Monday, 6 October, 2008

What matters is when

I just finished reading The Last Durbar by Shashi Joshi. This book portrays Mountbatten as the selfless umpire-cum-manager who guided the two infant domains and their infantile leaders through their darkest hour, insisting on certain minutes of protocol only because they were vital for prestige, which, in the absence of real administration, was the only leash on demonic rage.

In his India After Gandhi Guha complains that Mountbatten spent his entire life after his viceroyalty making sure a picture just like the one described above should emerge. This may not be wholly true, because he make it to the top of the British navy as well, though it was, perhaps, by then no longer a force to reckon with.  

Let us, for a moment, assume that the interpretation in The Last Durbar and similar books, like the pedestrian, popular Freedom at Midnight, is basically right. It begs a question.

Nehru, Jinnah, Patel and the rest were moderates. They were very far from revolutionaries, by any definition of the word, though they did fight for and, in the end, bring about momentous change. (For now, we discount the smart alecks’ attitude that all change in Asia, however large, is either evolutionary or a result of Western benevolence.) Why did they then behave ‘irresponsibly’? 

They may be some merit in the hypothesis that the politician’s and the historian’s (or umpire’s) time horizons, which force them to look from very different perspectives. 

Let’s look at a different area. A business professor may be all for long-term investments, in bets that, in spite of every possible precaution and calculation, leave plenty to chance. The businessman may realise that the future of his company in, say, a decade, lies in the bets he places now. But his shareholders will not always take the same view. Their needs and wants are likely to be immediate. 

In anciant times, when the stock market was coming into being, the time horizons were probably not so different. Technology was probably more predictable. If you didn’t commission a boiler this year, because shareholders were not for it, you could commission it the next, when the shareholders were more agreeing, and still carry on ‘as usual’. Therefore, the structure worked. 

It may not work so well today. That’s why some writers complain bitterly about the tyranny of the share market.

There may be parallels with politics here. Policymakers and lawmakers may well recognise the need for long-term thinking and the risks involved. But can their hands are tied by electoral politics, which would rather have Robin Hoods robbing the future for the present than philosophers starving the present for the future. 

In short, we are to blame for the bestiality of our leaders. We should decide our priorities and invite them to lead us accordingly.  

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