Monday, March 24, 2008

The Monuments of State

And now, to interject a rare political comment into this blog. I don't usually get my news from TV, and in general avoid the klieg lights of frenzied CNN coverage. Yet during winter break I was transfixed by the news of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. It may have been work-avoidance, but I think it was something more.

Sub-continentals of a certain age-mine-will remember the heady days of the mid-1980s, when two young technocrats came to power in India and Pakistan. Sure, they may have been scions of power, and this may have endowed them with a detached view of affairs. In India, we joked that we'd gotten the raw end of the deal: while their new leader had chaired the Oxford Debating Union (at a time when such things still meant something in the sub-continent), ours seemed to have spent his time at Oxbridge wooing a girl and not much else. But ours had then led a quiet life as a pilot, and nothing seemed a better metaphor for the flight to modernity that we were promised.

In the end, of course, it all came crashing down (if you'll pardon my sticking with the metaphor). Rajiv Gandhi was quickly mired in a major scandal; his modernizers ran into walls of orthodoxy and venality; and eventually, on the road back to power, he was the target of an early, high-profile suicide bomb. Benazir Bhutto, for her part, similarly mired in the muck of politics and corruption and lost, won, and lost again in dizzying succession. Exactly why Western powers had so much vested in her return is unclear; no political realist could have looked on her regency with much hope.

And yet, today, India at least is a booming economy; her considerable social troubles are at least slightly counterweighed by her achievement and hope in some arenas. And none of this growth has come in ways that Rajiv Gandhi imagined. His vision was ultimately still one of top-down, government-led development (and while he did listen to people smart enough to appreciate the need for telecoms infrastructure, it is unclear that that is the push that led to today's widespread mobile phone adoption in India). The companies that dominate the headlines today were shabby regional outfits at that time. Though they have attracted new sparks, to a considerable extent they are led by the same people as they were before: suggesting that the problem was not one of talent, but of freedom to innovate. (As The Economist put it recently, India's vast licensing regime was, fortunately, simply not attuned to software, so it got free before they could clamp their hands on it.)

And so, a chapter of sub-continental politics that began with so much hope in my youth, and had already sputtered to a halt a few years later, formally ended with Benazir's abrupt passing (which had an eerie parallel to Rajiv Gandhi's own end). With it, I hope, also died a chapter in the economics of development. While the centralized, top-down push for innovation that these leaders represented failed dismally, decentralized, bottom-up forces have used their freedom to forge a remarkable industry. The only hope now is that Pakistan will find in itself similar pockets of innovation to parallel India. And as for the world powers, as in technology, so in politics: instead of trying to find the leader who represents your views and promises to thrust it upon her people, work on empowering the people at the bottom.

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