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Editorial: Passage to a New India

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-01

President Bush arrives in India today to say farewell to Jawaharlal Nehru, and to hail the long overdue reinstatement of Vallabhbhai Patel.

This is a bold mission, one that would have been impossible for his four predecessors who'd visited India - Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton - to carry out. The India that Mr. Bush will encounter has a rapidly growing economy; it is an incipient global economic power; it has demonstrated how a multiethnic society can hew to both secularism and democracy; and under the politically beleaguered but determined leadership of Prime Minister Singh, it has finally sloughed off socialist shibboleths and statist policies that held back the country from eradicating poverty, and enhancing prospects for the prosperity of India's teeming millions since independence from the British Raj in 1947.

In short, President Bush's visit to India comes at a time of the triumph of capitalism over socialism, long the operative ideology in most of the world's 135 third-world, or developing, countries. It pays homage, however tacitly, to the fact that this ancient culture once was among the most robust adherents of the free market - well before Adam Smith invented its modern form.

That it veered sharply from homespun capitalism was because of one man, and one man only, Jawaharlal Nehru. A scion of an aristocratic family who studied at Cambridge University and eventually came under the pernicious influence of Britain's Fabian socialists, Nehru injected an alien ideology into India's struggle for independence. His charisma and oratory mesmerized the Indian National Congress, which led the fight against the occupiers of Britain's largest and wealthiest colony, a land that novelist Paul Scott memorably called the "Jewel in the Crown." And because Nehru was the favored politician of Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma, his prescription for a post-independent India's economic path - socialism - was generally accepted as dogma.

Nehru's rival - both politically and for the Mahatma's affections - was Vallabhbhai Patel, the man who, more than anyone, was responsible for lining up India's 535 maharajahs in support of aligning their territories with secular India, and not theocratic Pakistan, after the Subcontinent was partitioned capriciously by the departing British. Patel, a Hindu moralist, did not approve of Nehru's sexual adventures, including his long-running affaire de Coeur with Lady Pamela Mountbatten, whose husband, the gay viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten, approved of the romance. Most of all, Patel thought that Nehru's infatuation with statist socialism would be bad for India. India, Patel said, needed to fully open the floodgates of free enterprise in order to vigorously promote sustainable economic growth.

He was right, of course. Under Nehru's stewardship, and later that of his daughter, the haughty Indira Gandhi - no relation to the Mahatma - India became a case study in bad governance. The federal bureaucracy mushroomed to more than 10 million (at any given time, no more than 2,500 Britons had administered the vast Subcontinent, which is geographically half the size of continental America). Bribes were demanded by these bureaucrats for every bit of economic expansion. Certain industrialists were given preferred treatment, largely because they contributed huge sums to the Congress Party's electoral coffers. India, which should have become one of the world's most dynamic economies on account of its natural resources and humongous pool of highly educated urbanites, was instead transformed into a basket case. Vallabhbhai Patel died a broken man, convinced that India would implode on account of Nehru's wrong-headed ideology.

That India did not collapse is because of one man's determination to resurrect Vallabhbhai Patel's beliefs. Manmohan Singh was a leftist during his Oxford days. He later headed a socialist think tank in that popular third-world watering hole, Geneva. But, probably influenced by his close friend, the Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati - who was himself left-inclined at one time - Mr. Singh was converted on the road to Damascus. Some 15 years ago, as finance minister in an earlier Indian administration, he rolled out reforms to trim the bureaucracy and open up India's languishing economy to foreign investment.

When Mr. Singh became prime minister in 2004, he accelerated those reforms, and they have already yielded results. India's annual economic growth rate is nearly 7%. Deutschebank says that within three decades India will be behind only America and China in terms of gross domestic product.

The fact that Mr. Singh has made Vallabhbhai Patel free-market beliefs en vogue is also testimony to his determination to resist India's Communists, who see American imperialism behind every mango tree. As head of a 14-party coalition in India's 535-member parliament, Mr. Singh needs the formal support of the Communists to continue as prime minister. That he has refused to be intimidated into applying the brakes on economic liberalization is testimony to his conviction that socialism was indeed the god that failed.

And so Mr. Bush arrives in India at a particularly propitious moment. The vicissitudes of international politics - the nuclear issue, India's tussle with Pakistan over the mountainous territory of Kashmir, which both countries claim - aren't going to vanish easily, of course. But Mr. Bush has rightly recognized that sound economics trumps debilitating ideology every time.

The ghosts of Nehru and Indira will be fretting in nirvana. But millions of contemporary Indians will welcome him warmly. But the longest lasting cheer will be forthcoming from Vallabhbhai Patel, who couldn't possibly have imagined that an American president would one day be hailing the world's biggest democracy - and its biggest practitioner of free-market economics - and perhaps even invoking his name.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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