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亞洲的教訓

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 the ex-government.

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.

 
 

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