In a week when the murderers of Jessica Lal have walked scot-free after shooting her dead in front of a few hundred people in bar packed with Delhi’s power elite, it is difficult to think of India making progress, let alone powering ahead in terms of economic change.
But look closer and beyond our slothful bureaucracy, slow judiciary and corrupt investigation machinery and you begin to see an India that is changing rapidly. An India that is walking with new confidence and literally making new music. But there is just one caveat. It is happening only in those fields where the government machinery has minimal scope to interfere and repress people’s spirit though licenses, permits and endless redtape.
From a winning cricket team to a sassy Sania Mirza, there is no longer a shortage of the ‘killer instinct’ that handicapped our international players. After decades of copying foreign story ideas and tunes, our film industry is making good, original, commercial cinema (not the hot-house art films with limited audiences) and the melody is back in our music.
From Kashmir to Kolkata, youngsters are queuing up all night for a chance to display their talent to nationwide audiences. Once in, they metamorphose before our eyes into confident celebrities with loads of attitude.
Confidence is also reflected in the youngsters at Nallasapora, a distant Mumbai suburb, who decided that they would stand up to the violent disruption of their party on Valentine’s Day by Shiv Sena—a belligerent Maharashtra political party. Instead of being beaten and cowed down, they held a bigger party at the same venue where the Sena has wreaked destruction and molested women guests. They went a step further and set about creating an alternative local force to counter the Sena louts. And it worked. On the eve of the second party, Sena chief Bal Thackeray apologised for the misbehaviour of his party hooligans, in what can only be termed a humiliating climb down of the Tiger in the face of people power.
In the last fortnight, I interviewed for MoneyLife magazine, the CEOs of two powerful, dynamic private banks – ICICI Bank and HDFC Bank.Both had headed overseas within a few years of their career to “make their nest egg”. Going abroad was the only way to get into the high growth trajectory and to make a little money to get a jump start on basics amenities such as a house and a car. Not any more.Both CEOs said, “this is the best time to be in India” and to be proud of being Indian. This pride is reflected in a Laxmi Mittal, the third richest man in the world. Like Raj Kapoor’s song, which went, “mera joota hai japani”, Mittal’s main residence is in London and his steel units are sprawled around the world, but he proudly carries an Indian passport.
Indian management and engineering institutes are considered the best in the world. In the last few years, we have watched first generation Indians rise to head the world’s best banks, consulting firms and multinational companies.Youngsters, starting their careers today are taking the next step. Even after an Ivy League education they are heading homewards instead of scheming to stay on in the U.S. and dreaming of a green card and American citizenship.They are confident that the best of them will get global salaries and a lifestyle that is even better.
Even for those with a domestic degree, India’s financial sector is funding every basic amenity to anyone with a steady income and ability to pay an Equated Monthly Installment (EMI). When people default, it is again a business opportunity for someone like a young Manju Bhatia from Indore, who has the courage and the gumption to set up a ‘recovery’ agency (called Adhikrut Jabti Evam Vasuli) with multi-city operations and a transparent, video-taped process and a comprehensive website. Last week, after emerging a winner from a nasty encounter with a defaulter company, Manju headed for Indore to appear for her college exams. That is the new India for you.
Sonia Gandhi lives behind high walls of security and is probably misled by Congress Party sycophants waiting to clamber on to the gravy train of government hand-outs that are aimed at uplifting the lot of India’s poorest people. She has recently set in motion a process to funnel upto Rs 50,000 crore in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme that seems destined for controversial times.
What will it take to get the Congress leadership to realise that pointless subsidies, which never reach the ultimate beneficiaries, are out of sync with the new India. In the coming months, change will not be led by populist policies designed by bureaucrats but by hard-nosed bankers. They will look for obvious opportunities and fund sound businesses to create rural wealth after a clear assessment of risk and return. This will happen by teaching farmers to hedge risks, mechanise operations, sell their produce more effectively, link them to larger markets and create warehousing facilities to allow them flexibility in selling. The entire set of initiatives are business opportunities that are exciting private sector bankers even more than public sector banks with 2000 branch networks across the country.
All this is possible because of technology advancements, lower telecom and computerisation costs, lower interest rates and finally the ambition and aspiration of people.
What a far cry this is from the days when the concept of ‘priority sector’ lending angered and worried bankers. Today, even aggressive players such as HDFC Bank are offering Kisan gold credit cards to farmers, to finance investment inputs such as seeds, fertiliser and equipment and they are confident of recovering their money.
India is already on the roll and it needs only two elements to keep the process going. The first is for government to rein in its corrupt administrators and ensure that they do not impose road blocks through rent seeking. Secondly, provide at least minimal infrastructure to keep up the growth momentum.