Addressing a joint session of the US Congress on 14 September 2000, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, alluding to the problem of cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan, said: “In our neighbourhood—in this, the 21st century—religious war has not just been fashioned into, it has been proclaimed to be, an instrument of state policy. Distance (in an obvious dig at the US) offers no insulation. It should not cause complacence. You know and I know: such evil cannot succeed. But even in foiling, it could inflict untold suffering.”
There were few takers that day.
However, this outlook changed dramatically in little under a year, when, on the bright morning of 11 September 2001, as the denizens of the Big Apple readied for a new work day, a group of Muslim youth in a suicide mission used civilian aircraft as weapons to bring down the iconic World Trade Center in New York, causing the worst terrorist tragedy that led to nearly 3,000 fatalities.
All of a sudden, Vajpayee came across as prescient as the US in particular, and the world in general, woke up to the perils of cross-border terrorism. In fact, 9/11 went on to become a crucial turning point; like all cataclysmic events bringing on change faster than would otherwise have happened. In the case of India, this and the coming together of some favourable circumstances—the economy taking off—created the ideal circumstance for it to etch what was its best decade ever since independence.
The 9/11 tragedy launched the US into one of the biggest global conflicts that took its troops first to Afghanistan and then later into Iraq. Few realized then that this war would drag on for the entire decade (its epitaph is yet to be written), and now an exhausted US is looking to cut its losses and prematurely withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. Not only did the inability to win the war take the sheen off US invincibility, the human and economic costs diminished its capabilities, thereby making it easier for challengers such as China to play catch up.
The other fallout was that it brought the US closer to India. The about-turn that Vajpayee, who was the head of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), had effected by boldly reaching out to the US, challenging domestic age-old perceptions, immediately after India conducted its nuclear tests in May 1998, made it that much easier. As the war got prolonged, the structural fault lines in the US economy gradually started emerging, putting the brakes as it were on the world’s largest economy. The 2008 shock only confirmed the worst fears about an over-leveraged economy, sending the US into a slide from which it is yet to recover.
This coincided with, what in retrospect was, India’s best decade of economic growth. The gradual loosening of policy controls in the previous two decades created the context, while the trigger was provided by the benchmark effort of finance minister Yashwant Sinha when he offered a slew of fiscal incentives in his Union budget for 1999-2000 that set in motion the housing boom.
The coming together of these trends, especially given the accelerated ascendancy of China, only advanced the shift in the balance of power towards the East. Undoubtedly, this set the stage for the consequent change in geo-politics giving India, gradually albeit, a greater role at the global high table.
Having played such a crucial role in this transition, the BJP could not really be blamed for getting complacent and coining the now infamous India Shining slogan. To be sure, it was not just the BJP; almost everyone missed out on the fact that while one India was soaring along, the other was noticeably lagging behind. To top it all off, the BJP made strategic mistakes in some key alliances, resulting in its unexpected defeat in the 2004 general election, serving up its principal opposition, the Congress, an accidental win. The agenda of the incoming Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) got pre-defined for two reasons. One, its electoral plank was defined around aam aadmi. Second, the fallout of the hubris of the India Shining campaign ensured that the UPA forced, what in retrospect seems to be, a
huge course correction in development policy, by moving the country towards a more rights-based or entitlement regime. Not a bad thing really, because the two Indias are rapidly giving rise to income inequalities, which, in urban areas, is startling.
Global role: A file photo of the Parliament building. India has increased its clout in the global polity during the past decade. Hindustan Times
This included the Right to Information, the Right to Education, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, land rights for scheduled tribes and forest dwellers, and the unsuccessful attempt at providing 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies. Similar to what the Mandal committee did for the so-called backward classes in 1989, the shift to a rights-based regime has created a sense of empowerment— and, in many instances, is beginning to redefine social and economic relations across the country; too early though to quantify them. It is another matter though, that the policy discourse has tended to get polemical as the UPA has progressively, particularly in its second avatar, mired itself in governance issues.
To its credit though, the UPA has, just as the decade closed, also initiated debate and willy nilly turned the country’s focus on the contentious debate: environment vs growth. Explosive incidents such as those in Singur only provided a messy context to conduct this debate; the ongoing climate change talks and India’s gradual shift in stance—watering down its conventional claims on who should bear the burden of climate change—at global climate change negotiations have only made this debate more acerbic. In his inimitable manner, environment minister Jairam Ramesh, has authored this shift to a rules-based regime. The trick is whether politicians that follow will be willing to stay the course and not go down the tempting path and revive the business of ad hoc decisions.
In the final analysis, there is no doubt that the last decade was India’s finest ever in terms of tangible gains. While the national discourse on social policy has definitely moved to being inclusive, the big concern is that the UPA, which has ruled for most of this period, has dropped the ball on crucial policy reforms. In that sense, the country could, in the next decade, lose out on the great opportunity that it has created for itself in the decade that just concluded.