Indian Reforms: Yesterday and Today

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This is the text of the Hiren Mukerjee Lecture delivered to the Indian Lok Sabha on December 2nd, 2010. It incorporates, into the original written text, several oral remarks made when delivering the Lecture.

Hon. Vice-President, Hon. Prime Minister, Hon. Speaker, Members of the Parliament and other distinguished Guests:

   It is a great privilege to be lecturing here today on our reforms.
   But it is also presumptuous to do so in the presence of the Prime
   Minister who has not merely thought about these reforms for as long
   a period as I have but has also initiated and overseen them. But
   perhaps I can add a few shades to the portrait he has been painting
   since 1991, while adding to the ongoing debate on the shape of
   Indian reforms to date, where they are going next, and where they
   should.

Yet, perhaps the most appropriate way to start my tribute to the memory of the eminent parliamentarian, Professor Hiren Mukerjee, would be by celebrating Indian democracy of which the Lok Sabha itself is the chief symbol. India was for decades unique in her democracy among the post-colonial countries that had gained Independence. Today that uniqueness has thankfully disappeared as several countries around the world have followed in India's footsteps and transited from authoritarianism, even military dictatorships, to democratic forms of governance. But our embrace of democracy from the outset does set us apart from, and puts us in a higher pecking order relative to, China whose egregious denial of democratic and other human rights detracts hugely from admiration for its stellar economic performance.

India has not just the Lok Sabha and elections; it also has all the elements of what we now call a "liberal democracy". We have an independent judiciary that has also advanced the cause of our poor and the underprivileged with Public Interest Litigation that, I am happy to claim, my brother, the former Chief Justice of India, pioneered. We have a free and lively press. Most of all, we have innumerable and growing number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the social action groups, that make up our civil society.

Many NGOs today are led by women who generally prefer doing good to doing well. This is so manifestly true that there is now a joke that, whereas in the old days if you were looking for a good daughter-in-law, you had to offer her a flat or a green card to go to the United States so that she could escape from having to live with her mother-in-law, today you have to offer her money so she can start her own NGO!

The NGOs are a critical part of a well-functioning democracy because they facilitate the implementation of the important social legislation that governments like ours pass. You can have all the fine legislation you want at the Center; but it will not be implemented if the NGOs do not bring the transgressions and omissions to governmental attention. They are the eyes and ears of good governance from the Center.

We have therefore what Naipaul called a multitude of mutinies. Many years ago, when I met with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore where political freedoms are more muted, he contrasted Singapore's orderly regime favourably with our chaotic, undisciplined one. I remarked: Mr. Prime Minister, what you call the noise of democracy is in fact its music.

And we now increasingly realize how wisely our leaders since Independence managed to use democracy and its accommodating ways to hold a multi-religious, multi-language, multi-ethnic country together, creating unity without denying diversity. When Prime Minister Nehru wished to turn Bombay into a city state like Delhi, denying it to Maharashtra, he soon yielded to democratic agitation that could have been long suppressed by a dictatorship. It is no secret that reorganization of states along linguistic lines was considered unwise in New Delhi; yet this was allowed in the end since democracy requires that voices from below must be heard at the top. …