In his recently released book, The Indian Renaissance: India’s Rise After A Thousand Years Of Decline, Sanjeev Sanyal, currently based in Singapore as Deutsche Bank’s chief economist for the region, argues that after the post-independence socialist stupor, India now has the chance to break out of a 1,000-year cycle of decline. Success, however, is far from certain as significant hurdles remain. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
Is there enough scientific proof to claim that India was intellectually, economically and culturally vibrant till the 11th century and the decline set in after that?
There is a great deal of evidence to show that till the 11th century, India was the lynchpin of the global trading system and a cultural superpower. It accounted for almost 30% of the world’s economy—larger by far than China and western Europe. Evidence of its international influence is more than evident even today across South-East Asia. Foreign students flocked to its universities and persecuted minorities like the Jews and Parsis found shelter here. In some ways, India held the same place in the world as the US had in the 20th century. After the 11th century, however, we find signs of decline everywhere—the writings of Al Beruni, the fossilization of Sanskrit, the ban against crossing the seas and so on.
The Indian Renaissance: India’s Rise After A Thousand Years Of Decline: Penguin Books India, 240 pages, Rs499.
Many see the Nehruvian model of economic and industrial development, as a necessary foundation for the subsequent liberalized economy.
After independence, Jawaharlal Nehru and P.C. Mahalanobis closed India to the world and introduced a state-controlled system that effectively killed the spirit of entrepreneurship and risk-taking for two generations. By doing so, they were perpetuating an isolationist mindset that had held down India since the 11th century. The import substitution model was the modern equivalent of the medieval caste rules against crossing the seas. It created a “rent-seeking” culture that continues to plague the sectors that the government still controls (for instance, in higher education).
If Nehru’s model was so flawed, why was there such overwhelming consensus for it right till 1991?
Admittedly, Nehru was not the only person arguing for the socialist model— there were some who wanted him to go even further. However, Nehru and Mahalanobis cannot be excused just because they were following the consensus. Indeed, they deliberately ignored the warnings of senior leaders such as C. Rajagopalachari.
The criminal justice system, the political system and the poor state of infrastructure—why are you optimistic that these hurdles to economic progress can be overcome?
I am certainly not sure that India will have a renaissance in the 21st century. My book merely argues that the country has the unique opportunity to come back after 1,000 years of decline—not just as an economy but as a civilization. Factors ranging from demographics to primary literacy are finally in our favour. It is for us to reach out and grab it. In my book, I have argued that the judicial system is the single most import institution that needs urgent reform. Of all the thousands of necessary changes, this is the one that will have the largest multiplier effect.
The environmental cost of the industrial boom and massive urbanization that you foresee in the coming decades will be enormous. What’s the way out?
We are already becoming the world’s third largest source of greenhouse gases. Indian cities are already among the most polluted in the world. I am part of an environmental accounting project that showed that water pollution in Uttar Pradesh alone could be valued at 17% of the state’s gross domestic product. This is unacceptable. The country needs a comprehensive environmental management system. This is a legitimate area for state intervention. Instead, the government is more concerned about intervening in areas such as higher education that are far better provided by the private sector.