Last year in early June, LK Advani, leader of the main Opposition party BJP and Prime Minister-in-waiting, gave an interesting and insightful speech at the Assocham AGM. Some described it as a creative reinterpretation of swadeshi. He put forth a new doctrine, a new model of economic development and it was clear that the holy trinity of BJP’s economic task force were behind this new thinking. Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie played a crucial role in ushering in second and third generation reforms during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee NDA dispensation. While some of these radical measures, including disinvestment, were unpalatable to a lot of people, it was generally thought that right wing was good for the reform process.
The National Highway Development Plan was a resounding success, as were other structural reforms in the financial and telecom sectors. At the Hindustan Times, I had a ring side view of the reform process under these three good men. I could, at the end of the five years, claim to know at least two of them reasonably well – Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie. In many ways, PM Vajpayee gave people like Shourie a clear mandate to go ahead and do their work, both in the controversial disinvestment and telecom sectors. It is only the legalese of Fali Nariman that finally tripped the strategic sale model of BPCL and HPCL. But even after that Shourie changed tack and began to offload minority shareholding in the stock market, unleashing value. I guess nearly every single company divested has turned profitable after the sale.
But this treatise is not about disinvestment, it is about Advani and his economic vision. All this, while I was under the impression that a lot of what Advani said in June last year may have been articulated internally by the reformist troika. But wait, it seems I was wrong, for what I read the other day as a leader under Advani’s byline was curiously different from what he had said at Assocham. So, I was confused. No confounded. For in the Assocham speech, Advani had made some interesting observations, he spoke about an Indian model of development, not socialist borrowed from the Soviet Union or capitalist cloned from Western economies led by the US. It was a speech, which created a flutter in the dovecotes. But strangely, nobody has pursued this thought process unveiled by Advani last year. Media is discussing the same old clichéd political barbs and slants and not looking beyond the apparent. I am yet to read a follow up of Advani’s measured speech and thinking that day. Strangely, the BJP’s ideologues have also not pursued this thought process. Moreover, nobody has bothered to ask Advani on the fundamental takeaways mentioned in that speech.
The leader detailed the BJP/NDA’s infrastructure vision, there wasn’t so much as a mention of his radical thinking aired loudly to industrialists last year. I was disappointed, for I am a reformist, the fact that I was a business journo partly having something to do with it. The lengthy leader had only one point of import, which I could ponder on. Towards the end, Advani writes about how ‘our managers rarely get the autonomy and requisite powers, coupled with clear accountability norms, to show their true mettle. Whenever a right manager for the right project has been given the right powers to execute, we have seen amazing results. E Sreedharan of the Delhi Metro is a notable example, but there are many more. Hence, we shall create an environment of top level managerial empowerment for the emergence of 100 Sreedharans, who can make things happen.’ This part was there in the speech as well where he spoke of throwing up a 100 Sreedharans. But the rest of the Assocham speech was dramatically different. I am viewing both the speeches from the prism of an economic analyst and I am telling you whoever was behind the Assocham speech was talking game change.
All in all, I would say the pink paper leader is an opportunity lost. For, through the pink paper you were talking directly to the vast community of small and big industrialists. Imagine when Advani called industrialists late last year, both the Ambani brothers turned up for the first time together at the same platform since an awards function many years ago. Let me repeat Advani’s words at the Assocham function for your benefit, “It seems to me just as India’s economic growth was earlier heavily influenced by the Soviet model, now it has swung to the other end of the pendulum by imitating the western model. India’s problems cannot be solved, and the future needs cannot be fulfilled, by following yet another alien model.” These were important words from the leader of the Opposition. They meant something if they were projected against the backdrop of the neo wave of resource nationalism doing the rounds. From Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to Vladimir Putin in Russia, this wave was only getting stronger.
Advani went on to say, “I must point out here that just as my party was against excessive state control of the economy, it was also opposed to the idea of the state having no role in the economic life of the nation. In other words, we have never favoured free enterprise, trickle-down theory, etc. The democratic state has a definite and inescapable duty to orient economic growth towards desirable social ends what in the Indian ethos is termed as Bahujan.” As I have repeated earlier, these were extremely vital words from an important political leader while addressing industry being reported extensively media. He also said, “I think that infrastructure development is both an opportunity maximiser and opportunity-democratiser. It will be our endeavour, if we get an opportunity to govern at the Centre, to transfer many powers and functions from New Delhi to state capitals, and urge the state governments to transfer many of their own powers and functions to local bodies.” I am amazed that nobody has bothered to pick up these strands, which are likely to influence the way we run this country, going forward.
Yes, May 16 is around the corner. By the afternoon of May 16 a clearer picture on who is going to govern us for the next five years might not emerge. It might take a week. But a week, as they say, is too long in politics. The moot point here is that this kind of ‘different thinking’ needs to be consistent. If the BJP/NDA is in a position to form the government, then it remains to be seen whether it can pursue the agenda that Advani laid down at Assocham. An agenda, which could be transformational in an age where the world economic order has turned upside down. An age, where President Obama, pandering to his domestic constituency, is taking stern protectionist measures despite pledging to his overseas constituency in London that he will not take the protectionist route. But first, the BJP/NDA will have to win the mandate from the people. Over to May 16.
This is to apologise for the misrepresentation of facts in the contents of my last column to the extent they related to Mathew Easow. The facts are different from what was understood by me. This was not done with any deliberate or premeditated intent to harm Mr Easow’s reputation or interests. The errors are regretted.
The inconvenience caused to CNBC-TV18 due to the same article (published on April 29) is sincerely regretted.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir. The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not necessarily those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)