India in Search of Glory: Looking back & ahead | The Financial Express

India in Search of Glory: Looking back & ahead

A comprehensive account of India’s milestones and the challenges of the future

Looking back & ahead
The author started his career as a Reader in Delhi School of Economics and was better known as a Keynesian who spoke English (the course remains extremely mathematical even today) and then moved on to different positions in the ADB and IMF, inhaling global exposure.

Whenever we look at the progress of any economy, especially in a democracy, the political and social shibboleths cannot be ignored. It is for this reason that it is said that political economy plays a large role in shaping the progress of a country. Therefore, for an economist trying to trace the India story, there is advantage to be had if one has studied the politics of the nation. It is here that Ashok Lahiri, author of India in Search of Glory does very well.

The author started his career as a Reader in Delhi School of Economics and was better known as a Keynesian who spoke English (the course remains extremely mathematical even today) and then moved on to different positions in the ADB and IMF, inhaling global exposure. He also had a stint as chief economic advisor in the corridors of power and fully understood the corporate world while being a director on the board of Bandhan Bank. Now an MLA in the legislature of West Bengal, he is probably best suited to narrate this story. The icing to this experience is that he was also part of the first group of psephologists who made analysing elections an art in India in the Eighties. 

His period of study is post-independence and quite appropriately covers 75 years of independence. He explains that in these 75 years, India has achieved a lot, supplementing each milestone with a plethora of data. However, he argues that there is a long way to go, and we need to resolve the various contradictions that still remain in our DNA.

He divides his narrative into three phases —1947-64, 1964-1991 and post reforms. These were different phases that coincided with economic ideology. Given that to begin with, the economy was run by freedom fighters, the shadow of colonialism was strong and hence the pitch was for self-reliance and socialism. It is not surprising that often the intention was to reverse what prevailed when Britain ruled. As politics evolved, so did ideology, and what we see today is more in the reformist phase where we are more open than ever before.

Interestingly, Lahiri takes us through the evolution of politics as well as economics and weaves the two together. For example, he outlines all the main policies that were brought in by different governments based on their predilections. This would be an almanac for students who do not have to look anywhere when wanting to find out about any economic policy in the past 75 years. He deeply analyses sectarian politics and shows how these undercurrents laid the foundations of economic ideology.

The author rightly says that economics can never be separated from politics and this holds especially true for India, where there are a large number of underprivileged people. People are happier with popular schemes and vote politicians to power. Surprisingly, low levels of health or education are not vote winners as a single popular policy can be. While this can be debated, we must accept it. In democracies policies lead to victories in elections and hence if people prefer immediate consumption to future growth, governments never go the other way. This is what he calls political calculus in operation.

Similarly, he highlights the fact that corruption, which was the bedrock of our system for decades, has now been diluted but not eliminated. He rightly points out that if at the time of voting we have to choose between two rascals, we will end up voting for one of them. This is why we do see a large number of people with criminal records in every party as they are the ones who garner votes. Hence there is still a rocky path ahead of us. Here he does espouse that we need to name and shame the corrupt. But this will be difficult as almost every party hosts this fraternity and would never let this happen.

Further, he argues that our story has been constrained by social cleavage and conflicts often erupting as religious or caste riots. This he believes will increase in the short run, but even out in the longer term as urbanisation and education catch on. This is why we need to focus a lot on better education, which create jobs, that, in turn, make such distinctions irrelevant.

He has quite painstakingly enumerated the entire set of policies brought in by various governments and hence this book can be considered to be an omnibus collection. He traces the change of powers and the undercurrents that led to these changes. While the last two decades will be familiar to most readers, it is the post-independence phase till 1991 that can bring in a lot of déjà vu to those who followed those rather tumultuous years. This was the time when issues like war, famine and  oil price shock had deeper implications for the economy and policy making. His knowledge on elections helps in bringing to the fore issues that swung the electorate.

Is there something missing in the book? The author steers clear of controversy and while describing the events and developments does not name and shame people who did wrong. Where wrongdoings are reported it is taken from published sources and hence there is no critical view presented here. The route chosen is more of an academic, where the flaws are generalised but characters not exposed.

Lahiri’s book is quite timely as we celebrate 75 years of independence and one is able to read about not just the achievements but also the gaps that lie in this search for glory. There evidently is a lot to be done on the socio-economic fronts and what is required is strong governance and determined governments. The author, however, says hope springs eternal. 

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, Bank of Baroda

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First published on: 05-02-2023 at 02:00 IST