Some seven years ago, at a time when the so-called Third Front ruled the roost and the country blundered from one comic prime minister to another, I wrote an article in a moment of despair entitled “Time to grieve, time to leave”. It was inspired by a casual comment of a friend who, at the height of his career as the editor of India’s leading newspaper, suddenly decided to up and leave for the United States of America. He pointed to a study that suggested it would be at least five lifetimes before India could hope to match the prevailing living standards of the US. “And I have only one life,” he lamented.
I don’t know what my friend, now happily involved in a Washington DC think-tank, will make of the ongoing India Shining campaign of the government or the gung-ho assertion of the Bharatiya Janata Party president, M. Venkaiah Naidu, that feel-good has been replaced by feel-better. On my part, I can only wallow in the extra spring in the step of India and rue that it didn’t happen much earlier.
Never mind what the gathering of anti-globalizers in Mumbai are declaiming and never mind the contrived nostalgia for the eroding inheritance of Jawaharlal Nehru being invoked by sullen intellectuals, India is on a high. True, the exhilaration is uneven and has yet to touch the black holes of some of the BIMARU states, but never in living memory has the country been infused with a profound sense of hope and a belief that we can make it.
The roaring faith in India’s future is not unprecedented. In the first flush of Independence, Nehru successfully instilled a widespread belief in the temples of modern India — the mega dams, the towering steel plants and the planned economy. India became a guinea pig for an earlier variant of the Third Way. That dream came to nought amid an overdose of bureaucratic sloth and political cronyism. And it turned to nightmare when Indira Gandhi supplemented it with a wave of reckless nationalization, the imposition of punitive taxation and the murder of entrepreneurship. For many Indians exasperated by shrinking opportunities, material deprivation and global irrelevance, India became a celebration of mediocrity. It became a good place to get out of.
By the mid-Sixties the writing on the wall clearly indicated that Nehru’s project had ended in a colossal failure. Yet, it was kept alive on a life support system for another 25 years. Those were India’s wasted years that, ironically, contributed to the establishment of a vibrant Indian diaspora.
The annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebration should, ideally, have as its backdrop portraits of all the deities of Nehruvian socialism. Without their macabre contribution, so many talented people would not have voted with their feet in so short a time. The exodus of intellectuals, scientists and doctors from India to the West in the decades of socialism constituted the most significant flight of human capital in recorded history. In sheer magnitude, it dwarfed the more celebrated departure of the Jewish intelligentsia from Nazi Germany after 1933.
The responsibility for the dereliction of India lay as much with the political class as with those who played the role of consulting physicians — the socialist economists who elevated quackery to new heights, the communist historians who painted deracination as progress and the cultural commissars who worked hard to equate shoddiness with aesthetics. It speaks volumes for India’s misplaced sense of tolerance that many of these deities of the ancient regime still have the gumption to parade themselves as custodians of enlightenment.
The sense of hopelessness that characterized Indian post-colonialism has, fortunately, yielded way to a post-socialist mood of expectancy. It is not merely that the economic indicators are looking up and that the 3.5 per cent Hindu rate of growth has given way to a 7.5 per cent Hindutva rate. What is more significant is that the fundamentals of economic and political decision-making have undergone a radical change. In a global context the shifts may not be revolutionary but applied to India, they have broken new ground and unleashed pent-up energies.
First, there has been a decisive rollback of the frontiers of the state. The bureaucratized monster, with tentacles in all directions and all walks of life, has been brought down from the commanding heights. With the Congress and its leftist offshoots out of the driver’s seat, the philosophy of governance has changed tack. The emphasis is no longer on bringing every sphere of productive life, literally from potato chips to computer chips, under the embrace of the state but to create the appropriate environment for society to take advantage of opportunities and technology.
Of course, there are still too many controls and too much bureaucracy but any attempt to add to the state’s workload is now regarded as distinctly non-kosher. The pace of privatization may be tentative but it is unlikely India will witness any more nationalization. From the implementation of CAS to the autonomy of the IIMs, the public mood is now decisively against extraneous state intervention. The traditional conservative notion of a strong state but a minimal and, hopefully, efficient state is on the road to becoming the new orthodoxy.
Secondly, stemming from the growing impatience with Soviet-style statism, is a more refreshing attitude to wealth creation. Formerly, when liberty was disingenuously twinned with equality, the role of the government became one of redistributing poverty. Today, the focus is on raising the standards of living and rewarding success through a modest tax regime. In 1980, at the time of its creation, the BJP swore by a peculiar animal called Gandhian socialism. This week, at its national executive in Hyderabad, the party committed itself to banishing poverty by creating additional wealth. India has not heard such language from a mainstream political party since the demise of the Swatantra Party in 1973. From regulating man-made shortages to facilitating consumer choice, India has come a very long way.
Finally, with the market setting the pace of social transformation, India’s relations with the rest of the world bear little resemblance to foreign policy as envisaged by Nehru and Indira. Then, India covered up for its horrible inadequacies with a series of angst-ridden posturing aimed at guilt-tripping the developed world. Today, when the rhetoric at home is about joining the developed world by 2020, foreign policy has become the single-minded quest for national self-interest. Far from being at odds with globalization and chasing the mirage of self-sufficiency, India now has a direct stake in the growth and success of international capitalism. Its relationship with the developed economies is that of a competitor, not an adversary. This important shift has, in turn, facilitated the nurturing of an entrepreneurial culture and global corporate practices at home.
For nearly five decades, India wallowed on the periphery of the world order, seeking solace in a glorious past and wary of an uncertain future. Now, as present optimism is coupled with belief in the future, there is reason to look back in anger at opportunities denied or lost and resources squandered. In the six years after Pokhran II declared it a nuclear power, India has moved from irrelevance to reckoning. Previously, only peripatetic Indians stood a chance of making it; today, India has the opportunity of shining on its home ground.