".

Corporations too, as far as Das is concerned, can do no wrong. The Maharashtra power plant Dabhol and its owner Enron (now bankrupt) were vilified, rightly, for selling extremely expensive power. But apparently, "we should not waste our energies in blaming Enron but in reforming the MSEB" (Maharashtra State Electricity Board), says Das, cavalierly dismissing Enron's malfeasance.

In his last book, India Unbound, Das's thesis was that the problems of India arose because unlike in other parts of the world, democracy here preceded capitalism. In fact, in a recent interview in a local newspaper, Das categorically said, "So I personally think, what slows us down is democracy and, to some extent, tradition. We have an ambivalence about money, [we are] very religious," expressing a none-too-hazy preference for undemocratic models such as China and South Korea.

The Elephant Paradigm is a compilation of the 200-odd columns Das has written in the years since he quit his job at Procter & Gamble. Thankfully, the book is not entirely a hodgepodge of disparate ramblings. Das has attempted to link the articles by theme - a bit of a difficult task - given that he has covered a wide range of subjects, including the Panchayati Raj system (local self-governance), India's information-technology success, the power sector's problems, religious fundamentalism and women's rights. The title of the book implies that while India may never roar ahead like the Asian tigers (no doubt because it is a democracy), it will advance like a wise pachyderm, moving steadily and surely.

Das is a decent writer but his ponderous philosophizing always gets in the way. Some of his dime-store philosophy includes this gem: "I am convinced that the world is divided into two types of people: The minority who are dedicated to happiness and the majority who are dedicated to unhappiness. Those in the happy minority ... are content with getting on with their lives ... In contrast, those in the unhappy majority ... define their identity in relation to others and believe they can only be happy by making someone else unhappy." Whom is he kidding?

To his credit, Das doesn't shy from criticism even at the risk of sounding politically incorrect. While he doesn't support the Hindu fundamentalists in India, he blames India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's notion of a secular India as responsible for sowing the seeds of religious sectarianism. "Nehru's secularism failed because it was too intellectual and empty of content ... Today, there is an unfortunate polarization between an influential and articulate minority of secularists and the vast majority of silent, religiously minded Indians. Neither takes the trouble to understand the other, and what we have as a result is a dialogue of the deaf."

But then he says, "Having lost Nehru's age of innocence we are now resigned to a world without ideology and continue to grope for a new set of beliefs that will help us cope with our frustratingly pluralistic society."

Along the way, Das informs us of the breadth of his literary, philosophical and academic readings. He drops a ton of names and cites a ton of quotes. In an unintentionally hilarious bit, in a chapter titled "A Sentimental Education", he writes: "We Indians are verbose, and need to be reminded that human beings were born with two ears and two eyes, but with only one tongue so that we should see and hear twice as much as we say. Shakespeare too, I think, must have had us in mind when he wrote in Richard III: 'Talkers are no good doers.' Hence he offers us this advice in Henry V: 'Men of few words are the best of men.'"

Das should heed the bard's words.

The Elephant Paradigm: India Wrestles with Change, by Gurcharan Das, 2002 Penguin. ISBN: 0-143-02910-X. Price: US$25.24, 430 pages.