By Vijay Rajvaidya
SAN JOSE, CA—It was different. I could feel it in his body language, in his informal demeanor and in the vibes coming from the speaker. This was quite different from what I have experienced in the past while trying to talk with the Indian Ambassadors to the United States. Arun Singh was casual, friendly and engaging at the meeting in Sunnyvale on July 24, 2015.
The last time I remember having an engaging conversation with an Indian ambassador was with Dr. Karan Singh. Abid Hussain was also very easy to connect with. But Karan Singh and Abid Hussain were political personae, not career diplomats. My “not-so-friendly” experience with one of Singh’s predecessors reinforced the feeling that, at least in a few countries, ambassadors shouldn’t be drawn from diplomatic corps.
Some sagely advice is not out of place at this juncture. A pointed question on the difficulty of doing business in India, elicited a 100,000 feet altitude answer from Ambassador Singh. Do we really want to hear generalities? We have been hearing those same meaningless answers since the days when Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister. Why can’t the embassy brief us on the concrete steps taken in this regard? I am concerned because “Make in India” cannot succeed until we allow investors in through the entrance. The entrance, in this case, is the Company Act 2013.
Company Act 2013 has removed many deficiencies from the 1956 Act, but try registering a private limited company and in no time you will throw your hands up in despair. Acts can be comprehensive in nature, in fact they should be. But why should the process facilitating the delivery of service be so complex?
The process of registering a company is horrendously difficult whereas negligible emphasis is given on enforcement. This is where the whole ethos of administration has been made to stand on its head in India.
Should the government suspect every applicant as a criminal and make the application process difficult? Or should it follow the dictum “Innocent until proven guilty” and make the process simple? It can simply elicit a declaration from the applicant that he understands what is not permitted under the law and he will desist from it. You don’t need to have the process of application so convoluted that it squeezes every single neuron out of your blessed brain to understand it. This is exactly what happens when you bring in a lawyer, who used to practice in the country’s highest court, to lead the finance ministry. Send in a blacksmith with a hammer to the kitchen to cook and watch the result! We have been doing this repeatedly – in fact, it has become our national habit. This has been ailing the administration in India for a long time.
People with high academic accomplishments have joined the Indian Foreign Service but they were not transformed into achievers in their domain leveraging their strength. No wonder they end up writing stories that get made into Oscar winning movies (I’m glad they finally made Swaroop the spokesperson of MEA). It is the same story with the Indian Administrative Service. Hordes of engineers are in administrative service, still acting like engineers. Their training did not convert them into effective communicators which, in my opinion, is the primary qualification of an administrator. And lawyers are making laws that only lawyers understand or more often misunderstand. My friend Atanu Dey made a point the other day — he said that the right to Freedom of Speech is described in 45 words in the US constitution. The same takes 1,700 words in Indian Constitution. Why?
I recall my conversations with business leaders in the mid-1990s here in California. Most of them described the difference between the attitudes of officials in China and India in one sentence. They said that they felt welcomed by the officials in China whereas officials in India seemed to shoo them away. We have traversed far from then but we have not changed much. An application to get SIM card seems like application for passport and changing your home address in bank account is next to impossible.
I started with our ambassador and I would like to conclude this with him. Mr. Ambassador, nobody wants to hear generic and high level answers, particularly not when the credibility of the country’s bureaucracy is so low. We want specific answers from you and from your colleagues representing India in other countries. Do you have them?
(The writer is the Managing Director of India Currents.)
This story originally appeared on The American Bazaar.