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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Twenty years on, a forgotten anniversary

By Swapan Dasgupta
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


balaji said...

I have always believed that the "real India" was born only in 1991. Socialist Licence Raj had destroyed India by then and the reforms were more like a default disaster measure rather than an active economic reform. Moreover it also marks the year when i started speaking in sentences so I'm happy that India's growth coincides with mine. Double digit growth from then has really unleashed the hidden potential in India. The people are always more competent than the Govt anywhere you give more power in the hands of the people they will take care of themselves. But India has to continue this growth till 2050 to become somewhere close to a developed country.

Jitendra Desai said...

Except few in media, entire political spectrum is silent.On some thing for which all of us should be proud.
The "Liberator" is lost in the labyrinths created by the looters and the Left.We have NAC rooting for securing our minorities and our meals.People who can't stop 55% of the grains from being looted from PDS, are out to provide us with a paper with which we have to battle with hunger.
We have a smiling PC, who can't hang Afzal Guru or Kasab and we have a bill that assures security to muslims from their fellow citizens.
Her majesty's opposition too appears stuck in the grooves of opposing and not proposing anything fresh.
Liberalisation appears to be the name of the lost cause.

Abhitosh said...

Sir, you have well pointed out the hazards of forcible socialism. I remember some months ago when Sonia Gandhi praised Rajiv Gandhi for liberalisation, she made no mention of PVNRao. Well! Nothing better was expected from the chairperson of a party which looks more like private firm. You have neutrally recalled some forgotten chapters, and one unsung hero.

Kiran Raivaderra said...

It is a sad commentary indeed that such an illustrious PM who was responsible for giving India its second Independence has been reduced to such a comical weakling espcially during the UPA-2. No doubt, history would not judge him fairly. Here is a link to another article on what went wrong during UPA regime, though you must have read it

Anonymous said...

" ...the political class has never really been reconciled to the erosion of the power to control people’s lives "?

That is the right answer.

" crackling Short Wave broadcast "

Thanks for rewinding the painful past.

The credit for liberalisation goes to the turn of events then in India than to any particular political leader. Indians as a whole preferred to wallow in socialistic biases.Glorifying abject poverty and suffering.Blaming everything on past history and thus perpetuating inertia.

I am reminded of Duryodhana & Sakuni who resolutely decide not to get up as a mark of respect on Lord Krishna's arrival as an Emissary.

Alas , all of them including Karna stand up automatically defying their own strong will.

csspk said...

Swapan, we celebrate everyday. We don't need those socialist community fest to celebrate true birth of economic freedom in India that were destroyed over several centuries. We surely don't need media, which even as it enjoys those freedoms, is perfectly happy to rile against, to celebrate.

We, as people, celebrate those freedoms everyday.

madh said...

In 3 Idiots, while visiting one of the Idiot's home a voice over comments, his home is like black and white Hindi film of the 50's. That VO is one of the original jokes in the film. Pensioned father bedridden with paralysis, mother with acute illness, sister on the verge of marriage age but no money to send her off.
Not only in Hindi films but in regional language films also the climate was the same. Utter poverty, tragedies.
Now where that poverty has gone in films? Every Indian film shows extravagance of wealth, enjoyments, dancing and singing in the west.
The poverty is still in the land, but at least the feeling has gone out from many.

madh said...

In 3 Idiots, while visiting one of the Idiot's home, a voice over comments that his home is like black and white Hindi films of the 50's. Father pensioned paralyzed, mother suffering acute illness, sister unmarried.
Not only in Hindi films, but all regional films of 50s also depicted such poverty, tragedies.
Now where the poverty has gone in the films. Every Indian film shows extravaganza, enjoyment, dancing and singing in the west.
Poverty is still in the land, but from films at least they have eradicated.

Anonymous said...

atleast i can proudly i am child of post -liberalized india