Rajiv Gandhi conceived India as a global power much before the world began paying attention to the country
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated this week two decades ago. Yet in a brief span of public life of seven years, from 1984 to 1991, he sponsored and left an indelible mark on India. The principal new ideas for India after its freedom movement—decentralization; technology in service of man; resource-based agricultural growth; economic reform and the concept of India as an autonomous great power were the ideas of this young prime minister. Today, instead of destroying each institution, the country sorely needs a strategic vision.
Since he was the first Indian prime minister to have worked in an organization for his living, he also practised the art of pushing systems to achieve objectives.
In a remarkable speech he gave on a draft for the eighth Five Year Plan, four months before he handed over power as the prime minister, he overrode the doubters and insisted on a high growth rate target, which has great relevance for the twelfth Five Year Plan. He was told there were no resources, so trim your ambitions.
He asked for a road map to enhance Plan resources after he came back (which he expected after the 1989 elections). He also outlined how resources would be raised as the delicensing and reform of major industries he had implemented kicked in.
This would lead to better capacity utilization, lower capital costs, improved use of capital, which, in turn, would push the Indian economy on a higher growth path. He gave the numbers for these assumptions and how these changes would pan out.
These proved to be correct by the early 1990s as experience was to show.
Panchayati Raj to him was not a giveaway but also an organizational imperative of using local resources not accounted for in the finance ministry and the Planning Commission’s numbers. Such decentralization would also meet the resources crunch. Again there were examples from, say, watershed projects where around a fifth of resources were generated in villages and many examples were given in this respect by the Planning Commission’s task force on non-governmental organizations.
Agro-climatic planning was not just a buzzword, but an operative rule for resource allocation and policy.
Gandhi travelled the length and breadth of the land, learnt and matured from the crucible, that is, India. He had the remarkable faculty to go from local realities back to his larger framework and ideals and back again. He was open and took along individuals with contrarian ideas.
He once asked me if I had worked out the benefits of communication on a social plane. When I said no, since mine was an accounting exercise, I was asked if I wanted to be overruled? I politely agreed with him.
He conceived India as a global power, an experience we now take for granted. I was sent to Pakistan as the head of the Indian team for the first joint planning meeting. I stayed in the by now infamous Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, and, belonging to a generation schooled by freedom fighters in not thinking of fear, went naturally for my morning jog. In the evening at the High Commission, a young second secretary said, “Alagh sir was tempting security by jogging alone." And the response from a younger officer was immediate: “What’s there to be afraid of, isn’t our tiger there in Delhi?"
India’s capability to mount targeted missions goes back to the late general K. Sundarji designing self-sufficient brigades capable of self-contained action at short notice. In the Maldives, there was a coup by pirates against the elected government. The government, including the prime minister, were virtually held hostage.
But within a day, a young Sikh lieutenant was to deliver a letter from the Indian prime minister to his Maldivian counterpart, who had been freed from captivity by the Indian brigade.
Much is made of the lack of sustainability of the foreign borrowings of that period.
The real story is still to be written. The debate was triggered by professional India baiters of that period—as Wikipedia and other declassified documents now show. It was sustained by small men who knew better.
While there were critics of India in Washington Consensus institutions who felt the country was not carrying out the “big bang" reforms they advocated and pushed for, others felt India could borrow more.
India’s sovereign borrowings until 1989 were well below of many other countries in terms of percentage of gross domestic product or investment. In fact, the big spending was to occur later and none of the ratios were as high as they are now.
The problem was that successor governments to Rajiv Gandhi made a fetish of deriding his achievements and running down the economy. These were governments which, for example, made a policy of not setting economic growth as a target or dropped perspective from plans.
Rajiv did much better than them.
Yoginder K. Alagh is the chairman of Institute of Rural Management, Anand, and a former Union minister. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org