The year was 1967 and the US economy, and polity, was on the cusp of change. Technological change was happening, civil rights for blacks would soon begin to be a reality, the women’s movement was gaining momentum, the anti-war movement was on the verge of take-off; and social attitudes towards sex, marriage, and life were soon to be permanently altered. On the screens appeared Mike Nichols’s movie, The Graduate, easily one of the classiest movies of all time. (His first movie was Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). In that movie, there is one exchange that still resonates today, and with the same shock, and urgency, and prophesy. The exchange is between a very young man, Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) who is being advised about his, and the country’s future, by an elderly businessman Mr McGuire (with whose wife and daughter Benjamin has affairs).
Mr McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
The year is 2014, and India, analogous to US in 1967, maybe on the cusp of a major change—politically, economically and socially. The most important one word in India might just be : decentralisation.
To Benjamin’s “how do you mean” question, my response.
It is hard to imagine anyone in India not arguing for increased “power to the people”. The AAP’s surprise victory in the Delhi elections is just the latest proof of this demand for change sweeping across the world. Change being brought about because the ruling order (politicians or otherwise) talk, without actually speaking, and hear, without actually listening.
Of course, decentralisation can be taken to an extreme. In Delhi, the AAP demands that not only economic decisions but also foreign policy decisions should be taken “by the people”. One can demur on that as one can demur on, consistent with the AAP theology, that Khap panchayats can take a vote on censuring what women can do, wear, or say. So what do I mean by decentralisation?
I mean economic decentralisation, and power to the states. Some start in this direction has already been taken by the Congress-led UPA government (one of the few correct decisions they took in the last 10 years). When FDI in retail was allowed, it was with the condition that each state would have the right to allow, or not allow, FDI in retail.