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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 30, July 16, 2011

Contours of Emerging World

Wednesday 20 July 2011, by P.V. Narasimha Rao

[Former PM P.V. Narasimha Rao’s ninetieth birth anniversary was observed on June 28, 2011. He was born on June 28, 1921 at Vangara village in Bheemdevarpalli mandal of Andhra Pradesh’s Karimnagar district and he breathed his last in New Delhi on December 23, 2004 at the age of 83. Besides serving the Congress party and the Andhra Pradesh State Government in various capacities, he became the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh in September 1971 and remained in that post till January 1973. Elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1977 (when the Janata Party came to power defeating the Congress-I), he briefly sat in the Opposition with Indira Gandhi. In the eighties he held major portfolios in the governments of both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi—ranging from External Affairs, Defence and Home to Human Resource Development. In 1991 he was elected the Congress President in extraordinary circumstances following Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic assassination in Tamil Nadu during the Lok Sabha election campaign, and subsequently headed the Congress Government set up after the parliamentary polls even though the party did not secure an absolute majority in the Lower House and functioned as a minority government. His tenure as the PM lasted full five years (that is, till the elections in 1996)—he was the first Prime Minister outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to complete a five-year term.

He was close to N.C. and always cherished interactions with the latter replete as those were with memorable intellectual exchanges. This he conveyed in a moving message he sent to a function held in the Capital to mark N.C.’s ninetieth birth anniversary on November 3, 2003 that he could not attend due to reasons of health.

While remembering on this occasion that towering, yet unassuming, personality of exceptional intellect and erudition endowed with rare political comprehension of events, we are reproducing the following lecture he delivered, as the PM, at Harvard University on May 17, 1994. It appeared in this journal on May 28, 1994.


During his trip to the USA, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao delivered the Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Memorial Lecture at Harvard University on May 17, 1994. The full text of the Lecture is being published here. Prof J.K. Galbriath presided over the function at the Harvard University.

Thank you for inviting me to this great centre of learning where men and women have joined to engage in a unique process of intellectual interaction and enlightenment. They broaden their mental horizons and in the process, make a contribution to human thought. Today, I aspire at least to the former.

One soul animates all men, wrote Emerson, one of the great Harvard alumni. The spirit of enquiry allows no limit to intellectual quest. One of the highest functions of the human mind is to understand the diversity that constitutes the human condition, and in that spirit, to celebrate the freedom of expressing that diversity that we treasure as democracies, to value debate, to accommodate differing viewpoints and, above all, to shed prejudice.

The tide in the affairs of humanity is throwing us increasingly upon the rocks of fragmentation and disorder, placing increasing strains upon our carefully nurtured definitions of democracy and freedom. It is difficult to delineate these strains along the so-called fault-lines between civilisations, whatever the superficial evidence. India cannot think of a division of civilisations; we see man as an attribute of synthesis which translates itself into secularism exemplified. Yes, there are tempests now and then; but no tempest is known to have permanently changed the ocean.

Geographically, the sun shines on India and America but for a little while simultaneously. But symbolically, here is something for us to do. I believe that this period of sunshine can and must be expanded. I use this metaphor because one equivalent of “sun” also means “friend” in Sanskrit. Monocultural absolutes are, or ought to be, on the way out in world affairs. The interaction of human beings essentially has to involve some negotiation, some learning from each other’s perception within a framework of coexistence and mutual benefit.

Visiting the United States, an Indian gets the strange feeling of having got off a Time Machine. The past is a constant point of reference for us; tradition seems safer, more warm and secure, even if sometimes irrational or even harmful. We tend to justify our present actions in terms of the past, but there is also a constant effort to break away from it. Here, on the other hand, your predominant orientation is in terms of the future. The pitfalls of the atavistic approach are well-known. But what is not always apparent is that eyes fixed only on the future or on the past tend to ignore the present. Often enough, the present has been oppressed both by future utopias and past shibboleths. I feel the need for a balance, a sense of continuum of Time, because the subconscious feeling of being without a past or without a future could lead to avoidable attitudes and distorted relationships. It is from the present and the now that we must build a bridge to the future.

There is not one idea in the world that has not been propounded and stoutly controverted in India. So is the case, I believe, with America. We do not brook intellectual colonisation. In the field of economics, for instance, some major views have come from this distinguished University. They are forceful, but often contra-dictory. Any idea from here, therefore, has the great advantage that it brings a plural option with it. And yet, the rainbow of ideas gets fused into one monochromatic beam when America reaches the world beyond; it can tend to make judgments in simple, strong shades of black and white, right and wrong. The richness of various hues of every phenomenon in human affairs gets subsumed in those simplified contrasts. The world, however, does not change by being so slotted.

This is ironical because pluralism in America, as in India, has arisen as a historical inevitability. America believes in unity in diversity. In the Indian concept, unity represents Truth, diversity signifies its manifestations. The diversity has different origins, whether of immigration, or of invasion. Hope and dynamism informed our unity, the hope inspired by the end of the colonial condition in your case; the dynamism of the diverse streams coming together in our case. Through centuries we have not allowed diversity to become divisive, except for one single event in 1947. Nation-building has been extremely difficult since it was premised on positive factors throughout; we had no notional adversary to rally sentiment against, whenever needed.

In this long stretch of national endeavour, we have had a varied experience, now stumbling, now sprinting. The latest event, if I may say so, is that we have recently embarked upon a process of economic liberalisation. It was only liberalisation, not substitution, since we had an ongoing, well-entrenched market system for ages. So it has been possible for us to fashion our liberalisation as a well-thought-out programme, based on an assessment of the current situation, both local and global, as well as anticipated future developments. It remains part of our development effort; the objective has not changed. We have hit the right road and the direction has been set. The way is only forward.

Yes, there is considerable criticism from some section. This criticism is important, since it illustrates the strange line-up of hostile forces when a serious, systematic change is undertaken. But our reform has the general approval of the people. Therefore it runs no risk whatever of dilution, far less reversal. What are mere disparities in affluent countries become dual economies when they occur in the poorer ones. Upward mobility is obstructed by strong and inflexible social structures. Thus, it is feared that the dynamism of globalisation may benefit only one of the dual economies. The other is not only left unaffected, but may actually be affected adversely. At some point, the growing distance between the two suddenly gets beyond endurance and creates tremendous internal social and economic strains, throwing the whole liberalisation pro-gramme into disarray and delay.

This is why it is important to ensure also sizeable and simultaneous benefits to the lower layers. We cannot wait for the trickle down; we need to engineer a by-pass by investing massive resources for the benefit of the poorer sections, particularly in the rural areas, directly from the state’s resources. Smooth assimilation is the crux. I consider this to be the correct and lasting way of globalisation. The bottom-line is partnership, and not annexation.

We need investment in people and in infrastructure; the package is inseparable and indispensable. The government was taking care of both investments in the past; the results, while beneficial in several respects, have fallen short of overall expectations and requirements. We have now assigned a large portion of infrastructure investment to private enterprise on a global scale, while the government takes on the bulk of the responsibility for investment in human resources, as also rural for development in general.

Unlike in some developed countries, unem-ployment is not a marginal or fractional pheno-menon for us. Looking closely, one can perhaps find a nexus between the lack of full employment on the one hand and the emergence of multiple economies in the society on the other. There is a low level equilibrium in the less affluent societies which has to be shaken if development is to take place. Work is, therefore, the primary weapon necessary for dealing with this poverty. Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of welfare for all, Sarvodaya, meant not just the advancement of the greatest number. This total concept is dominant in India’s social philosophy down the ages and has been articulated quite unambiguously.

Incisive and socially concerned thinkers from great institutions such as yours have forced us all in recent years to reconsider the goals of development. We have begun to recognise our responsibility for preserving the environment and the finite resources of this planet. Never-theless, the original sin endures, namely, the equation of happiness with consumerism which translates in plain terms, in equating the quantum of happiness with the quantum of consumption. Professor Galbraith has written of the wisdom needed to perceive the difference between a luxury and a necessity—a wisdom all the more important in a world where the distinction between the one and other tends to be ignored.

It is only this development in the conventional sense which still elicits admiration and generates national power, making the past achievement of the developed nations, the goal of the developing ones. As a result, no developing country is proceeding on a path different from the profligate one on which the developed countries have travelled so far. This demands formulation of viable and consistent parameters of development which take into account the critical collision towards which the diminishing resources of the planet and its increasing population are headed.

Institutions like Harvard face this intellectual challenge, since you are the trend-setters. I attach great importance to this because no society can act in the absence of a trend. Speaking for India, I submit that we have an equilibrium to be achieved among three factors, namely,

i) the level of material benefit necessary for a human being to attain his full creative potential;

ii) the level of exploitation of Nature consistent with its needs to replenish itself; and

iii) the need to ensure comparable benefit to the vast masses of people and lift the social pyramid as a whole.

This approach is not a mechanical compromise or an idealistic package. It accepts the realities of the present-day world, the values of liberal democracy and the limits on the state which globalisation of trade will require. It accepts the necessity and the efficiency of the market. But it finds its appropriate balance by determining the ends of economic development that a country can and should pursue. It involves defining, to the extent possible, what the word ‘good’ means, when we are seeking to achieve the greatest “good” of the greatest number. Consumer satis-faction undoubtedly gives pleasure, and pleasure is an essential ingredient of ‘good’, but pleasure and ‘good’ cannot be taken as identical. There must surely be a social, psychological and perhaps spiritual content of ‘good’ which is not purely market-determined. And I believe there is.

In developed countries, the income of the unemployed is protected to an extent through social welfare; yet social problems still continue to arise. This has compelled a realisation of the role of work in the human psyche. The basic role of action in the human psyche is stated in the Indian tradition when Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita that “there is nothing for the Supreme Being to attain, and yet I engage in action”.

Compensated unemployment there cannot be a substitute for employment. This is not merely an economic phenomenon. It has important social and psychological factors besides being a corollary of the dynamics of creation. Unemploy-ment becomes a symbol of rejection, of being unwanted in society. And society itself, engrossed in its own arduous struggle for existence, is generally not able to care for its dispossessed and numbers have become so crucial and development today is being nullified to a large extent by galloping population. The former has to be stepped up, while the latter is brought to a predictable and manageable level.

From the development standpoint, a galaxy of distinguished scholars, Indian and foreign, have, for several decades, assessed India’s prospects. The main points of the assessment may be summed up as follows:

a) that despite the Green Revolution, the population may outstrip food production, resulting in food deficits;

b) that sophisticated genetic engineering technologies will not assure uniform benefits, and small farmers may be deprived of them, accentuating agrarian disparities;

c) that India requires the right technology in industrialisation to be compatible with the requirement of massive employment;

d) that the development of human resources is inadequate; and

e) that the assurance of national unity and integrity remains a question mark.

It is not my intention to use this platform exclusively to publicise India. But I think it is my duty to dispel some misgivings which, if they persist, affect the chances of my economic globalisation programme, only because things have not been put in perspective. I hope this justifies my effort.

Let me first take up the problem of population. And let me first say that, in the interest of good neighbourly relations, India has no desire to overtake China in this area; and my figures do not point to this event, although some forecasts suggest this. Our common creditor, the World Bank, seems to support my view. Be that as it may, the figure at which India’s population is said to get stabilised varies rather widely, between 1.2 billion and 1.8 billion. That shows how unpredictable human beings can be. The higher projected figure means that India’s population will get doubled in, say, seventy or eighty years.

The question is to double our foodgrain production in a similar period. Self-sufficiency in foodgrains through the Green Revolution in the mid-sixties has been the largest single factor in the recovery of our economy at home and enhancement of prestige abroad, even while many economists emphatically predicted nothing but disaster on this front. The first point to be noted here is that for more than two decades the Green Revolution was confined to just three-and-a-half States—not even among the big ones—in the country. Many other States had it very marginally or not at all. As a result, the wide disparity between kilogramme-per-acre yields in different States has persisted. In the case of rice, the difference is in the range of 700 and 3300 kilogrammes. While in wheat it ranges between 600 to 3000 kilogrammes. These disparities are at once hopeless and highly hopeful. The distinct possibilities of enhancing yields several-fold and the further fact that the Green Revolution has now begun to travel into the low-yield but high-land fertility areas clearly indicates that there is no danger whatsoever of India becoming deficit in foodgrains. We can take care both of increased population as well as enhanced levels of consumption. We have also achieved near- self-sufficiency in edible oil, which had caused a drain on our foreign exchange reserves. We are again making massive investments in agriculture along with many of the latest modern techniques, including genetic engineering. There is a dramatic spurt in our agricultural exports just within the past two or three years. The continued soundness and adequacy of our agricultural economy, which is basic to our development, is thus assured. There should be no room for doubts on this score.

The misgivings in regard to disparities are also not quite valid. Apart from the known fact that we have millions of medium, small and marginal farmers in India, the application of land ceiling laws throughout the country has narrowed down disparities in land holdings drastically, and proved beyond doubt that given the necessary inputs, the size of the holding has no bearing on per-acre yields. Indeed, the Green Revolution was itself the miracle wrought in small and medium holdings. As a farmer, I can personally testify to this.

When we take employment as an economic activity, the conundrum of the right technology confronts us. If we take to gigantism to obtain economies of scale, we accept sophisticated technology which replaces man with machine, accentuating unemployment and imposing heavy social costs. On the other hand, if we inevitably accept the route of large-scale employ-ment, with old technology and low wages, the large mass of people, as well as their economic activity, including the product thereof, remains at a primitive level inquality.

Obviously, both these positions are unaccep-table. There are six factors involved here, namely, of size, environmental acceptability, cost, quality, technology and employment potential. Environ-mental acceptability and quality are obviously sine qua non. If the objective is to maximise employment potential and minimise the per unit size at more or less the same cost, the only imponderable that remains to be determined is technology. I see no alternative for populous developing countries but to develop these technologies of the future. One may call them the “Laptop” models which possess all the six attributes I have just mentioned.

In course of time, this has to be the pattern of industrialisation in the entire developing world. And in populous countries where millions of jobs are involved, it needs to be accorded higher priority. If the developed countries, with their huge R and D establishment, could work in tandem with developing countries, that could be the ideal form of North-South cooperation. Moreover, developed countries themselves would have to jettison their polluting technologies and the culture of gigantism, earlier than later, for compelling environmental reasons. That would make the interests of all mankind coincide, regardless of developed or developing. The rich and the poor of the whole world are thus locked in a three-legged race and simply cannot break free from each other.

This long-term scenario is valid to the extent leaders of the world decide, and the people who elected them agree, that the world, after all, is worth saving beyond their own generation. In the meantime, India has to find employment for its teeming millions through industrialisation and needs huge investments in infrastructure in power, oil, telecommunications, fertilisers and, of course, agriculture and irrigation, apart from roads, railways and ports. I have come to extend my hand of partnership in this adventure—partnership between countries which have so much in common, and so close already in multi-faceted cooperation. This is an important purpose of my present visit to the United States.

With the huge outlays on infrastructure hopefully being taken care of by the private sector as envisaged in the new liberalisation programme, the prospect of the human sector has brightened immeasurably overnight. We have planned that the national outlay on education in India will be raised upward so as to reach six per cent of the GNP by the end of the century. The present level is 3.7 per cent. With the government, the universities and the industry, jointly and severally, continuing to give a new boost to scientific research and development, a new era of technological break-through at the national level is assured, along-with a massive conversion of unskilled into skilled workers in the countryside. This, coupled with the highest ever outlays on rural development, particularly rural employment, is bound to go a long way in waking the sleeping giant that is rural India. These ambitions have now become entirely feasible and are clearly in sight, solely as a consequence of the private sector stepping in a big way into the infra-structure segment, a prospect at once exciting and full of exponential possibilities.

Millions of words have been written since India’s independence on the prospects of the survival of democracy and political stability in India. This massive scholastic interest in my country is welcome, and the fact that most forecasts have turned out to be wrong does not detract from their profundity. India is today the largest democracy in the world with regular elections, at all levels, with a large number of political parties, national, regional and local. Democratic institutions at the grassroots level, called panchayats, have now been accorded constitutional status. Empowerment of women has received unprecedented primacy. The people have tried and tested almost every political party by entrusting governmental responsibility to it and even as the head of the country’s largest and oldest political party, with a history of 110 years, I find myself perpetually on tenterhooks! In fact my party is judged more stringently than the others—a special token of the people’s hope, that gives rise to both expectation and exaspe-ration. My own government, which started in a minority, is about to complete three of its five-year term firmly in the saddle. As for its capacity to take far-reaching decisions, the policy changes brought about in these three years, their sweep and implications, are by now well-known and speak for themselves.

Yes, we do have many languages, castes, religions, races and classes. We have occasional clashes and agitations. But what one can discern only on a more careful observation is the revealing fact that life in the whole countryside remains clam and stable. During the entire period of eleven years when Punjab witnessed violent agitation, the State’s agricultural production remained the first in the country, and it never lost its place of eminence in any parameter of development. Agitation does not abridge accom-plishment. India will remain India, with its unmatched attractions such as a huge and growing market, a friendly and talented people, political and institutional stability and a bright future by any reckoning. And friends at Harvard. All else is inconsequential or incidental.

Jawaharlal Nehru named India’s economic system as mixed economy; not a mechanical part-admixture of the other two systems, but a complete system by itself, in which some features of those who happened to find place. True to the liberal tradition—of which your great institution is a custodian—India has never looked at progress as a single, unidirectional straight and narrow path. It has always been cylical in its outlook. For every assertion there is a negation, for every postulate a counter-postulate. There can never be only One. If there is Zero, shunya, there is also Infinity, poorna. In between, if there is One there must be Another. Therefore, one society cannot completely be replicated in another, each has to fashion its own way for itself.

However, one fact has become abundantly clear, that the roles of the State and the market are essentially distinct and complete usurpation of the role of the one by the other is neither possible nor desirable. While assigning the role to each at a given time, the current situation in the society has necessarily to be taken into account. And neither will wither away, no matter what one hypnotises oneself to believe in a given context. But the transition to the post-Cold War World, welcome as it is, is likely to be even more difficult than ending the Cold War. The days of rejoicing at the demise of the old system are over. The contours of a different world have begun to emerge, a world so different from the world of blocs and deterrences that we have almost forgotten. But the Cold War attitudes persist—not because there is anything permanently valid about them but because their removal inevitably takes time, and even more than time, the genuine realisation that the whole context of human destiny has really changed.

This change needs a change of the mindset. I firmly believe that beyond the very limited processes of diplomacy and inter-state relations, there is an immeasurably vast expanse in which all the tiny specks that make up humankind seem surprisingly equal. To capture the spirit of that equality leading to unity is the new challenge of the unipolarity whose advent we are witnessing today. Shall we, in Bruce Springstein’s phrase, simply “leave each other alone like this”? History does not often present such a decisive opportunity. We miss it at our own peril. As two human organisations so different, yet so much akin, I hope and pray that India and America will prove themselves, as only the two of them can. And I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your attention.

(Mainstream, May 28, 1994)

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