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Kenya must not repeat the mistakes of India

“Today, the economy is the biggest news in India and politicians are only listened to when they talk about the economy.”

I wrote those words on this page in January 2010, to preface the proposition that India was on an irreversible forward economic march.

I was horribly wrong, and I apologize.

At the time, all the news coming out of India was indeed positive and impressive. The country was heading close to 10 per cent annual rates of growth. Its growing army of knowledge workers seemed unstoppable. Its big businesses were taking on the rest of the world – and winning. Across the huge subcontinent, there was hope and confidence that India would indeed become an economic superpower.

Well, that was then. If India is doing any great forward movement these days, it is not apparent. It resembles a giant vehicle merely spinning its wheels in the mud, unable to extricate itself.

What happened? First, the politicians are back. They have overwhelmed the newspaper pages and TV screens again. They are rancorous, partisan and narrow-minded. They oppose for the sake of opposition, and argue to win cheap points. They block anything that does not serve their own interests. And they are blocking real progress and development.

Second, the cancer of corruption was never cured; it merely went into temporary remission. It is back, big time. Over the past couple of years India has found itself mired in grotesque scams ranging from telecommunications to coal fields to relief food to the Commonwealth Games. The numbers are shocking: tens of billions of dollars lost to the grubby hands of powerful insiders.

A third reason is cultural. India seems unable to shed its idol-worship of politicos, Bollywood superstars, flamboyant, obscenely rich CEOs, and manipulative god-men. Wherever you go, the same tired old names and faces scream out at you, in wall-to-wall media and advertising. Inequality and insensitivity is mind-boggling, with one tycoon building a full skyscraper as his personal home, alongside slum-dwellers.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, once seen as the epitome of the quiet, humble, highly effective leader, has ruined his reputation and legacy. Unable to take on his party power-brokers, he cuts a sad figure these days.

The economy has fallen back to sub-6 per cent rates of growth, the lowest in a decade and now lagging well behind several other Asian economies. India raised expectations hugely in the past decade. If it fails to meet them, it has hundreds of millions of poverty-stricken citizens to deal with.

India can still find its way, of course it can. But it must surmount huge challenges to do so. It must find the courage to clean up its act and tame corruption once and for all; it must evolve beyond childish personality cults; it must work directly on social provision for its most disadvantaged; it must make deeper and wider investments in human capital. Sundeep Waslekar put it well recently: India needs less to be the ‘incredible’ India of its advertising slogan, and more a ‘credible’ India in the real world.

You know very well why I’m discussing India here in Kenya this Sunday. The failure to slay the corruption devil and lose taxpayers money in truckloads every day? The failure to provide inclusive growth programmes that uplift ordinary citizens? The failure to move away from the endless, childish arguments of politicians and personality-driven leadership?

Those failures should have rung many bells for those of us on this side of the Indian Ocean. Kenya must learn from its distant cousin.

India and Kenya have many things in common. Both have enormous potential, and could become economic superstars. Both underperform, held back by their leaders, their inability to take the really hard decisions, and their failure to build inclusive economies.

In Kenya, if we don’t fix our corruption disease anytime soon, we are simply going to watch all good intentions become private enrichments. If we don’t restore the rule of law and move towards citizen-centred leadership, we too will be lamenting the take-off opportunity we squandered.

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