Sunday, August 16, 2009

Misplaced priorities?

Last December while I was visiting India I was bombarded with with opinions from well heeled Indians on how the US could elect a "dimwit" like GWB twice, how wonderful Obama is/ how well he speaks, how important it is to rein in the run away health care costs and have universal health care in America. I listened to these in amusement and growing anger. Pretty much everything they brought up was applicable to India where they had a right to volunteer, vote and make a difference. So, what had they done - not voted most of the time and used that to wash their hands off the wonderful leaders' performance. While they enjoy watching US election and policy debates they don't demand or care for debates on policies that their government creates.

While I am not sure if GWB was smarter and more articulate than most Indian leaders, I am pretty sure that most these people would not know what their leaders were saying even if they were saying something sensible because of the language issue. Hindi (or, any local language) is not in fashion, "Hinglish" is. And, all said and done US electorate voted for GWB, how many of the Indian leaders were elected by the Indian electorate. Dr. Manmohan Singh was a compromise choice who never figured as a potential choice the first time around. And, let us not talk about health insurance or universal health care in India - it has never featured as an issue both with the politicians or the general public. I guess, that would not be an issue for my conversation partners. They can afford it in India. They are more concerned about their 3-6 month trips to the US visiting their children.

More recently, I brought up the topic of Universal Identity card - an ambitious project that government of India decided to launch without any discussion or policy on national identity. And, as if that was not enough they decided to install Nandan Nilekani, the former CEO of Indian IT giant Infosys, to head the initiative on the sly. And, of course, the current Infosys CEO does not feel any conflict of interest if his firm was to be chosen as the implementor. When I suggested that the hallmark of a good democracy is transparency and involvement of the citizens in developing policies that affect them the response I got was - "Do you think Dr. Manmohan Singh and Nandan Nilekani are not smart? They know what they are doing." It is not about whether they know what they are doing or whether they are smart, it is about transparency in actions and citizens involvement. Can the Government of India tell its people why Universal ID is a pressing issue, whether the existing illegal immigrants will get IDs and the estimated cost and schedule of its implementation. They have installed an implementor to head the initiative without defining the policies.

Then, there is the pesky issue of child malnutrition ( Indian malnutrition stats are worse than that of Sub Saharan Africa). Hell, that is not an issue. Instead, we take pride in the fact that we have not had any famine since we got independence while we had a few under British rule. True, that is an achievement (of sorts) but what is the point if these children are just alive but nothing else. My conversation partners where more concerned about children in Africa.

The most amusing topic was the discussion on food prices. Guess what my conversation partner used for comparison of food prices in India to that in the US to drive home the point that "food prices in India are way out of control and the poor cannot afford it" - Apple pie. Yes, I am not making it up. All that I could tell this person was - there is a reason why they say - "As American as motherhood and apple pie."

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