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Editorial: No Left turn, please

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-08-28

From the very beginning of the post-colonial era - which is now nearly 60 years old - the dominant debate among Third World leaders was always whether to go Left or Right in nation building. Alas, that debate is still ongoing, jeopardizing the prospects of sustained economic growth in many poor countries that are most in need of foreign investment and technical assistance that would modernize their failing institutions of governance and corrupted value systems, and increase their rates of investment and per capita incomes. Alas, too, international institutions such as the United Nations - where the 135 countries of the Third World enjoy an overwhelming majority - still are sympathetic to the notion that the best government is the most government; that, in the final analysis, the private sector is an exploitative element that cannot look beyond its bottom line. A rash of recent reports by UN bodies suggest that in order to expedite economic and social development in misery-washed countries, governments must become more activist, not less. Even the World Bank - which raises its funds in global capital markets - hasn't entirely abandoned the idea that the state must play a key role in promoting economic growth. Like the Bourbons of France, some of these Left-leaning organisations learn nothing and forget nothing.

In India, for example, the Left - which holds nearly 70 seats in the Lok Sabha, the 545-member Lower House of Parliament - has virtually paralysed the Congress-led coalition o the United Progressive Alliance. It persuaded the government to impose foolish taxes on equity transactions; it wants to discourage foreign direct investment, which is already a paltry US$3 billion annually. It has intimidated Prime Minister Manmohan Singh into waffling on the question of inviting more foreign participation in the strengthening of India's deteriorating infrastructure. Of course, the Left always cites the Nehruvian era as its model, debilitating though it was for India's economic progress because there was nothing to show beyond corroding steel mills, villages with no electricity and mud roads that masqueraded as highways. Soon after independence in 1947, Mr Vallabhbhai Patel had argued for a free enterprise economy. But Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, besotted with Fabian Socialism, prevailed, and so began five decades of Statism and a "License Raj" under which the main beneficiaries were corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, and industrialists who funded the ruling Congress Party. The cohort of the poor kept increasing, even while Leftist policies discouraging the private sector were strengthened in the name of alleviating poverty. Like Nehru, Egypt's Colonel Abdel Gamal Nasser, Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito, Tanzania's Julius K. Nyerere, and Indonesia's Sukarno, were enamoured of the Left to the extent that it made them blind to the realities on the ground: that despite great dollops of foreign aid from Left-leaning governments in Europe such as the Nordics, there was little economic progress. In nation after nation of the Third World, Leftism - whether as outright Communism or as a carefully disguised benign form of socialism - became the god that failed.

Say this for the global Left, however: It is persistent. It is well funded. Its mantra of alleged capitalist exploitation of underdeveloped countries by multinational corporations and hegemonistic objectives of the United States seems to still carry appeal, especially in large Third World countries like India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, with their growing numbers of poor and dispossessed people. And it is a shrill bully, hectoring timid governments like those in India into indecisiveness about which economic model to pursue. The lessons of the post-colonial era are clearly this: that governments should play no greater role than serving as regulatory bodies; that markets should be fully and completely open to local and foreign competition; that institutions of governance such as the judiciary need to be toughened; that even small-scale entrepreneurship is to be encouraged because it creates jobs; that corruption and bureaucratic venality must be ruthlessly eradicated; that a free media mustn't mean an irresponsible one; that export-oriented trade, not foreign aid, helps accelerate economic growth; that poverty isn't alleviated by populist slogans but by expanding education, primary health-care and by inculcating civic sense and good neighbourliness. But try convincing the Left. For its leaders - living high on the hog, for the most part - rhetoric, not reality is the driving anthem. This doesn't augur well for Third World development.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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