Transparency & history: India’s archives must be opened to world standards

Transparency & history: India’s archives must be opened to world standards
by Claude Arpi & Subroto Roy
First published in Business Standard New Delhi December 31, 2008, 0:26 IST

The Government of India continues to hide India’s history from India’s people using specious excuses. An example is the Henderson-Brook report on the 1962 war, a single copy of which is said to exist locked away in the Defence Ministry. An anti-Indian author like Neville Maxwell is among the few ever given access to it; he has reiterated his factually incorrect theory (accepted by Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai and the US and Chinese establishments since) that the 1962 war was due to Nehru’s aggressive policy and China had no choice but launch a “pre-emptive attack”.

In Parliament not long ago, Defence Minister A K Antony said: “Considering the sensitivity of information contained in the report and its security implications, the report has not been recommended to be declassified in the National Security interest.” This is nonsense. Nothing from as far back as 1962 can possibly affect anything significant to India’s security today. In any case the Defence Ministry’s official history of the 1962 war, though officially unpublished, is openly available.

Even the 2005 Right to Information Act goes against transparency of research into India’s history. Article 8 (1) (a) says, “there shall be no obligation to give any citizen,— (a) information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence.” This can cover all files of the MEA, Defence and Home; there seems to be no right to academic freedom for India’s people to research their own history.

China itself is more open with its archives. Since 2004, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing has begun a systematic process declassifying more than 40,000 items from its diplomatic records for the period 1949-1960. The Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington DC has recently published Inside China’s Cold War; the Project Director admits this has been possible due to China’s “archival thaw”.

In the USA, official documents are made available after 30 years or when a reasonable demand is made under the Freedom of Information Act. Numerous groups exist whose only work is to make sure the law is followed. The recently released Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XVIII, China (1973-1976) published by the American foreign ministry reveals several interesting aspects of the India-USA-China relationship. Last year the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) posted some 320,000 declassified cables on-line. The text of once-secret diplomatic cables indexed is today retrievable from the NARA Website. It also includes withdrawal cards for documents still classified, so these can be requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Out of 119,356 documents for 1973 and 200,508 for 1974, some 7,484 were related to India. Indians scholars today have to rely on US documents for their own history!

In an open society, the ordinary citizen has reasonably easy access to any and all information relating to the public or social interest— whether the information is directly available to the citizen himself/herself, or is indirectly available to his/her elected representatives like MPs and MLAs. Different citizens will respond to the same factual information in different ways, and conflict and debate about the common good will result. But that would be part of the democratic process. In an open society, both good news and bad news is out there in the pubic domain— to be assessed, debated, rejoiced over, or wept about. Citizens are mature enough to cope with both— the experience causes a process of social maturation in formulating the common good as well as responses to problems or crises the community may face. People improve their civic capacities, becoming better-informed and more discerning voters and decision-makers, and so becoming better citizens.

The opposite of an open society is a closed society— in which a ruling political party or self-styled elite or ‘nomenclatura’ keep publicly important information to themselves, and do not allow the ordinary citizen easy or reasonably free access to it. The reason may be merely that they are intent on accumulating assets for themselves in the dark as quickly as possible while in office, or that they are afraid of public anger and want to save their own skins from demands for accountability. Or it may be they have the impression that the public is better off kept in the dark— that only the elite ‘nomenclatura’ is in a position to use the information to serve the national interest. Bad news comes to be suppressed and so good news gets exaggerated in significance. News of economic disasters, military defeats or domestic uprisings gets suppressed. News of victories or achievements or heroics gets exaggerated. If there are no real victories, achievements or heroics, fake ones have to be invented by government hacks— though the suppressed bad news tends to silently whisper all the way through the public consciousness in any case.

Such is the way of government propaganda everywhere. Closed society totalitarianism permitted the general masses to remain docile and unthinking while the ‘nomenclatura’ make the decisions. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor said that is all that can be expected of the masses. Open society transparency was instead defined by Pericles for the Athenians: “Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well; even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics— this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”

The study of the subcontinent’s history using archival material is crucial to disentangle difficult problems like the Jammu & Kashmir issue or the border problem with China. Yet today nobody can access independent India’s primary sources locked in South Block and North Block in New Delhi. Most bizarrely, Jawaharlal Nehru’s papers are under control of his descendants like Priyanka Vadra and Sonia Gandhi, who claim copyright. Someone may need to tell them there is a universal principle that there can be no copyright on the public life-work of historical figures like presidents and prime ministers.

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Swindling India

SWINDLING INDIA

by

Subroto Roy

First published in slightly abbreviated form as “A scam in the making” in The Sunday Statesman April 1 2007, Front page comment

A gigantic financial scheme is in the making. Will it come to be seen in future years as having been in fact a scam – indeed India’s scam of the 21st Century for which India’s unknowing masses will be made to pay for many generations? The scheme is mind-boggling in size as well as its sheer audacity. Bofors, Quattrochi etc amount to peanuts in comparison.

No less a personage than the Finance Minister of India, P Chidambaram, has openly praised the potential of this financial scheme. And he has done so in no less an open and transparent place than his latest Budget Speech to Parliament last February.

It is a scheme openly advocated and currently being developed by our Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s closest acolytes, Planning Commission head Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia and HDFC head Mr Deepak Parekh, in collaboration with Reserve Bank Governor Dr YV Reddy and the Finance Ministry’s top bureaucrats. The PM himself has come close to endorsing it explicitly. And this PM is not an elected member of the Lok Sabha but holds office and acts as the executive agent of the UPA Chairperson and Lok Sabha Member from Rae Bareilly, Sonia Gandhi.

I hasten to add nobody in the BJP has objected to this financial scheme — in fact had the BJP been in power today instead of Congress, they would have been likely even more agreeable to the scheme given their close proximity to business lobbies and organized capital. As for the Communists, none of their JNU economics professors is technically competent enough to comprehend or recognize what is going on.

The scheme involves private companies “borrowing” India’s foreign exchange reserves from the Reserve Bank of India, allegedly for purpose of “infrastructure” creation — in collaboration with the American bank Citigroup, the American financial business, Blackstone Group, and possibly the American giant, GE Capital too. Mr Chidambaram took the unprecedented step of naming Mr Deepak Parekh as well as Citigroup and Blackstone in the text of his Budget Speech.

To begin to comprehend the nature of this scheme, we need to recall an earlier case.

Foreign exchange reserves of countries typically include foreign currency holdings as well as gold stocks. One of the biggest Wall Street scams of the 1980s-1990s involved private companies borrowing not countries’ foreign currency reserves but their gold reserves.

In that scam, it was not the Reserve Bank of India that was cheated but the Central Banks of Poland, Malaysia, Portugal and Yugoslavia. The New York financial company involved was a subsidiary of the Drexel Burnham Lambert Group. The Drexel parent went bankrupt on February 13 1990 and its subsidiary followed on May 9 1990.

A report on June 4 1990 by Leah J. Nathans (now Leah Nathans Spiro) in New York’s highly respected Business Week magazine said: “Central banks, those pillars of monetary virtue, lost $219 million ($21.9 crore) to an obscure commodities subsidiary called Drexel Burnham Lambert Trading Corporation”. The sum was small by American standards but it was “a big, big number” for the countries involved at the time.

What had these national central banks done? They had been lured into becoming greedy. They had been sitting on stocks of gold as part of their national reserves which they felt “just collect dust”. So they yielded to the temptation offered by the Drexel subsidiary of leasing the gold to private parties.

In Ms. Nathans’ words, “By leasing gold, a central bank earns a modest interest rate, ranging from less than 0.5% to 2.5%. Typically, the central bank consigns the gold to a dealer – say, for 90 days. The dealer can then lend the gold to a customer, at a higher interest rate. It may be a speculator, who hopes to repay the borrowed gold when the price falls, or a gold mine that wants to repay the broker with gold produced later.”

But the Drexel parent and subsidiary went bankrupt through bad financial decisions. Drexel’s Michael Milken went to jail. The Central Banks of Poland, Malaysia, Portugal and Yugoslavia were left empty-handed – and had to sue as creditors in New York’s courts trying desperately to get back the gold they had been lured into parting with. It would be unwise to take bets on how much of their gold they ever got back.

All the present PM’s men — Messrs Chidambaram, Ahluwalia, Parekh, Reddy et al in collaboration with one or two American financial companies – now have a scheme that will use not the RBI’s gold but its foreign currency reserves.

Mr Ahluwalia and Mr Parekh have made the outlandish claim that “India needs US$320 billion” (US 32,000 crore) by way of “investment for physical infrastructure” during the so-called “Eleventh Five-Year Plan”. (How many so-called “Five Year Plans” is India going to have incidentally? We had our “First Plan” when Manmohan Singh was a student at Punjab University. Stalin, who invented the “Five Year Plan”, died during that time, and even his old USSR has ceased to exist, let alone its “Five Year Plans”.)

That vast amount of “investment for physical infrastructure” is what Mr Ahluwalia says he knows India needs for his purported “9% growth rate” to be achieved. Where are the macroeconomic models and time-series data sets from him or his friends to back such assertions? There are none. None of the PM’s men, no one in the Finance Ministry or RBI or Planning Commission, nor any of their JNU economics professor friends or anyone else in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata etc have any such models or data with which to back such assertions. Nor do the World Bank etc. It is all sheer humbug – all a lie. It is part of the mendacity and self-delusion that our capital city has been floating upon.

In any event, the RBI reportedly has “opposed the idea of deploying forex reserves for infrastructure development on the grounds that it will create monetary expansion”. But Mr Chidambaram’s Finance Ministry owns the RBI, and the Ministry has said “the RBI’s concerns had been taken care of, as the investments would be deployed only through a structured mechanism”. (Business Standard 23 March 2007, p. 3)

What is a “structured mechanism”? Mr Chidambaram, mentioning Citigroup and Blackstone Group specifically, said in his Budget Speech that Mr Deepak Parekh has “suggested the establishment of two wholly-owned overseas subsidiaries of India Infrastructure Finance Company Ltd with the following objectives: (i) to borrow funds from the RBI and lend to Indian companies implementing infrastructure projects in India, or to co-finance their External Commercial Borrowings for such projects, solely for capital expenditure outside India; and (ii) to borrow funds from the RBI, invest such funds in highly rated collateral securities, and provide ‘credit wrap’ insurance to infrastructure projects in India for raising resources in international markets. The loans by RBI to these two subsidiary companies will be guaranteed by the Government of India and the RBI will be assured of a return higher than the average rate of return on its incremental investment.”

You do not understand? Well, no one is supposed to. The most exquisite thievery occurs after all not in darkness but in broad daylight with everyone watching but no one able to see or comprehend anything. So let us return to elementary first principles.

What are foreign exchange reserves and why do countries hold them? It is quite simply answered. Consider the USA and Canada, each with its own dollar. Canadians want to purchase American goods and services, give gifts and make loans to American residents, and make investments in the USA. Americans want to do the same in Canada. Each has to use the domestic money of the other when it does so. If an American wishes to lend money to a Canadian or to purchase something from him, he receives Canadian dollar notes from the Canadian Government to make his Canadian transactions, handing over his American dollar notes instead. The American dollar notes he hands over become part of Canada’s foreign exchange reserves, held by its Central Bank. Roughly speaking, a country’s foreign exchange reserves are the residual foreign currency assets its central bank holds after all these transactions are carried out on both sides of the border.

In the US-Canada case, neither Government prevents its citizens from exchanging domestic money for foreign money. In India, our rupee has been inconvertible since about 1940. The average Indian cannot freely exchange his/her rupee-denominated assets for foreign exchange denominated ones even if he/she wished to. There has been some import-liberalisation in recent years but only someone with the political access of Mr Tata or Mr Birla can purchase foreign assets and foreign companies using their Indian money – because the rupee is inconvertible, any bad financial decisions they make in using their foreign assets will be implicitly paid for by the Indian public.

Now a country’s central bank, such as our Reserve Bank, is the custodian of its foreign exchange reserves. India’s reserves are supposed to have reached $195.96 Billion ($19,596 Crore) as of March 16 2007. Keep in mind we do not know why they have risen: they can rise merely because foreigners (including NRIs) have lent us more of their money, not because foreigners have bought more of our goods and services. In fact Business Standard yesterday 31 March 2007 said on its front page “external commercial borrowing” was “a major source of accretion” of India’s reserves.

Also keep in mind that the Reserve Bank has the duty to manage these foreign-denominated assets against which it has already issued Indian rupees. It might receive a small conservative income from the cash-management aspect of this but it may not risk them or place them in any jeopardy!

Yet the whole idea behind the Chidambaram-Ahluwalia-Parekh-Reddy scheme under discussion by the Sonia-Manmohan Government is that the RBI will “lend” some of the billions of Americans dollars in its custody to overseas subsidiaries of Indian companies – say, for example, to the Tatas who have now bought foreign “capital assets” of some US$ 12 Billion ($1200 Crore) from Corus without having anything near that kind of foreign income.

Such favoured Indian companies might then use these “borrowed” funds as collateral for other borrowings. In exchange, they will go about undertaking purported “infrastructure” projects in India. So much for the “structured mechanisms” being touted by Messrs Chidambaram, Ahluwalia, Parekh et al.

Before India’s public understands it, the schemers will shout (as they have done with the SEZ Act) that Parliament has passed it. The BJP will applaud with envy. The Communists might uncomprehendingly complain a little, and then be bought off with a sop or two that they do understand, like a little pro-China rhetoric or being let off lightly on Nandigram.

Now international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of International Settlements officially exist to advise central banks to stay along the straight and narrow and to avoid all such mischief. Here is what the IMF explicitly warned about such schemes in its Guidelines for Foreign Exchange Reserve Management dated September 20 2001:

Liquidity risk. The pledging of reserves as collateral with foreign financial institutions as support for loans to either domestic entities, or foreign subsidiaries of the reserve management entity, has rendered reserves illiquid until the loans have been repaid. Liquidity risks have also arisen from the direct lending of reserves to such institutions when shocks to the domestic economy led to the borrowers’ inability to repay their liabilities, and impairment of the liquidity of the reserve assets.
Credit risk. Losses have arisen from the investment of reserves in high-yielding assets that were made without due regard to the credit risk associated with the issuer of the asset. Lending of reserves to domestic banks, and overseas subsidiaries of reserve management entities, has also exposed reserve management entities to credit risk.”

Dostoevsky believed man could have evil intent. Socrates was more generous and said man does not do wrong knowingly. It is not impossible our Indian schemers have innocent intent and do not even realize how close they are to becoming scamsters, or are already in the grip of scamsters. But at least we are now forewarned: India faces a clear risk of being swindled of its foreign exchange reserves. Prevention is better than cure.

Science, Religion, Art & the Necessity of Freedom (2004)

Science, Religion, Art & the Necessity of Freedom: Reason’s Response to Islamism

by
Subroto Roy, PhD (Cantab.), BScEcon (London)

(A public lecture delivered as the Wincott Visiting Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham on August 24 2004, based on a keynote address to the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, Manila, November 16 2001.)

I am most grateful to the University of Buckingham for allowing me to refresh and carry forward my research these last several months. For some 25 years I have been learning of and reflecting upon the work of two great modern British philosophers, John Wisdom (1904-1993) and Renford Bambrough (1926-1999). In the 1980s in America, I came to apply their thinking in Philosophy of Economics (Routledge 1989), a book which got me into a lot of trouble there. Returning to Britain in 2004, I am dismayed to find their work almost forgotten or unknown today, even at the Ancient University that had been their home. “Orientalists” from the West once used to comprehend and highlight the achievements of the East for the peoples of the East who were unaware of them; I am happy to return the favour by becoming an “Occidentalist” in highlighting a little of the work of two of Britain’s finest sons of which she has become unaware. Wisdom and Bambrough played a kind of modern-day Plato and Aristotle to the Socrates played by Wittgenstein (1889-1951); the knowledge they achieved in their lives and have left behind for us to use and apply to our own problems make them, in terms of Eastern philosophy, rather like the “Boddhisatvas” of Mahayana Buddhism. I do not expect anyone to share such an extravagant view, and will be more than satisfied if I am able to suggest that we can have a grasp of the nature and scope of human reasoning thanks to their work which may help resolve the most intractable and seemingly irreconcilable of all current international problems, namely the grave cultural conflicts made apparent since September 11 2001.

2. The September 11 attacks aimed to cripple one of the world’s largest and most important countries in a new kind of act of war. The perpetrators apparently saw themselves — subjectively in their own minds — acting in the name of one of the world’s largest and most important religions. Since the attacks, the world has become an unusually bewildering place, as if notions of freedom, tolerance and the rule of law have been proven a lie overnight, as if virtues like patience, common reasoning and good humour have all become irrelevant, deserving to be flushed away in face of a resurgence of ancient savageries. The attackers and their friends taunt the West saying their love of death is greater and more powerful than the West’s love of life; the taunts and the counter-taunts of their powerful adversaries have had the effect of spraying panic, mutual fear, hatred or destruction across the surface of everyday life everywhere, so we now have bizarre scenes of people taking off their shoes and clothes and putting them on again while travelling, and of the British public being advised on how to cope with nerve gas attacks when they might have much rather been watching “reality TV” instead. An Age of Unreason appears upon us.

The very simple proposition I put forward here is this: there are, indeed there cannot be, any conflicts that are necessarily irresoluble. To put it differently, the logical scope of common reasoning is indefinite and limitless. There is no question to which there is not a right answer. If I was asked to answer in one sentence what has been the combined contribution to human thought of Wittgenstein, Wisdom and Bambrough, indeed of modern British philosophy as a whole, I would say it has been the proof that there are no unanswerable questions, that there is no question to which there is not a right answer.
By “common reasoning” I shall mean merely to refer to the structure of any conversation well-enough described by F. R. Leavis’s operators in literary criticism:

“This is so, isn’t it?,

Yes, but….”.

My “yes” to your “This is so, isn’t it?” indicates agreement with what you have said while my “but…” tells you I believe there may be something more to the matter, some further logical relation to be found, some further fact to be investigated or experiment carried out, some further reflection necessary and possible upon already known and agreed upon facts. It amounts to a new “This is so, isn’t it?” to which you may respond with your own, “Yes, but…”; and our argument would continue. Another set of operators is:

“You might as well say…”;

“Exactly so”;

“But this is different…”

This was how Wisdom encapsulated the “case-by-case” method of argument that he pioneered and practised. It requires intimate description of particular cases and marking of similarities and differences between them, yielding a powerful indefinitely productive method of objective reasoning, distinct from and logically prior to the usual methods of deduction and induction that exhaust the range of positivism. We are able to see how common reasoning may proceed in practice in subtle fields like law, psychology, politics, ethics, aesthetics and theology, just as objectively as it does in natural science and mathematics. Wittgenstein had spoken of our “craving for generality” and our “contemptuous attitude towards the particular case”. Wisdom formalised the epistemological priority of particular over general saying: “Examples are the final food of thought. Principles and laws may serve us well. They can help us to bring to bear on what is now in question what is not now in question. They help us to connect one thing with another and another and another. But at the bar of reason, always the final appeal is to cases.” And “Argument must be heard”.

In all conflicts – whether within a given science, between different sciences, between sciences and religion, within a given religion, between different religions, between sciences and arts, within the arts, between religion and the arts, between quarrelling nations, quarrelling neighbours or quarrelling spouses, whether in real relationships of actual life or hypothetical relationships of literature and drama – an approach of this kind tells us there is something further that may be said, some improvement that can be carried out, some further scope for investigation or experiment allowing discovery of new facts, some further reflection necessary or possible upon known facts. There are no conflicts that are necessarily irresoluble. Where the suicide-bombers and their powerful adversaries invite us to share their hasty and erroneous assumption that religious, political or economic cultures are becoming irreconcilable and doomed to be fights unto death, we may give to them instead John Wisdom’s “Argument must be heard.”

Parties to this or any conflict may in fact fail to find in themselves enough patience, tolerance, good humour, courage to take an argument where it leads, or they may fail to find enough of these qualities in adequate time, as Quesnay and the Physiocrats failed to find solutions in adequate time and were swept away by the French Revolution. But the failures of our practical human powers and capabilities do not signal that the logical boundaries of the scope of reason have been reached or even approached or come to be sighted.

3. The current conflict is said to be rooted in differences between religious cultures. We may however wish to first address whether any religious belief or practice can survive the devastating onslaught of natural science, the common modern adversary of all religions. What constitutes a living organism? What is the difference between plants and animals? What is the structure of a benzene ring or carbon atom or subatomic particle? What is light? Sound? Gravity? What can be said about black holes or white dwarfs? When did life begin here and when is it likely to end? Are we alone in being the only form of self-conscious life? Such questions about the world and Universe and our place in it have been asked and answered in their own way by all peoples of the world, from primitive tribes in hidden forests to sophisticated rocket scientists in hidden laboratories. Our best common understanding of them constitutes the state of scientific knowledge at a given time. Once we have accounted for all that modern science has to say, can any reasonable explanation or justification remain to be given of any religious belief or practice from any time or place?

Bambrough constructed this example. Suppose we are walking on the shore of a stormy sea along with Homer, the ancient Greek poet, who has been restored to us thanks to a time machine. We are walking along when Homer looks at the rough sea and says, “Poseidon is angry today”. We look at the waves loudly hitting the rocks and nod in agreement saying, “Yes, Poseidon is angry today”. We may be using the same words as Homer but Homer’s understanding of and expectations about the words “Poseidon is angry today” and our understanding of and expectations about the same words would be utterly different, a difference moreover we are able to understand but he may not. To us with our modern meteorology and oceanography, and the results of the television cameras of Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough, we know for a fact there is no god-like supernatural being called Poseidon living within the ocean whose moods affect the waves. But to Homer, Poseidon not only exists in the ocean but also leaves footprints and descendants on the land, when Poseidon is angry the sea is vicious, when Poseidon is calm the seas are peaceful. We use the words “Poseidon is angry today” as an accurate description of the mood of an angry sea; Homer uses the same words to mean there was a god-like supernatural being inside the ocean whose anger was being reflected in the anger of the waves.

My second story is from 7th century AD located here in Buckingham, from a spot a few hundred yards behind the Economics Department of the University where there is St Rumbwald’s Well. In 650 AD — just a short while after The Recital of the Prophet of Islam (570-632AD) had been written down as The Q’uran, and just a little while before the Chinese pilgrim I-Ching (635-713AD) would be travelling through India recording his observations about Buddhism – here 12 miles from Buckingham was born the babe known as Rumwold or Rumbwald. England was hardly Christian at the time and the first Archbishop of Canterbury had been recently sent by the Pope to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Rumbwald’s father was a pagan prince of Northumbria; his mother the Christian daughter of the King of Mercia. St Rumbwald of Buckingham or Brackley is today the patron saint of fishermen at Folkestone, and he has been historically revered at monasteries in Mercia, Wessex and distant Sweden. Churches have been dedicated to him in Kent,Essex, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, Dorset and North Yorkshire. Pilgrims have washed themselves at St Rumwald’s Well over centuries and it is said Buckingham’s inns originated in catering to them. What is the legend of St Rumbwald? It is that on the day he was born he declared three times in a loud voice the words “I am a Christian, I am a Christian, I am a Christian”. After he had been baptised, he, on the second day of his life, was able to preach a sermon on the Trinity and the need for virtuous living, and foretold his imminent death, saying where he wished to be buried. On the third day of his life he died and was buried accordingly.

When we hear this story today, we might smile, wishing newborn babes we have known waking up in the middle of the night might be more coherent too. Professor John Clarke has shown Catholic hagiography over the centuries has also registered deep doubts about the Rumbwald story. We might be tempted to say the whole thing is complete nonsense. If a modern person took it at face value, we would look on it sympathetically. We know for a fact it is impossible, untrue, there has to be some error.

At the bar of reason, all religions lose to science where they try to compete on science’s home grounds, which are the natural or physical world. If a religious belief requires that a material object can be in two places at the same time, that something can be made out of nothing, that the Sun and planets go around the Earth to make Night and Day, that the Earth is flat and the sky is a ceiling which may be made to fall down upon it by Heavenly Wrath, that the rains will be on time if you offer a prayer or a sacrifice, it is destined to be falsified by experience. Natural science has done a lot of its work in the last few centuries; all the major religions pre-date this expansion so their physical premises may have remained those of the science understood in their time. In all questions where religions try to take on scientific understanding head on, they do and must lose, and numerous factual claims made by all religions will disappear in the fierce and unforgiving heat of the crucible of scientific reasoning and evidence.Yet even a slight alteration of the St Rumbwald story can make it plausible to modern ears. Just the other day Radio 4 had a programme on child prodigies who were able to speak words and begin to master language at age of one or two. It is not impossible a child prodigy of the 7th Century AD in his first or second year of life spoke the words “I’m a Christian”, or that as a toddler with a devout Christian mother, he said something or other about the Holy Trinity or about virtue or that he wished to be buried in such and such place even if he had had no real understanding of what he was talking about. If such a prodigious infant of royal blood then died from illness, we can imagine the grief of those around him, and how word about him might spread through a countryside in an era 1200 years before the discovery of electricity and invention of telecommunications, and for that information to become garbled enough to form the basis of the legend of St Rumbwald through the centuries.

The Rumbwald story is a typical religious story that has its parallels in other times and places including our own. It is impossible for it to have been factually true in the way it has come down to us, but it is completely possible for us with our better knowledge of facts and science today to reasonably explain its power over the beliefs of many generations of people. And if we are able to reasonably explain why people of a given time and place may have believed or practised what they did, we have not reason to be disdainful or scornful of them. The mere fact such religious stories, beliefs, experiences and practices of human beings over several thousand years across the globe have been expressed in widely different and far from well-translated or well-understood languages – Egyptian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Hawaiian, Samoan, Apache, Kwa Zulu, Hausa, Swahili – let aside English, Arabic, Yiddish or a thousand others, provides more than ample explanation of how miscomprehension and misapprehension can arise and continue, of how a vast amount of mutual contempt and scorn between peoples of different cultures is able to be irrationally sustained. The scope for the reasonable “demythologisation” of all these stories in all these languages from all these religions, in the way we have sought to “demythologise” the Rumbwald story here obviously remains immense and indefinite.

Next consider religious practice in the modern world, and the universal act of praying. (Economists have not seemed to look much at this before though a lot of mankind’s energy and resources are rationally spent towards it every day across the world.) Some weeks ago, on the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, Lady Soames, the daughter of Churchill, recalled the incredible fear and tension and uncertainty felt during the buildup to the invasion of Normandy; she said that when she finally heard the roar of the aeroplanes as they started across the English Channel: “I fell to my knees and prayed as I’d never prayed before or since” (BBC 1 June 6 2004, 8.40 am). A policeman’s wife in Costa Rica in Central America is shown making the sign of the cross upon her husband before he goes to work in the morning into a crime-ridden area from which he might not return safely at the end of the day. Footballers and boxers and opening batsmen around the world say a prayer before entering the field of contest. So do stockbrokers, foreign exchange dealers, businessmen, job-candidates and students taking examinations, and of course hospital-patients entering operating theatres. Before a penalty shootout between England and Portugal or Holland and Sweden, many thousands of logically contradictory prayers went up.

All this praying is done without a second thought about the ultimate ontological character of the destination of such prayers, or even whether such a destination happens or happens not to exist at all. The universal ubiquitous act of praying might be a rational human response to fear, uncertainty, hopelessness, and despair, as also to unexpected joy or excessive happiness.

Blake said: “Excess of joy, weeps, Excess of sorrow, laughs”. When there is excess of sorrow or excess of joy, praying may contribute mental resources like courage, tranquillity and equanimity and so tend to restore emotional equilibrium in face of sudden trauma or excitement. A provisional conclusion we may then register is that religious beliefs and practices of people around the world are open to be reasonably comprehended and explained in these sorts of straightforward ways, and at the same time there is a good sense in which progress in religious understanding is possible and necessary to be made following growth and improvement of our factual understanding of the world and Universe in which we live.

We still speak of the Sun “rising in the East” and “setting in the West” despite knowing since Copernicus and Galileo and the testimony of Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong that the Sun has in fact never done any such thing. Our understanding of the same words has changed fundamentally. Tycho Brahe thought the Sun went around Earth; his disciple Kepler the opposite; when Tycho Brahe looked East at dawn he understood something different from (and inferior to) what Kepler understood when Kepler looked East at dawn. It is similar to Homer and us with respect to whether Poseidon’s moods affect the waves of the sea. Examples of traditional religious belief and understanding may get modified by our scientific knowledge and understanding such that the same words may mean something quite different as a result and have a new significance for our consciousness.

Indeed it extends well beyond natural science to our understanding of literature, art and psychology as well. With the knowledge we have gained of ourselves — of our conscious waking minds as well as of our unconscious dreaming minds — after we have read and tried to grasp Blake, Goethe, Dostoevsky or Freud, we may quite well realise and comprehend how the thoughts and feelings residing in the constitutions of actual beings, including ourselves, are more than enough to describe and explain good and evil, and without having to refer to any beings outside ourselves residing elsewhere other than Earth. It is like the kind of progress we make in our personal religious beliefs from what we had first learned in childhood. We do not expect a person after he or she has experienced the ups and downs of adult life to keep to exactly the same religious beliefs and practises he or she had as a child at mother’s knee, and we do not expect mankind to have the same religious beliefs today as it did in its early history.

Bambrough concluded: “There is no incompatibility between a refurbished demythologised Homeric polytheism, a refurbished demythologised Christianity, and a refurbished demythologised Islam…. The Creation and the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Virgin Birth…may be very differently conceived without being differently expressed….we can still learn from the plays and poems of the ancient Greeks, although we reject the basis of the mythological structure through which they express their insight and their understanding. The myths continue to teach us something because they are attached to, and grounded in, an experience that we share. It would therefore be astonishing if the Christian religion, whether when considered as a united and comprehensive body of doctrine it is true or false, did not contain much knowledge and truth, much understanding and insight, that remain valuable and accessible even to those who reject its doctrinal foundations. In and through Christianity the thinkers and writers and painters and moralists of two thousand years have struggled to make sense of life and the world and men…. What is more, the life that they wrestled with is our life; the world they have portrayed is the world that we live in; the men that they were striving to understand are ourselves.”

Bambrough was addressing Church of England clergy forty years ago but in his reference to a refurbished demythologised Islam he might as well have been addressing Muslim clergy today — indeed his findings are quite general and apply to other theists as well as to atheists, and provide an objective basis for the justification of tolerance.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam each starts with a “religious singularity”, a single alleged moment in the history of human beings when a transcendental encounter is believed to have occurred: the Exodus of God’s Chosen People led by Moses; the Birth, Life, Death and Resurrection of God’s Only Son, Jesus Christ; the Revelation of God’s Book to His Messenger, Muhammad, Peace Be Unto Him, the Seal of the Prophets. Each speaks of a transcendental Creator, of just rewards and punishments awaiting us in a transcendental eternal life after mortal earthly death.

A different fork in the road says, however, that the wind blowing in the trees may be merely the wind blowing in the trees, nothing more; it is the path taken by Buddhism and Jainism, which deny the existence of any Creator who is to be owed our belief or reverence. It is also the path taken by Sigmund Freud the ultra-scientific rationalist of modern times: “It seems not to be true that there is a power in the universe, which watches over the well-being of every individual with parental care and brings all his concerns to a happy ending…. it is by no means the rule that virtue is rewarded and wickedness punished, but it happens often enough that the violent, the crafty and the unprincipled seize the desirable goods of the earth, while the pious go empty away. Dark, unfeeling and unloving powers determine human destiny; the system of rewards and punishments, which, according to religion, governs the world, seems to have no existence.”

We then seem to have a choice between a Universe Created or Uncreated, Something and Nothing, One and Zero, God and No God. Pascal said we have to bet on the Something not on the Nothing, bet on the One not on the Zero, bet on God being there rather than not being there. Pascal’s reasoning was clear and forms the basis of “decision theory” today: if you bet on God’s existence and God does not exist, you lose nothing; if you bet on God’s lack of existence and God exists, you’ve had it. The philosophies of my own country, India, speak of Zero and One, Nothing or Something, and almost leave it at that. Perhaps we know, or perhaps we do not says the Rg Veda’s Hymn of Creation.. Does our self-knowledge end with our mortal death or perhaps begin with it? Or perhaps just as there is an infinite continuum of numbers between 0 and 1, there is also an infinite continuum of steps on a staircase between a belief in Nothing and a belief in Something, between the atheism of Freud and the Buddhists and the theism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Generalising Bambrough’s findings, it would be surprising if we did not find each and every religion, whether theistic or atheistic, to contain some knowledge and truth, some understanding and insight, that remains valuable and accessible even to those who may otherwise reject the doctrinal foundations of any or all of them. In and through the religions, the thinkers, writers, painters, poets, sculptors and artists of thousands of years have struggled to make sense of our life and the world that we live in; the men and women they were striving to understand are ourselves.

4. Just after the September 11 attacks, I said in the Philippines that the perpetrators of the attacks would have been surprised to know of the respect with which the religious experience of the Prophet of Islam had been treated by the 19th Century British historian Thomas Carlyle: “The great Mystery of Existence… glared in upon (Mohammad), with its terrors, with its splendours; no hearsays could hide that unspeakable fact, ‘Here am I!’. Such sincerity… has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart. Men do and must listen to that as nothing else; all else is wind in comparison.” Carlyle told stories of Mohammad once not abiding by his own severe faith when he wept for an early disciple saying “You see a friend weeping over his friend”; and of how, when the young beautiful Ayesha tried to make him compare her favourably to his deceased wife and first disciple the widow Khadija, he had denied her: “She believed in me when none else would believe. In the whole world I had but one friend and she was that!” Carlyle’s choice of stories suggested the simple humanity and humility of Mohammad’s life and example, even an intersection between Islamic belief and modern science (”a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart”). Carlyle quoted Goethe: “If this be Islam, do we not all live in Islam?”, suggesting there might be something of universal import in the message well beyond specifically Muslim ontological beliefs.

In general, the words and deeds of a spiritual leader of mankind like that of secular or scientific leaders like Darwin, Einstein, Aristotle, Adam Smith or Karl Marx, may be laid claim to by all of us whether we are explicit adherents, disciples or admirers or not. No private property rights attach upon their legacies, rather these remain open to be discussed freely and reasonably by everyone. Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, politics is too important to be left to the politicians, economics is definitely too important to be left to the economists; even science may be too important to be left to the scientists — certainly also, the religions are far too important to be left to the religious.

Yet Mr Osama Bin Laden and his friends, followers and potential followers, indeed any believing Muslims, are unlikely to be impressed with any amount of “external” praise heaped on Islam by a Carlyle or a Goethe, let aside by a President Bush or Prime Minister Blair. They may be wary of outsiders who bring so much praise of Islam, and will tell them instead “If you like Islam as much as you say you do, why not convert? It’s so easy. You have merely to say ‘God is One and Mohammad is the Seal of the Prophets’ – that’s all, you are Muslim, God is Great”.

Indeed Mr Bin Laden and friends are unlikely to be impressed with any kind of economic or carrot-and-stick policy of counter-terrorism, where incentives and disincentives are created by Western authorities like the US 9/11 Commission or the Blair Cabinet telling them: “If you are ‘moderate’ in your thoughts, words and deed you will earn this, this and this as rewards from the Government, but if you are ‘extremist’ in your thoughts, words and deeds then you shall receive that, that and that as penalties from the Government. These are your carrots and here is the stick.” It is Skinnerian behavioural psychology gone overboard. The incentives mean nothing, and the disincentives, well, they would merely have to be more careful not to end up in the modern Gulags.

We could turn from carrot-and-stick to a more sophisticated mode of negative rhetoric instead. If a doctrine C, declares itself to be resting upon prior doctrines B and A, then C’s reliability and soundness comes to depend on the reliability and soundness of B and A. If Islam declares itself to depend on references to a historical Moses or a historical Jesus, and if the last word has not been spoken by Jews, Christians, sceptics or others about the historical Moses or the historical Jesus, then the last word cannot have been spoken about something on which Islam declares itself to depend.

We can be more forceful too. Suicide-bombers combine the most sordid common crimes of theft and murder with the rare act of suicide as political protest. Suicide as political protest is a dignified and noble and awesome thing – many may remember the awful dignity in the sight of the Buddhist monks and nuns of South Vietnam immolating themselves in 1963 in protest against religious persecution by Diem’s Catholic regime, which led to the start of the American war in Vietnam. Six years and half a world away, Jan Palach, on January 19 1969, immolated himself in Wenceslas Square protesting the apathy of his countrymen to the Soviet invasion that had ended the Prague Spring. Socrates himself was forced to commit suicide for political reasons, abiding by his own injunction that it would be better to suffer wrong oneself than to come to wrong others — suicide as political protest is not something invented recently. And certainly not by Bin Laden and friends, whose greed makes their intentions and actions merely ghastly lacking all dignity: they are not satisfied like the Buddhist monks or like Jan Palach with political protest of their own suicides by self-immolation; they must add the sordid cruelty that goes with the very ordinary crimes of theft and mass murder as well.

Yet this kind of negative rhetorical attack too may not cut much ice with Mr Bin Laden and his friends. Just as they will dismiss our praise for Islam as being a suspicious trick, they will dismiss our criticism as the expected animus of an enemy.

To convict Mr Bin Laden of unreason, of contradicting himself, of holding contrary propositions x and ~x simultaneously and so talking meaninglessly and incoherently, we will have to bring out our heaviest artillery, namely, The Holy Q’uran itself, the Recital of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him). We may have to show explicitly how Mr Bin Laden’s own words contradict what is in The Q’uran. He and his followers would then be guilty of maintaining x and its contrary ~x at the same time, of violating the most basic law of logical reasoning, the law of excluded middle, of contradicting themselves, and therefore of speaking meaninglessly, incoherently, nonsensically regardless of their language, culture, nationality or religion. The Q’uran is a grand document and anyone reading it must be prepared to either considering believing it or having powerful enough reasons not to do so. “The great Mystery of Existence”, Carlyle said, “glared in upon (Mohammad), with its terrors, with its splendours; no hearsays could hide that unspeakable fact, ‘Here am I!’. Such sincerity… has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart. Men do and must listen to that as nothing else; all else is wind in comparison.”

Certainly, as in many other religions, the believers and unbelievers are distinguished numerous times in the Prophet’s Recital; believers are promised a Paradise of wine and many luxuries, while unbelievers are promised hell-fire and many other deprivations. But who are these unbelievers? They are the immediate local adversaries of the Prophet, the pagans of Mecca, the hanifs, the local tribes and sceptics arrayed against the Prophet. It is crystal clear that these are the people being named as unbelievers in The Q’uran, and there is absolutely no explicit or implicit mention or reference in it to peoples of other places or other times. There is no mention whatsoever of Anglo-Saxons or Celts, Vikings, Goths, or Gauls, of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Confucians or Shintos, no mention of Aztecs, Incas, or Eskimos. There is no mention of any peoples of any other places or of any later times. Certainly there is no mention of the people of modern America or Israel or Palestine or Britain or India. Yet Mr Bin Laden evidently sent an email to the head of the Taliban on October 3 2001, in which he referred to “defending Islam and in standing up to the symbols of infidelity of this time” (Atlantic Monthly, Sep. 2004). We are then able to say to him or any of his friends: “Tell us, Sir, when you declare a war between believers and unbelievers in the name of Islam, whom do you mean to refer to as “unbelievers”? Do you mean to refer to every person in history who has not been a Muslim, even those who may have been ignorant of Islam and its Prophet? Or do you mean to refer to the opponents and enemies the Prophet actually happened to encounter in his struggles during his mission as a proselytiser, i.e., the Arabic idolaters of Mecca, the hanifs and Qureshis, this local Jewish tribe or that local Christian or pagan tribe against whom the early Muslim believers had to battle strenuously and heroically in order to survive? If it is these local enemies of the Prophet and his early disciples whom you mean to refer to as “unbelievers” destined for Hell’s fires, there is textual evidence in The Recital to support you. But if you mean by “unbelievers” an arbitrary assortment of people across all space and all time, you are challenged to show the verses that give you this authority because there are none. Certainly you may have military or political reasons for wishing to engage in conflict with A or B or C — because you feel affronted or violated by their actions — but these would be normal secular reasons open to normal discourse and resolution including the normal laws of war as known by all nations and all peoples. There may be normal moral arguments to be made by radical Muslims against the US Government or against the Israeli Government or the British or Indian or some other Government — but there are no generalised justifications possible from within The Q’uran itself against these modern political entities. We should expose Mr Bin Laden and his friends’ lack of reason in both maintaining that Prophet Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets, and also maintaining that they can extrapolate from The Q’uran something that is not in The Q’uran. The Q’uran speaks of no unbelievers or enemies of the Prophet or the early Muslims who are not their local enemies in that time and place.

Pritchard, the distinguished Oxford philosopher, once wrote an article called “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” We today may have to ask a similar question “Does Islamist Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?”

5. If all this so far has seemed too clinical and aseptic in approaching the mystical matters of the spirit, I hasten to add finally that a decisive counterattack upon natural science may be made by both religion and art together. Our small planet is a satellite of an unexceptional star in an unexceptional galaxy yet we are still the centre of the Universe in that it is only here, as far as any of us knows, that such things as reason, intelligence and consciousness have come to exist. (Finding water or even primitive life elsewhere will not change this.) We alone have had an ability to understand ourselves and be conscious of our own existence — the great galaxies, black holes and white dwarfs are all very impressive but none of them can do the same. What responsibility arises for us (or devolves upon us) because of this? That is the perfectly good question asked by art and religion on which science remains silent. Life has existed for x million years and will be extinguished in y million more years, but we do not know why it arose at all, or what responsibility falls on those beings, ourselves, who have the consciousness to ask this. Religion and art cannot battle and win on science’s home ground but they can and do win where science has nothing left to say.

That is what DH Lawrence meant when he said the novel was a greater invention than Galileo’s telescope. Other artists would say the same. Art expresses life, and human cultures can be fresh and vigorous or decadent and redolent of death. The culture that evaluates its own art and encourages new shoots of creativity will be one with a vibrant life; the culture that cannot will be vulnerable to a merger or takeover. There is and has been only one human species, no matter how infinitely variegated its specimens across space and time. All have a capacity to reason as well as a capacity to feel a range of emotions in their experience of the world, something we share to an extent with other forms of life as well. And every human society, in trying to ascertain what is good for itself, finds need to reason together about how its members may be best able to survive, grow, reproduce and flourish, and this vitally demands freedom of inquiry and expression of different points of view. The lone voice in dissent needs to be heard or at least not suppressed just in case it is the right voice counselling against a course that might lead to catastrophe for all. To reason together implies a true or right answer exists to be found, and so the enterprise of truth seeking requires freedom as a logical necessity. It takes guts to be a lone dissenter, and all societies have typically praised and encouraged the virtues of courage and integrity, and poured shame on cowardice, treachery or sycophancy. Similarly, since society is a going concern, justice and fairplay in the working of its institutions is praised and sought after while corruption, fraud or other venality is condemned and punished. Leavis spoke of the need for an educated public if there was not to be a collapse of standards in the arts, since it was only individual candour that could expose shallow but dominant coteries.

Freedom is logically necessary to keep all potential avenues to the truth open, and freedom of belief and experience and the tolerance of dissent, becomes most obvious in religion, where the stupendous task facing everyone is to unravel to the extent we can the “Mystery of Existence”. The scope of the ontological questions is so vast it is only wise to allow the widest search for answers to take place, across all possible sources of faith, wherever the possibility of an insight into any of these subtle truths may arise, and this may explain too why a few always try to experience all the great religions in their own lifetimes. A flourishing culture advances in its science, its artistic creativity and its spiritual or philosophical consciousness. It would be self-confident enough to thrive in a world of global transmissions of ideas, practices, institutions and artefacts. Even if it was small in economic size or power relative to others, it would not be fearful of its own capacity to absorb what is valuable or to reject what is worthless from the rest of the world. To absorb what is valuable from outside is to supercede what may be less valuable at home; to reject what is worthless from outside is to appreciate what may be worthwhile at home. Both require faculties of critical and self-critical judgement, and the flourishing society will be one that possesses these qualities and exercises them with confidence. Words are also deeds, and deeds may also be language.

The crimes of September 11 2001 were ones of perverse terroristic political protest, akin on a global scale to the adolescent youth in angry frustration who kills his schoolmates and his teachers with an automatic weapon. But they were not something inexplicable or sui generis, but rather signalled a collapse of the old cosmopolitan conversation with Islam, and at the same time expressed an incoherent cry of stifled people trying to return to an austere faith of the desert. Information we have about one another and ourselves has increased exponentially in recent years yet our mutual comprehension of one another and ourselves may have grossly deteriorated in quality. Reversing such atrophy in our self-knowledge and mutual comprehension requires, in my opinion, the encouragement of all societies of all sizes to flourish in their scientific knowledge, their religious and philosophical consciousness and self-discovery, and their artistic expressiveness under conditions of freedom. Ultra-modern societies like some in North America or Europe may then perhaps become more reflective during their pursuit of material advancement and prosperity, while ancient societies like those of Asia and elsewhere may perhaps become less fearful of their capacity to engage in the transition between tradition and modernity, indeed, may even affect the direction or speed of change in a positive manner. To use a metaphor of Otto Neurath, we are as if sailors on a ship, who, even while sailing on the water, have to change the old planks of the ship with new planks one by one. In due course of time, all the planks get changed one at a time, but at no time has there not been a ship existing in the process — at no time need we have lost our history or our identity.

Transparency and Economic Policy-Making

Transparency and Economic Policy-Making

An address by Professor Subroto Roy to the Asia-Pacific Public Relations Conference, (panel on Transparency chaired by C. R. Irani) January 30 1998.

This talk is dedicated to the memory of my sister Suchandra Bhattacharjee (14.02.1943-10.01.1998).
1. I would like to talk about transparency and economic policy-making in our country. For something to be transparent is, in plain language, for it to be able to be openly seen through, for it to not to be opaque, obscure or muddy, for it to be clear to the naked eye or to the reasonable mind. A clear glass of water is a transparent glass of water. Similarly, an open and easily comprehensible set of economic policies is a transparent set of economic policies.

The philosopher Karl Popper wrote a famous book after the Second World War titled The Open Society and its Enemies. It contained a passionate defence of liberal institutions and democratic freedoms and a bitter attack on totalitarian doctrines of all kinds. It generated a lot of controversy, especially over its likely misreading of the best known work of political philosophy since the 4th Century BC, namely, Plato’s Republic .[1] I shall borrow Popper’s terms ‘open society’ and ‘closed society’ and will first try to make this a useful distinction for modern times, and then apply it to the process of economic policy-making in India today.

2. An open society is one in which the ordinary citizen has reasonably easy access to any and all information relating to the public or social interest — whether the information is directly available to the citizen himself or herself, or is indirectly available to his or her elected representatives like MP’s and MLA’s. Different citizens will respond to the same factual information in different ways, and conflict and debate about the common good will result. But that would be part of the democratic process.

The assessment that any public makes about the government of the day depends on both good and bad news about the fate of the country at any given time. In an open society, both good news and bad news is out there in the pubic domain — open to be assessed, debated, rejoiced over, or wept about. If we win a cricket match or send a woman into space we rejoice. If we lose a child in a manhole or a busload of children in a river, we weep. If some tremendous fraud on the public exchequer comes to be exposed, we are appalled. And so on.

It is the hallmark of an open society that its citizens are mature enough to cope with both the good and the bad news about their country that comes to be daily placed before them. Or, perhaps more accurately, the experience of having to handle both good and bad news daily about their world causes the citizens in an open society to undergo a process of social maturation in formulating their understanding of the common good as well as their responses to problems or crises that the community may come to face. They might be thereby thought of as improving their civic capacities, as becoming better-informed and more discerning voters and decision-makers, and so becoming better citizens of the country in which they live.

The opposite of an open society is a closed society — one in which a ruling political party or a self-styled elite or nomenclatura keep publicly important information to themselves, and do not allow the ordinary citizen easy or reasonably free access to it. The reason may be merely that they are intent on accumulating assets for themselves as quickly as they can while in office, or that they are afraid of public anger and want to save their own skins from demands for accountability. Or it may be that they have the impression that the public is better off kept in the dark — that only the elite nomenclatura is in position to use the information to serve the national interest.

In a closed society it is inevitable that bad news comes to be censored or suppressed by the nomenclatura, and so the good news gets exaggerated in significance. News of economic disasters, military defeats or domestic uprisings gets suppressed. News of victories or achievements or heroics gets exaggerated. If there are no real victories, achievements or heroics, fake ones have to be invented by government hacks — although the suppressed bad news tends to silently whisper all the way through the public consciousness in any case.

Such is the way of government propaganda in almost every country, even those that pride themselves on being free and democratic societies. Dostoevsky’s cardinal advice in Brothers Karamasov was: “Above all, never lie to yourself”. Yet people in power tend to become so adept at propaganda that they start to deceive themselves and forget what is true and what is false, or worse still, cannot remember how to distinguish between true and false in the first place. In an essay thirty years ago titled Truth and Politics, the American scholar Hannah Arendt put it like this:

“Insofar as man carries within himself a partner from whom he can never win release, he will be better off not to live with a murderer or a liar; or: since thought is the silent dialogue carried out between me and myself, I must be careful to keep the integrity of this partner intact, for otherwise I shall surely lose the capacity for thought altogether.”[2]

3. Closed societies may have been the rule and open societies the exception for most of human history. The good news at the end of the 20th Century is surely that since November 7 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, the closed society has officially ceased to be a respectable form of human social organization. The age of mass access to television and telecommunications at the end of the 20th Century may be spelling the permanent end of totalitarianism and closed societies in general. The Berlin Wall was perhaps doomed to fall the first day East Germans were able to watch West German television programs.

Other than our large and powerful neighbour China, plus perhaps North Korea, Myanmar, and some Islamic countries, declared closed societies are becoming hard to find, and China remains in two minds whether to be open or closed. No longer is Russia or Romania or Albania or South Africa closed in the way each once was for many years. There may be all sorts of problems and confusions in these countries but they are or trying to become open societies.

Under the glare of TV cameras in the 21st Century, horrors like the Holocaust or the Gulag or even an atrocity like Jalianwalla Bag or the Mai Lai massacre will simply not be able to take place anywhere in the world. Such things are not going to happen, or if they do happen, it will be random terrorism and not systematic, large scale genocide of the sort the 20th Century has experienced. The good news is that somehow, through the growth of human ingenuity that we call technical progress, we may have made some moral progress as a species as well.

4. My hypothesis, then, is that while every country finds its place on a spectrum of openness and closedness with respect to its political institutions and availability of information, a broad and permanent drift has been taking place as the 20th Century comes to an end in the direction of openness.

With this greater openness we should expect bad news not to come to be suppressed or good news not to come to be exaggerated in the old ways of propaganda. Instead we should expect more objectively accurate information to come about in the public domain — i.e., better quality and more reliable information, in other words, more truthful information. This in turn commensurately requires more candour and maturity on the part of citizens in discussions about the national or social interest. Closed society totalitarianism permitted the general masses to remain docile and unthinking while the nomenclatura make the decisions. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor said that is all that can be expected of the masses. Open society transparency and democracy defines the concept of an ordinary citizen and requires from that citizen individual rationality and individual responsibility. It is the requirement Pericles made of the Athenians:

“Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well; even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”[3]

5. All this being said, I am at last in a position to turn to economic policy in India today. I am sorry to have been so long-winded and pedantic but now I can state my main substantive point bluntly: in India today, there is almost zero transparency in the information needed for effective macroeconomic policy-making whether at the Union or State levels. To illustrate by some examples.

(A) Macroeconomic policy-making in any large country requires the presence of half a dozen or a dozen well-defined competing models produced by the government and private agencies, specifying plausible causal links between major economic variables, and made testable against time-series data of reasonably long duration. In India we seem to have almost none. The University Economics Departments are all owned by some government or other and can hardly speak out with any academic freedom. When the Ministry of Finance or RBI or Planning Commission, or the India teams of the World Bank or IMF, make their periodic statements they do not appear to be based on any such models or any such data-base. If any such models exist, these need to be published and placed in the public domain for thorough discussion as to their specification and their data. Otherwise, whatever is being predicted cannot be assessed as being very much more reliable than the predictions obtained from the Finance Minister’s astrologer or palmist. (NB: Horse-Manure is a polite word used in the American South for what elsewhere goes by the initials of B. S.). Furthermore, there is no follow-up or critical review to see whether what the Government said was going to happen a year ago has in fact happened, and if not, why not.

(B) The Constitution of India defines many States yet no one seems to be quite certain how many States really constitute the Union of India at any given time. We began with a dozen. Some 565 petty monarchs were successfully integrated into a unitary Republic of India, and for some years we had sixteen States. But today, do we really have 26 States? Is Delhi a State? UP with 150 million people would be the fifth or sixth largest country in the world on its own; is it really merely one State of India? Are 11 Small States de facto Union Territories in view of their heavy dependence on the Union? Suppose we agreed there are fifteen Major States of India based on sheer population size: namely, Andhra, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, MP, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, UP and West Bengal. These States account for 93% of the population of India. The average population of these 15 Major States is 58 million people each. That is the size of a major country like France or Britain. In other words, the 870 million people in India’s Major States are numerically 15 Frances or 15 Britains put together.

Yet no reliable, uniformly collected GDP figures exist for these 15 States. The RBI has the best data, and these are at least two years old, and the RBI will tell you without further explanation that the data across States are not comparable. If that is the case at State-level, I do not see how the national-level Gross Domestic Product can possibly be estimated with any meaningfulness at all.

(C) Then we hear about the Government Budget deficit as a percentage of GDP. Now any national government is able to pay for its activities only by taxation or borrowing or by using its monopoly over the domestic medium of exchange to print new money. In India today, universal money-illusion seems to prevail. It would not be widely recognised by citizens, journalists or policy-makers that, say, 100,000 Rupees nominally taxed at 10% under 20% inflation leaves less real disposable income than the same taxed at 20% with 5% inflation. This is in part because inflation figures are unknown or suspect. There is no reliable all-India or State-level consumer price index. The wholesale price index on the basis of which the Government of India makes its inflation statements, may not accurately reflect the actual decline in the purchasing power of money, as measured, say, by rises in prices of alternative stores of value like land. The index includes artificially low administered or subsidized prices for petroleum, cereals, and electricity. To the extent these prices may be expected to move towards international equilibrium prices, the index contains a strong element of deferred inflation. One urgent task for all macroeconomic research in India is construction of reliable price-data indices at both Union and State levels, or at a minimum, the testing for reliability by international standards of series currently produced by Government agencies.

Without reliable macroeconomic information being spread widely through a reasonably well-informed electorate, the Government of India has been able to wash away fiscal budget constraints by monetization and inflation without significant response from voters. The routine method of meeting deficits has become “the use of the printing press to manufacture legal tender paper money”, either directly by paying Government creditors “with new paper money specially printed for the purpose” or indirectly by paying creditors “out of loans to itself from the Central Bank”, issuing paper money to that amount. Every Budget of the Government of India, including the most recent ones of 1996 and 1997, comes to be attended by detailed Press discussion with regard to the minutae of changes in tax rates or tax-collection — yet the enormous phenomena of the automatic monetization of the Government’s deficit is ill-understood and effectively ignored. Historically, a policy of monetization started with the British Government in India during the Second World War, with a more than five-fold increase in money supply occurring between 1939 and 1945. Inflation rates never seen in India before or since were the result (Charts 0000), attended by the Great Famine of 1942/43. Though these were brought down after succession of C. D. Deshmukh as Governor of the Reserve Bank, the policy of automatic monetization did not cease and continues until the present day. Inflation “sooner or later destroys the confidence, not only of businessmen, but of the whole community, in the future value of the currency. Then comes the stage known as “the flight from the currency.” Had the Rupee been convertible during the Bretton Woods period, depreciation would have signalled and helped to adjust for disequilibrium. But exchange-controls imposed during the War were enlarged by the new Governments of India and Pakistan after the British departure to exclude convertible Sterling Area currencies as well. With the Rupee no longer convertible, internal monetization of deficits could continue without commensurate exchange-rate depreciation.

The Reserve Bank was originally supposed to be a monetary authority independent of the Government’s fiscal compulsions. It has been prevented from developing into anything more than a department of the Ministry of Finance, and as such, has become the captive creditor of the Government. The RBI in turn has utilized its supervisory role over banking to hold captive creditors, especially nationalized banks whose liabilities account for 90% of commercial bank deposits in the country. Also captive are nationalized insurance companies and pension funds. Government debt instruments show on the asset side of these balance-sheets. To the extent these may not have been held had banks been allowed to act in the interests of proper management of depositors’ liabilities and share-capital according to normal principles, these are pseudo-assets worth small fractions of their nominal values. Chart 0000 shows that in the last five years the average term structure of Government debt has been shortening rapidly, suggesting the Government is finding it increasingly difficult to find creditors, and portending higher interest rates.

General recognition of these business facts, as may be expected to come about with increasing transparency, would be a recipe for a crisis of confidence in the banking and financial system if appropriate policies were not in place beforehand.

(D) As two last examples, I offer two charts. The first shows the domestic interest burden of the Government of India growing at an alarming rate, even after it has been deflated to real terms. The second tries to show India’s foreign assets and liabilities together – we always come to know what is happening to the RBI’s reserve levels, what is less known or less understood is the structure of foreign liabilities being accumulated by the country. Very roughly speaking, in terms that everyone can understand, every man, woman and child in India today owes something like 100 US dollars to the outside world. The Ministry of Finance will tell you that this is not to be worried about because it is long-term debt and not short-term debt. Even if we take them at their word, interest payments still have to be paid on long-term debt, say at 3% per annum. That means for the stock of debt merely to be financed, every man, woman and child in India must be earning $3 every year in foreign exchange via the sale of real goods and services abroad. I.e., something like $3 billion must be newly earned every year in foreign exchange merely to finance the existing stock of debt. Quite clearly, that is not happening and it would stretch the imagination to see how it can be made to happen.

In sum, then, India, blessed with democratic political traditions which we had to take from the British against their will — remember Tilak, “Freedom is my birthright, and I shall have it” — may still be stuck with a closed society mentality when it comes to the all-important issue of economic policy. There is simply an absence in Indian public discourse of vigourous discussion of economic models and facts, whether at Union or State levels. A friendly foreign ambassador pointedly observed an absence in India of political philosophy. It may be more accurate to say that without adequate experience of a normal agenda of government being seen to be practised, widespread ignorance regarding fiscal and monetary causalities and inexperience of the technology of governance remains in the Indian electorate, as well as among public decision-makers at all levels. Our politicians seem to spend an inordinate amount of their time either garlanding one another with flowers or garlanding statues and photographs of the glorious dead. It is high time they stopped to think about the living and the future.

[1] Renford Bambrough (ed.) Plato, Popper and Politics: Some Contributions to a Modern Controversy, 1967.

[2] Philosophy, Politics and Society, 2nd Series, Peter Laslett & W. G. Runciman (eds.), 1967.

[3] Thucydides, History of the Pelopennesian War, II.40.