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Strange Thoughts - Views on News from Equitymaster
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  • Feb 13, 1998

    Strange Thoughts

    Now it is our turn to speak. For months we have watched the politicians play their cat and mouse games of toppling governments, setting up new ones, and throwing them out again. All these equations and equilibriums to stay on in power. Now the time has come to cast our vote, and say our words. For better or for worse. For a path towards the 21st century or for a step back in time towards the 16th century.

    We have no one but ourselves to blame for the lack of political alternatives. If the Congress does not represent us and if the BJP makes hollow our aspirations, then it was up to us to choose our own representatives: good independent individuals who we can trust. What does it take to build a nation? Steel and cement? No, these are commodities you buy, things you use to get you somewhere. Character and a sense of duty will take you a much longer way. If more people who have sat in Parliament had character and a sense of duty to their country and a respect for that institution, India would have been a different nation. Irrespective of party, people with character and a sense of duty would know what to support and what to oppose.

    Coalition governments would not have been pulled down due to the whims and fancies of individuals and their egos. The Janata experiment of 1977 and the efforts of the United Front in 1996 would not have been shattered due to what any one individual felt. These governments may still have fallen, but due to bad decisions and policies and not to personality conflicts. If we were honest and true, this would have been a different country. Not a place with 400 million illiterate who are kept ignorant because it helps in the vote-catching game. Educate the people, was the fear, and they will never reelect us. The people may have been cheated once, dear politician, but they realised how good or bad you were and rewarded or punished you in any case. You got your punishment - a little delayed, maybe - but 400 million people lost out on education and opportunities for a better life.

    And there is this other myth that we have inherited from the western world and of which I am a product. The myth that a number called per capita Gross Domestic Product - the value of goods and services produced in a country per person - is the final destination of a country. This number was supposed to be a tool to quantify quantifiable things across countries. It does not measure happiness or social stability: it measures things. Happiness is not seeing how many tonnes of steel or cement you have per person, or how many cars you have per person: no happiness is a lot more subtler than that. Happiness borders on the spiritual. The India I have read about through the vision of Mahatma Gandhi had that. But we lost it along the way in our search for development. No, I could never live a life without a car, a computer, or a phone. But, somewhere down the line we have to draw a distinction between the end and the means to this end. Ask the Indonesians how happy they are today: they have a lot of phones, cement, steel, cars, and great buildings. India is somewhere in the twilight zone: chasing a material dream that is too far away and having lost a spiritual power that we had.

    No, this election is not going to get us anywhere close to where we want to go. Because we ourselves donut know where we want to go - as yet. Do we want to play the money chase game? Do we wish to ignore progress completely and live in the bullock cart age? Do we want to stop spending money on arms and spend that money instead on educating people and giving them clean air to breathe and water to drink. I had read a World Bank estimate that global poverty could be wiped out at a cost of US$ 80 billion. Think about that number - and imagine that you can remove poverty all over the world with that much money. And now know that, in 1996, the world spent an estimated US$ 700 billion on arms of which India spent about US$ 8 billion. Or that the amount of money spent on tobacco is more than US$ 150 billion every year. How easy it seems to wipe out poverty forever. And yet we continue to tolerate it.

    It is a strange world we live in. And a strange country. One day, when we really know what we want, we will be able to get it. For now, I guess its good enough just to go to the polling booths and vote. The good thing is that, in the case of a hung parliament, we donut hang - the politicians do. We just get to vote again. Jai Hind.



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