Playing to Win: Moving Beyond ‘Chalta Hai’ Ethic in India

The ‘Chalta Hai’ attitude is the weakness of our system, keeping it from delivering long-term value. Source: The Telegraph, UK.

Amid the border turmoil between China and India, commentators have exhorted, multiple times, the sharp contrast between India and China. When Chairman Deng Xiaoping and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi met in the 1988 in Beijing, the size of the two economies was the same. Now China is five times the size of the Indian economy, with a similar population size and land mass thrice that of India.

Paraphrasing Chairman Mao’s famous maxim, in many respects, power flows through the size of your treasury. Economic disparities reflect in strategic power projection. India might ignore China’s rise economically, but it does shape the rules of the new economic order where India has been forced to pick sides inadvertently. Former Singaporean diplomat and foreign policy scholar Dr Kishore Mahbubani openly articulates on Indian media that as the US (under President Trump) has abdicated the role of a global power, China now wants Indian subordination to its strategic objectives in its quest for global domination.

China then boosts not only finance to its military hardware, but also its ability to curry favours in India’s economic neighbourhood, by giving Bangladeshi goods tax-free status and financing Mandarin teachers in Nepal. China has never accepted the McMahon Line and the People’s Liberation Army has been ‘salami-slicing’ our land in Ladakh for decades. India, unfortunately, due to a wobbly economic situation harps on the gentler hues of ‘soft power’ as an escape hatch.

State and policy capacity are a grand sum of our individual contributions towards realising the nation’s true potential. We need to respect national interest above the mundane, banal politics of the troll era. State capacity is built over a few decades, disconnected from electoral cycles, and that is what differentiates us from China. The rise of China is anchored in a few fundamental facts and a command-and-control economy are one of them. Hence it is no surprise that a country where the disastrous missteps of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ slaughtered millions sans remorse does not reveal its casualty figures in the Galwan clash and the 1962 Indo-China War.

Public intellectual Dr Fareed Zakaria once told Zakka Jacob in an interview on CNBC TV-18: “Indian Foreign Policy, does not play to win”. Juxtapose this quip with the new breed of Chinese diplomats known as ‘Wolf Warriors’ – English-speaking technocrats ambitious to leave an imprint on the global world order. Maybe it is easier for Zakaria to state this reality due to his social reality, but it hit me like a sucker punch, as it resonated with my (unarticulated) perspective. Dr S Jaishankar is shifting the paradigm by ably transforming India’s diplomatic corps, but decades of stasis need further decades, if not centuries, to evaporate, as culture, in the words of author Amish, is ‘genetic memory’.

This is where the notion of strategic culture kicks in. Civilizational states have a cultural ‘deep state’ which drives our everyday response by default that is governance reflex at best. We are deeply hierarchical, feudal, and argumentative which, particularly from a Sino-centred lens driven ruthlessly by outcomes and wily guile, is ‘chaos’.

India is often lost in the morass of everyday bureaucracy and politics which blurs long term capacity building. Even when attacked, we engage in our favourite sport of infighting and partisan politics instead of rallying behind our Prime Minister and military leadership. Centuries of colonialization happened not because we were defeated by the Turkic Mughals and the English, but because we fought between each other and let invaders capitalise on our insecurities.

As the Galwan fracas has shown us in bright daylight, excuses and infighting can only lead to national humiliation. Lives laid down by our brave martyrs should not be in vain. It is time we ask tough questions about our policy capacity to deliver competitive advantage in the middle of a geopolitical contest between USA and China and a recession triggered by a pandemic.

The ‘Chalta Hai’ attitude, roughly translated as something in between ‘whatever works’ and ‘let the show go on’, is the weakness of our system, keeping it from delivering long-term value. Jugaad or frugal innovation, often feted in international management literature, has a synonym as well, which is cutting corners. Not the best vibe to fete!

The plurality of our democracy is a celebration of voices, but it does not deliver quality life for most of our citizens. Structures for service delivery are inadequate. We spend all our energies in keeping the system intact rather than to move the country forward. All movement, such as running on a treadmill, is, sadly, not progress. Our politics is geared towards winning elections, not the real meat of governance and getting our people a better shot at life.

We need to create a culture where results matter, and ‘moving the needle’ is the only metric. While writing this article, I do not forget the diversity of our nation. As an ethnographer, I live and breathe social justice. However, social justice is not in being a keyboard warrior ferociously typing away on Twitter, but in bringing quality public goods to our people who live on the borders and the heartlands away from the thriving economic clusters of our cosmopolitan cities.

Veteran journalist Barkha Dutt, who has been on the road for the past few weeks chronicling the migrant workers’ crisis on her YouTube channel, says that the government abdicated its responsibility towards the most vulnerable, and was absent as the lockdown got implemented. Clearly, there was a vacuum in the data infrastructure and policies for deliver targeted interventions to migrant workers. Or perhaps, did no one realise that we are a huge, internal, circular migration market which could need help at some point? A void in state capacity is a failure of imagination.

Radical ambition moves the paradigm forward. As historian Ramchandra Guha writes, adopting republic democracy under universal franchise in 1950 was a radical experiment in India. Since then, the paradoxical nature of state capacity in India has been evident. The space programme under Vikram Sarabhai and the IIT system began with the state. Yet, the consequent IT boom generating a crop of top-class tech professionals running ‘the valley’ out of Bengaluru emerged despite the government, not because of it.  Strategic capacity is beyond the shackles of electoral politics and is evident in the entrepreneurship that flourishes in the absence of state interventions in India.

Paradox defines us as a culture. Now, millennials must figure out a way to break this contradiction, do away with the “Chalta Hai” attitude and create policy and market-oriented solutions for the five trillion-dollar economy, which our Prime Minister envisions.

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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