Some Deng-isms for our next prime minister
Through the 20th century, several countries tried to dominate the globe, from Germany to Great Britain to USSR, even Japan. But as the 21st century dawned, the two clear winners were USA and China. And the supreme credit for leading their countries to such a pole position lay squarely with two men — Teddy Roosevelt for USA, and Deng Xiaoping for China. Both leaders literally picked their faltering countries by the scruff, shook them up with path-breaking changes, fearlessly neutralised entrenched opponents, unleashed unbelievable reforms, and slung them towards unprecedented prosperity. A similar challenge awaits India’s next prime minister.
He or she will have the enviable opportunity to rip open India’s self-created cage. For that, our next prime minister will have to be unexpectedly bold. I would urge him or her to keep a book of inspirational quotes from Deng and Roosevelt by the bedside. So whenever doubt or fear strikes, he or she should just reach out and read, killing the apprehension.
In this piece, I have some Deng-isms for our next prime minister. In the next one, I shall trot out some Teddy-isms. China was an abysmally poor country at the end of Mao’s reign in the 1970s. Its GDP was lower than India; its universities were hollowed out; it virtually had no trade with the world; its economic institutions were primitive, without even a modicum of central banking! Hua Guofeng, Mao’s anointed heir, wanted to stake out but was afraid of doing so with Mao’s shadow looming large. To avoid risk, he said, “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” Mercifully for China, Deng Xiaoping, the diminutive ‘Paramount Leader’, ejected Hua Guofeng, and forced his country to take giant strides away from Mao-era chaos to prosperity through market reforms. “Slow growth equals stagnation and even retrogression. We must grasp opportunities; the present offers an excellent one. The only thing I worry about is that we may lose opportunities. If we don’t seize them, they will slip through our fingers as time speeds by.” But Deng seized those opportunities. Today, China’s GDP is four times that of India! It’s the world’s second largest economy, and could, conceivably, overtake America within the next decade. Deng’s vision has taken China from acute poverty to burgeoning growth in four decades. As the next prime minister embarks on tough reforms—dismantling hideously wasteful subsidies, freeing energy prices, creating a fair pitch for foreign investors, privatizing assets, loosening rigid labour rules, re-writing land acquisition laws, building infrastructure furiously—he will be told “it’s impossible”. He should turn a deaf ear to the naysayers, but hang on to this gem from Deng: “We should be bolder than before in conducting reform and opening to the outside and have the courage to experiment. We must not act like women with bound feet. That is the important lesson to be learned from Shenzhen. If we don’t have the pioneering spirit, if we’re afraid to take risks, if we have no energy and drive, we cannot break a new path, a good path, or accomplish anything new.” People will tell our next prime minister to be gradual, appoint some committees, read some reports. But Deng would have told him otherwise: “I haven’t read too many books … Don’t argue, so as to have more time for action. Once disputes begin, they complicate matters and waste a lot of time. As a result, nothing is accomplished. Don’t argue; try bold experiments and blaze new trails. That’s the way it was with rural reform, and that’s the way it should be with urban reform … It won’t do to hold too many meetings and write lengthy articles.” To be an achiever, our next leader must “seek the true path from facts”, Deng’s prescription to infuse policies with pragmatism. Though our economy is market oriented, our political parties are socialist in varying degrees. Their yearning for relevance is understandable; it can be satisfied without the nation paying dearly if “practice is the sole criterion for judging truth.” Instead of having one centrally sponsored template for the whole country, whether in schooling or preventive healthcare, “let us cross the river by groping the stones”. Deng was modern in his thought. He was not shy of admitting China’s backwardness and seeking answers even from Japan, despite its pre-Second World War occupation atrocities, saying China should not be like an “ugly person who tries to make herself beautiful just by putting on nice clothes”. Deng was not afraid to uncover unpleasant truths. Finally here is a message which I think is apt for us argumentative Indians: “If you don’t have anything to say, save your breath.” Ironically, Deng’s most famous quote—”To get rich is glorious”—may never have been spoken by him! But that’s an opportunity for India’s next Prime Minister, to assert openly: “To grow, to lift people from poverty, to get rich, is glorious.”