By T N Ninan
Unmukt Chand captained the Indian Under-19 cricket team that last month won the World Cup for juniors. Since then, he has been feted endlessly — by his college (which is understandable), by the Delhi government, by the media. The rules have been set aside to allow him to write a university exam, reversing the rejection of his own appeals in the past; he has been given prize money that rivals that given to some Olympic athletes; and although he is yet to cement his place in even the Delhi Ranji team, he is already being compared to some of the current stars in the senior national team. Indeed, he will soon share the stage with Kapil Dev at a celebratory event! This over-the-top celebration of a young man who is barely old enough to vote and whose promise has a long way to go before it can be said to be fulfilled could be explained by several factors — round-the-clock television’s hunger for new personalities to replace jaded ones; the country’s relative scarcity of sporting heroes; and our politicians’ need to associate themselves with those who win laurels (recall how M S Gill as sports minister exploited a photo op with a wrestling champ by pushing aside his coach, whom the minister did not recognise?). There are other examples of celebration turning into embarrassment, like the viewers’ poll run by a TV channel ahead of Sania Mirza’s match against Maria Sharapova at the US Open in 2005 — 85 per cent said Sania would win. As it turned out, Ms Sharapova won with a no-contest score of 6-1, 6-2.
It is not just in sport that wish becomes father of fact; in other fields, too, we mistake promise for achievement, and are prone to premature celebration. Take the economy. The surge of rapid growth in 2003-08 was taken by far too many people as evidence that India had arrived for good on the world economic stage, though it continued to be listed by the World Bank as one of the worst places in which to do business, and though it featured poorly in competitiveness rankings. The achievements were real, of course, for India had become the second fastest growing economy; but the tasks that remained to be addressed were equally real. Unfortunately, the government and the business elite were so busy celebrating that they forgot to pay attention to the issues that needed to be addressed if rapid growth was to continue. Both are now mired in the crony capitalism that becomes the by-product of new business rules, imperfectly applied. Naturally, all talk of Chindia – the coinage which suggested that China and India were in the same league – has ceased, as China’s economy is now four times India’s size.
History is replete with cases of countries that managed short bursts of rapid growth, only to slip down the rankings. India itself is now between fifth and tenth when it comes to the pace of economic growth, depending on which listing you take and for what period. Whether it slips further, or is able to climb back up the greasy pole, depends on whether even belatedly the country can get its act together. There is no reason why it should not — the investment rate (in relation to GDP) remains surprisingly high and, if sustained, should provide the underpinning for sustained economic growth of seven per cent and more. But if that potential is to be realised, we cannot continue to mismanage our resources sector, misprice electricity, energy and water, put ever higher hurdles before every business, and burn huge holes in the fisc. Sustained growth comes with singleness of purpose, and disciplined preparation over many years — of the kind that Unmukt Chand will have to put in if he hopes to get into the national cricket team and then do well.