Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Celebrating Reforms

July marks the 25th anniversary of PVN Rao's 1991 economic reforms that transformed India from being the world's largest begging bowl to a rising economic giant. Since 1991, India's per capita income has quadrupled, over 300 million people have been pulled out of poverty, and its share in global wealth has doubled - an advancement which dwarfs the progress (or lack thereof) made in the half century following Independence from the British Empire. If you go by the business media in India, 1991 is a seminal year that unshackled Indian entrepreneurship from the vice-like grip of the state. If you go by the political class, especially the Congress party, the year 1991 simply didn't happen. And if you go by the elite, 1991 was the end of a glamorous, romantic era in India.

One event, many interpretations. And yet, the final word lies with the people, and it is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that 1991 changed India for the better. The elite, like Mukul Kesavan, express nostalgia for the years of state-enforced mass poverty in the name of austerity and simplicity. They are a micro-minority that can express such nostalgia because they never had to live it: the socialist state was so far removed from the people it lorded over that there was a yawning gap between words and actions, ergo the failed targets of successive Five Year Plans and even more ridiculous plans that followed. Perhaps, the standing ovation to the 1991 reforms will be next year, when the current and last Five Year Plan will end thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to abolish the Planning Commission, one of his very few ideological decisions (that he is given very little credit for).

As today's Swarajya pointed out, the 1991 reforms are like the orphaned child who became hugely successful - everyone wants to use them, but nobody wants to claim them as their own. Sadly, the man who led them through difficult political times is no more with us, and his technocrat Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, proved to be a massive failure as Prime Minister. However, politics is politics, and people are people. In the former, small vested interests, 'vote banks,' can dictate the narrative. In the latter, it is the experience of life everyday that dictates the narrative. And in the latter, the celebration of economic reforms is there for all to see.

Once upon a time, my father paid 500 to book a Bajaj scooter that never came. My parents were of the generation that would line up outside a PCO stall to make a phone call, or wait till late night for telephone rates to become cheaper, assuming they were the lucky 1% that actually had a land-line connection. Today, they can buy a car in less than a day, and the mobile phone has become ubiquitous and cheap. This is not a one-off event: websites like this one chronicle the dystopia of socialism, and the comparison with life that we take for granted today is stark and shocking. No doubt, liberalization did not help everyone equally, there is inequality, but there is also no doubt that it has helped everyone in some measure, which is much more than what can be said of socialism that wallowed in the cesspool of romanticizing poverty.

People ask me why I am so staunchly anti-socialism (I have previously said, in the context of Bernie Sanders, that I would not wish socialism on my worst enemy), 'like an old man'. The reason is simple: I have read about life in India before I was born. I am not interested in making the same mistakes of the past generation, and then regretting them as an old man. I have no hesitation in saying that socialism was a scourge that ravaged what was once one of the world's most prosperous and entrepreneurial civilizations. And while it is certainly not dead, the monster has been tamed greatly.

Salman Rushdie's book Midnight's Children led to that moniker being applied to the generation born into Independence after 1947. In the 25th year of economic reforms, let my generation be called PVNR's children - the inheritors of the legacy of India's greatest Prime Minister. 

1 comment:

akash_ravianandan said...

Yo Sushobhan,

Agree with most of it except the part where you say "socialism was a scourge that ravaged what was once one of the world's most prosperous and entrepreneurial civilizations." It was colonialism that ravaged it and socialism is itself a gift from colonialism. As we know colonialism brought India from 26-27% world GDP to 2%. Socialism has ensured that 2% increased only to 6% in 6 decades.

Thanks,
Akash