THE ELEPHANT AND THE SNARE: THE
LESSON FOR ASIA AND OTHERS
By Tom Plate
July 13, 2004
LOS ANGELES -- Call it the Dumbo
Doctrine. I caught the knowing eyes of a cute baby elephant while motoring
recently to my New Delhi hotel from the airport of the nation's capital.
Elephants are anything but dumb, and they are hardly uncommon roadside
attractions in sprawling, animal-honoring India.
This one was an exception: It was
trying to tell me something -- but it took me (a dumb human) a few weeks to
figure it out, hence the Dumbo Doctrine (borrowing from the famous Disney
film about a flying elephant named Dumbo).
The DD finally came to me as word
reached of Junichiro Koizumi's white-knuckles escape from near political
disaster. The once-phenomenal prime minister of Japan had to watch haplessly
as the people delivered their verdict in the recent Upper House elections.
Interestingly, it was the same verdict that India's voters rendered in their
own May national elections:
Let's get this country moving again and stop fooling around with business
(mainly for and by the elite) as usual.
In India, specifically, the verdict
was that the incumbent government wasn't doing the job, and that's why it's
In Japan, Upper House elections are
less important substantively than symbolically, and so the verdict was that
the government, headed by the Liberal Democratic Party, was destined for
defeat the next time, when the election (for the Lower House) would be less
symbolic and more substantive (i.e., the LDP-led coalition government is now
at risk and before long the clever Koizumi could be history).
And so there is a major (indeed
elephantine) lesson here for the new Indian government of Manmohan Singh,
the prime minister who proved so quietly impressive as a former reformist
economics minister in a prior government. The lesson comes to him courtesy
of Koizumi. For if the otherwise talented Japanese prime minister deserves
criticism for one significant shortfall, it is (in my opinion) that he at
least partially squandered the supportive mandate the public gave him upon
attaining office a few years ago.
In America, we call that initial
mandate "the honeymoon period." It's that precious patch of celestial
walk-on-water time the public confers to a politician coming into power in
whom it (at that moment at least) believes.
One of the more famous here in
recent memory was the First 100 Days of John F. Kennedy's presidency. Much
legislation and many initiatives were launched before the inevitable
post-honeymoon blues kicked in.
PM Singh is in that honeymoon now,
and how sweet it is! But beware: His ministers and advisors must seek every
opportunity, risk political capital, launch every conceivable initiative, in
an effort to get India moving again.
Singh's team is off to a
good-enough start. The PM's maiden technocratically comprehensive speech was
well received domestically as well as internationally. There is a sense in
Delhi now that a measure of sectarian competence is in place, that there is
some sensible-shoes public policy wind in the sails of fiscal and economic
reform, and that India might actually escape sliding back into economic
lethargy and religious strife.
But in the long run little will
happen unless Singh does an Asian JFK and pushes every button in the
political-options console before him. Every hour and every day in Delhi is
magical. But a long patch of slow slog, and the voters may be threatening
divorce, as now, sadly, with Koizumi.
The public judgment on the Japanese
PM is not that he has done nothing; on the contrary, his government has
pushed economic reform against the vested interests relatively aggressively.
And his appointment of the truly brilliant Heizo Takenaka to ride herd over
the nation's bloated, debt-ridden banks was a stroke of genius. But the
public verdict is that we had loved Koizumi, he could have done so much
more, and now we the public are having regrets.
This is, therefore, the challenge
for Singh. Don't doodle and noodle in the evanescent glow of public
approbation. Get into fifth gear right now and keep going as fast as you can
for as long as you can. Maybe this isn't the traditional Indian way. But
India is no longer the place it once was. In growing parts of the country
it's more Citibank with an accent than the same old same old, more
entrepreneurial than laid-back nonalligned.
This is what the baby elephant's
eyes were saying. The message was clear, simply put and he was asking me to
tell Singh: Don’t be a Dumbo.