Saturday, November 03, 2012

Book: A View From The Outside by P. Chidambaram

This collection of articles written by Palaniappan Chidambaram is like a ready-reckoner on indian economy, politics and governance of recent times. These articles were written between 2002-04 as columns for the newspaper Indian Express. Most, if not all the articles, are perfectly relevant even now. As the Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta notes in his foreword, austerity and no-nonsense demeanor always have characterized this impressive politician. So it is with his writing.

The sub-title of the book is "why good economics works for everyone". It is not difficult to see why that subtitle. Everyone knows that Chidambaram is a believer in market economy and the need for a tide of economic growth to lift all boats. He does make a wonderful case for that approach.

In this age of turbulent, chaotic, intolerant politics there is no space for sane and civilized debates on issues of importance. We have become so cynical that nothing ever catches our fancy. Everything looks suspicious and we go looking for the dark clouds even when we see a silver lining. All our idols are turning up with feet of clay. In this enviroment of gloom, a bit of enlightenment on the basic issues and the available options is not a bad idea at all. 

It is interesting that during the time that he wrote these articles Chidambaram was not in the government. It was just as well, that he could take this view as an outsider.

Google Books site provides a sample of this book. Here is the link-

Here are some of the articles in the book that I found really interesting. The articles are grouped under various heads.

Foreword by Shekhar Gupta - in which Shekhar calls Chidambaram the "most prominent, persistent, committed -and successful of instinctive reformers" in our political system.

Farmers Deserve a Better Deal (Agriculture) August 9, 2002- In this article is Chidambaram's much-debated statement about our attitude to food prices, how we complain loudly about rice, milk or sugar price going up even by 1 rupee whereas we do not hesitate to pay rupees 15 for an ice-cream.

Forex: Too Much of a Good Thing (Foreign Investment) August 25, 2002- Those were still early days in our Foreign Exchange saga, when the Forex was still around 60 billion. The article argues about putting the reserves to good use instead of merely hoarding.

A Tax By Any Other Name (Monetary Policy) April 27, 2003 - An article about inflation. By the logic in that article, Chidambaram should not have been unhappy about the recent RBI's decision not to lower Repo rate.

Building Ethics with a Strong Economy (Ethics and Governance) June 15, 2003 - The grinding poverty and the slow rate of growth witnessed in the first three decades after independence are ascribed  as the reasons for an all-round decline in ethics. The article observes the phenomenon of one standard of honesty when it pertained to money matters and another when it pertained to other aspects of life. In the same article is the famous quote from Indira Gandhi, "Poverty is the greatest polluter".

A Case of Guilty Till Proved Innocent (Ethics and Governance) Feb 15, 2004- An article about Rajiv Gandhi in which Chidambaram laments the mudslinging, calumny and trial by the Press that Rajiv was subjected to, in spite of there being no evidence that an Indian minister or official had received money in the Bofors deal. Rajiv's wit, the warmth and the transparent honesty are recalled in the article. It is ironic, that Chidambaram himself has been in recent times subjected to a relentless trial by the media.

India Lives In Her Villages, And How (Policies and Governance) Oct 06, 2002- The article takes on the votaries of swadeshi and "socialism" who support policies like labour-intensive development and protection against imports. The article calls attention to the fact that an average Indian village is a place with little capital, low technology and limited market access, with limited opportunities for growth.

Neither Civil, Nor Serving (Policies and Governance) August 10, 2003- The article does not object to the larger size of the civil services, but suggests to revise the structure, abolish some categories of jobs, redefine each job, retrain existing personnel and ensure each government servant contributes value.

The Four Imperatives For Faster Growth (Policies and Governance) Oct 19, 2003- The imperatives listed are Education, Electricity, Infrastructure, Investment, Information Technology and International Trade.

Is Anyone Listening to Mr Stiglitz (Policies and Governance) Jan 18, 2004 - Attention is drawn to the Nobel laureate Joseph Stigliz's quote on globalization. Stiglitz said globalization was good as it had the potential to enrich everyone in the world including the poor. He also warned that the management of globalization needed to be rethought and the policies imposed on the developing countries needed to be radically rethought. Chidambaram applies that quote from Stiglitz to the economic reforms undertaken in India and warns that unless economic reforms enrich everyone in India, particularly the poor, more and more people will lose faith in it. Lots of statistics are also  provided in the article. The investments in agriculture in the period Chidambaram was in the government are compared to the investment during the years he was out of it.

People and the Rule of Law (Policies and Governance) Feb 22, 2004- In this hard hitting article (excerpted from a speech delivered in Nehru Centre, Mumbai) on the state of democracy in India, the author calls to question the political parties and civil servants forefeiting the trust of the people, the urban voters showing apathy about the electoral process, history-sheeters, accused, undertrials and accused persons becoming legislators. The article ends with the rather resigned observation "we have miles to go before we can call ourselves a civil society under the rule of law".

Try To Sit, He'll Tax Your Seat (Taxation) Nov 17, 2002 - The author comments on the report by the Task Force on Direct Taxes headed by Vijay Kelkar. Some of Kelkar's recommendations are criticized as they are seen as resulting in further complication of the tax structure and narrowing of the tax base.

Wake Upto The State of States (Politics and Governance) May 18, 2003 - Argues why it is not a bad idea to heed to the demand of a bifurcation or trifurcation of a state based on size, population and geographical characteristics. Interestingly, in Dec 2009 the statement made by Chidambaram as Home Minister on the issue of Telangana led to a controversy over the division of Andhra Pradesh. The issue still remains unresolved.

An Uneven Tale of Two People's Republics (Politics and Governance) June 29, 2003- Whenever one is talking about economic development in India, a comparison to China is inevitable. This comparison appears in several other articles in this book too. In this article, it is argued that India missed the bus to a faster development as we did not open up our economy at the time China did at the end of 1970s. The article takes objection to the excuse that is often cited for India's poor performance, that India is a democracy. Chidambaram argues that the problem is not with the institutions of democracy, namely the elections, the elected parliament or legislature, a free press and so on. He questions the quality and effectiveness of these institutions and says that the poor quality of the institutions is the real reason for poor performance. The article concludes with a hope- "A true democracy, with all its institutions in robust health, may actually accelerate growth and take India past China."

In the introduction to the section named Politics, Chidambaram states that the section is purely political and that he was implacably opposed to the basic tenets of the BJP as he felt that any liberal democrat would be opposed to the BJP.

Why Modi Is Too Mythical To Be Real (Politics) Dec 08, 2002- The belligerently argued article expresses the view that Modi was enacting a dangerous role in liberal democracy. A liberal democracy must celebrate diversity, encourage pluralism and respect differences. The article reminds the readers that it is not an accident that the developed countries of the world have embraced liberal democracy as the political basis of their nation states.

Chidambaram exhorts the reader in his introduction to the book, to go on and read the articles and feel free to agree or disagree, and says that it is the reader's right. What is indisputable at the end of reading this book is, whether one agrees or disagrees with the arguments the author is making, one is bound to end up with a better understanding of the problems underlying the Indian economy and politics.

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