Saturday, July 30, 2011

Twenty years on, a forgotten anniversary

Last week was spent glued to TV watching India getting resoundingly thrashed by a rejuvenated England side at Lord’s. Like most Indians, I too was dispirited by India’s inability to live up to its reputation as the number one team. But at least there was the immense satisfaction of watching the match live and even listening to BBC’s good humoured Test Match Special on internet radio.
It was such a change from my schooldays when you had to tune to a crackling Short Wave broadcast for intermittent radio commentary. Alternatively, we could go to the cinema, some three weeks after the match, to see a two-minute capsule in the Indian News Review that preceded the feature film.
It is not that there was no technology available to make life a little more rewarding. Yet, in 1971, when B.S. Chandrasekhar mesmerised the opposition and gave India its first Test victory at the Oval, there was no TV, except in Delhi.
Those were the bad old days of the shortage economy when everything, from cinema tickets to two-wheelers had a black market premium. Telephones were a particular source of exasperation. By the 1970s, the telephone system in cities had collapsed. You may have possessed one of those heavy, black Bakelite instruments but there was no guarantee of a dial tone when you picked up the receiver. The ubiquitous ‘cable fault’ would render a telephone useless for months on end.
What was particularly frustrating was that there was precious little you could do about whimsical public services. In the early-1980s, when Opposition MPs complained about dysfunctional telephones, the then Communications Minister C.M. Stephen retorted that phones were a luxury and not a right. If people were dissatisfied, he pronounced haughtily, they could return their phones!
Inefficiency was, in fact, elevated into an ideal. When capital intensive public sector units began running into the red, the regime’s economists deemed that their performance shouldn’t be judged by a narrow capitalist yardstick. The public sector, they pronounced, had to exercise ‘social’ choices. India, wrote Jagdish Bhagwati (one of the few genuine ‘dissidents’ of that era) “suffered the tyranny of anticipated consequences from the wrong premises.”
Being an Indian in those days was truly demeaning if you had the misfortune of travelling overseas. Government regulations decreed that a private citizen travelling overseas had the right to buy all of $8. Subsequently, the ceiling was raised to $500 every three years. This meant that Indians had to evolve innovatively illegal methods of buying a few extra dollars or scrounging off fortunate NRI relatives. No wonder, escaping from India became a middle class obsession, as did petty hawala.
India was an object of mockery. We were mocked for leading a “ship to mouth” existence while preaching morality to the rest of the world. We were pitied, not least by rich Pakistanis who would compare their spanking new Impala cars to our creaking Ambassadors that were in perennial short supply.
Enforced socialist austerity bred dishonesty and subterfuge. India’s creative genius of India became preoccupied with ways to bypass a system that in all seriousness demanded that the better-off pay 97 per cent of their income in taxes, and where the remuneration of company directors had to be approved by babus sitting in a ministry in Delhi.
As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh has a very mixed record and it is entirely possible that history may judge the two terms of his UPA Government harshly. At the same time, India will forever be indebted to him—as it will be to the much-reviled P.V. Narasimha Rao—for liberating the country from the shackles of socialist underperformance. The process of liberalisation that began exactly 20 years ago has had its underside. But few can deny that the India we live in today is infinitely more prosperous, more creative, more resilient and more self-assured than at any time since Independence.
The fundamental reason for this transformation should be self-evident: it is people and not the state who are deciding their own futures. The process may not be perfect and there are parts of India where poverty prevents self-empowerment. But for those who have lived through the horrors of a flawed socialism, the past invokes little pleasurable nostalgia. In just 20 years, India has witnessed more economic progress than in the past 150 years.
This is why it is inexplicable that the 20th anniversary of the landmark 1991 U-turn remained singularly unobserved. Was this because Indians are insufficiently appreciative of the magnitude of change, which they now take for granted? Or, could it be that the political class has never really been reconciled to the erosion of the power to control people’s lives?
If the second is true, there are reasons to fear a counter-revolution.

Sunday Times of India, July 31, 2011

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