Is he the free-market Mahatma that India needs?

Narayana Murthy creates the right political space

So far, India’s political class has failed to deliver the political innovation necessary to rekindle the economic reform programme. Now, Infosys’ N R Narayana Murthy has hit the right note, for he has connected the (politically saleable) belief that the reforms have not touched the poor with a much needed agenda for change.

“But the real progress in India has not taken place simply because the reforms have not touched the poor people,” he said at a book release function in Bangalore.

“Unless you address the basic needs of the poorest of the poor, which are decent primary and secondary education, decent health care and decent nutrition…all of this (reforms) makes no sense”.

Murthy, one of the most admired business leaders of the country, sought to find fault with authorities for not delicensing primary and secondary education in the country.

“One of the strangest things that I have not understood (and) which I have asked many ministers in the Centre including the Prime Minister – I have received no answer – why we delicensed our industrial sector in 1991. But even today our primary and secondary education is not delicensed”.

“If you want to start an English medium school, you have to get permission from the state government. If you want to start a university, you have to get permission from the central government. It makes no sense,” he lamented.

“Unless, we completely delicense the primary and secondary education, unless we create an environment where more and more investment get into primary health care, I don’t think we can truly claim to have embraced reforms”. [Rediff]

Related Links: Posts on the privatisation of education and healthcare reform here on The Acorn

10 thoughts on “Is he the free-market Mahatma that India needs?”

  1. Is the US-style public school system not a better way to go? The public schools should be the cheapest and of fairly good quality. The private schools can fill the gaps. But yes, as NRN says delicencing is the way to go, but that should not stop the government from setting up more and more schools which offer quality education.

  2. Well, you know what the opponents of economic reforms will say. They will selectively quote Murthy and say that even he agrees that reform have not benefited the poor. All reference to context will be forgotten, or worse still, ignored. So, since the most visible benficiary of reforms (Murthy/Infosys) says they are not effective we should have no reforms at all. Mighty silly argument, but this is how it will be served.

  3. Nitin, if I am not wrong Mr. Murthy has categorically stated that he is not interested in joining politics. He has had a bad taste left in his mouth with the Bangalore airport/Deve Gowda fiasco and seeing him in the company of the likes of Amar Singhs and the Yadavs just somewhow does not seem possible.

  4. If this is Murthy’s idle chatter that got blown up by the media, that’s fine. Else he’s effectively set himself up to do something, should the government ever call his bluff and actually delicense education. He’d look pretty shallow if the governments (central and state) played their parts and he did not respond.

    Personally, I’m deeply disappointed that Murthy seems to have decided he cannot do much more than toss out solutions from the sidelines. He’s 60 years old – in very good health – and he can do no wrong. That’s an enviable position. While it is his right to be platitude-mouthing vegetable – he has a moral duty to do something more. To whom much is given, much is expected. Just contrast his “retirement” with Gates and Buffett. I’m optimistic he’ll makes a fool of me and prove me dead wrong.

  5. Libertarian,

    Again I think Narayana Murthy stands out as a symbol of corporate India’s inability to find its political feet. (see older post). India Inc is yet to outgrow the license-raj mindset of seeking private benefits through loopholes. There is an entire value chain of promoting self-interest: from industry associations, to think-tanks, to foundations to political contributions. India Inc is at still at stage one – industry associations.

  6. Nitin: interesting (and enlightening) take. Seems you’ve thought about this a bit. In your opinion can Indian industry make a concerted effort to up its game and force the government to do so as well; and what would be logical steps in that process?

    Seems that Indians (especially ones partially or wholly raised in India) suffer from an inability to leverage political clout. Stephen Cohen – certainly an Indophile – remarked that Indians in the US (when adjusted for their highest median income – higher than the Jews too) contribute less than any other group. As a result, he did not anticipate Indians in the US wielding any where near the political clout as the Jews wield. (There are approx. 5M Jews in the US, and approx. 2M Indians in the US)

  7. Libertarian, I am not exactly sure what Mr. Murthy should be doing? To be sure, I actually don’t agree with Mr. Murty in rediff. For example: why should getting a license from state be hindrance to opening quality private schools – there are thousands now in most cities and towns, and the notion that reform don’t make sense because the government fails to provide support to poor is silly. With regards to Jews, it’s part (co-) religious and extent of Jews contribution to US society (beyond per capita income and numbers) is unparalleled by one group. PIOs have long way to go, if ever, to match Jewish influence.

    Nitin, I actually think they will get up value chain (at least the newer business leaders). They just got government off their backs – less than decade ago (and not completely yet). Some do provide political contributions and are board members (and funders) in important colleges (the important Observer Foundation was founded by Dhiru Ambani). The rest of the activities will come along. In India, politicians, with election victory, have vast powers and general suspicion about businesses, among ordinary people, is still very high – it’s hard to compete with the politicians in that environment.

  8. I am more circumspect about this, because I think that biggest challenge to Capitalism comes not only from socialism and communism, but also from crony Capitalism, which I am afraid may increasing influence of Indrustialists can well cause.

  9. I am ready to take a bet that Narayan Murthy will join politics in 3-5 years. He drops indirect hints and basically wants an invitation. Just like Rahul Kumar Bajaj he will not refuse when offered a position. He and his wife talk too much, egomaniacs, PR hungry. They have the means to offer donations and exchange for prints in newspapers.

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