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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek editorial

OCTOBER 8, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 40

Heavyweight Wanted
India needs an economic czar free from the miasma of partisan politics


As India's extended elections degenerate into mudslinging and the occasional spasm of violence, the citizenry's patience with bickering politicians is once again being tested. The low tone of debate is especially frustrating because it comes at a time when the country's traditionally divided population is largely in agreement on one issue: the need for economic development. Recent general elections showed clearly that a better life was foremost in voters' minds. Yet candidates appear unable to formulate a cohesive platform for progress, and less capable still of communicating a message of hope to a people weary of the "Hindu rate of growth," the oft-turned phrase signifying India's eternal state of economic underachievement.

Plainly, development is too important to be left solely to politicians. India's deep and institutionalized social divisions make it difficult to achieve consensus within the customary confines of Parliament. The country needs someone who can articulate a wide-ranging blueprint for progress - and can do so outside the miasma of Indian party politics. In short, India needs an "economic czar," a non-partisan leader whose sole mission is to help the country find its way out of the economic backwater.

This is hardly a utopian proposal. India's democratic government obviously can't grant sweeping powers enjoyed by, for example, Zhu Rongji, China's economic strongman. But a post within the Finance Ministry can be created whose holder could have the domestic stature and influence of, say, U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan or Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. When these heavyweights speak, the U.S. Congress listens.

Although largely an advisory position, India's economic czar could likewise play a strong hand in guiding policy. The appointee, someone from academia or the private sector, would need credentials and a history of accomplishment to win parliamentary support. And his tenure should be fixed and free from the vagaries of electoral and coalition fortunes. While India's lawmakers consistently demonstrate an inability to take decisive action, action is not impossible provided there is clear direction. Witness the political will India was able to muster in an effort to cultivate its high-tech and Internet industries, by rolling back tariffs on imported computer components and by opening the domestic Internet access market to competition.

An even stronger will is necessary if the country is to finally address its chronic need for infrastructure; for reform of state-owned enterprises; for investment in education and health; for improvements in international trade and investment policies. That resolve can be found. Politicians are beginning to get the message that it really is the economy, stupid. The dictates of getting and keeping political office in one of the world's most chaotic democracies may prevent most elected officials from providing truly inspired leadership in economic affairs. That means the country must seek leadership elsewhere - even if it means creating its own economic czar - someone who can chart a course in the best interests of the country as a whole.


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