Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Mani Talk

"India of my dreams", was the theme of a talk by Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar ( called as Mani by his friends) at the Foreign Service Institute yesterday. As I had anticipated, the talk was was exciting, stimulating, provocative and inspiring. Mr Aiyar is one of the greatest orators I have heard. As Mr Surendra Kumar, Dean of the Foreign Service Institute put it aptly " Mr Aiyar is inimitable, irrepressible and incorrigible". Mr Aiyar kept the audience spell bound for an hour with his profound analysis,incisive comments,satire and wit. He has a remarkable and accurate knowledge of history,economic data and any number of amusing anecdotes. He made the audience laugh, think and reflect.

Highlights of Mr Aiyar's talk
-his dream of India is not the dream being trumpeted as " India shining", "India poised" and " India Rising", the current slogans which is euphoric about the high growth, Indian companies going global and Indians spending the highest in Singapore. His dream is for the yesterday ( Nehru era) when the growth, even if slow, it was an inclusive growth. The focus of the government was the common man and the poor. Some of these were: the irrigation and multipurpose projects, the unprecedented affirmative action to empower scheduled castes and tribes, the building of the foundation of democracy and the engendering of the belief in one India despite separatist dreams by some Indians.
-the policies of today, according to Mr Aiyar, benefit the rich and the middle class disproportionately more than the poor, who constitute the bulk of the population.
-The middle class has hijacked the economic and public policy agenda, seeking benefits for itself, mindless of the poverty around.Their obsession with multiplexes, malls and green cards has overshadowed the crying needs of the poor.
-The huge foreign exchange reserves come from the sweat and suffering of the poor Indians working in middle east but the rich Indians spend them away in foreign holidays and shopping.
-Panchayat Raj is a way to empower the rural masses politically and enable them seek economic entitlement. There are 1.2 million elected women leaders at the grassroot level of panchayats ( this is more than the one third reserved for them in local bodies) who can deliver inclusive growth better than the colonial sytem of Collectors and the post-independent system of Block Development Officers. More resources need to be given to the panchayat leaders.
- Mr Aiyar disagrees with the Indian policy makers who believe that the tide of economic liberalisation and reforms will carry all the boats ( of the rich and poor). He says it is not a tide but a tsunami for the rich and a minor and gentle lap of the wave for the poor. What is his model? A train, which has upper and lower classes but everyone travels together and at the same pace.

The talk was meant essentially for the new officers who have just joined the foreign service. Mr Aiyar had managed to balance the perspectives of these young officers and make them level-headed and not be carried away by the hype about the high growth. He made the senior officers, including me, to feel guilty that we are part of the predatory middle class which seeks to enrich itself, mindless of the situation of the poor.

I was fortunate to have worked under Mr Aiyar in Karachi, when he was the Consul General there. I was dazzled and overwhelmed by his brilliance,energy and vision. I told him a few days after joining ,"sir, foreign service and bureaucracy are too small for your talents. you should join politics which will give a larger platform for your ideas. I was thrilled when he left the diplomatic service and joined politics and became a Minister.

Mani in Tamil means bell. Mr Aiyar has been ringing the alarm bells within his party and the cabinet cautioning about the euphoria and asking for more attention to Aam Aami ( common man ). Many disagree with him , when he downplays the economic growth, explosive indian enterprenurial spirit and the surging confidence and new mind-set of the middle class Indian. Mr Aiyar is also seen by some as excessively nostalgic about the glorious days of Nehru and the socialistic era.

But I enjoy the sound and music of Mani, with admiration.