Home / Opinion / Views /  From midnight to Amrit Kaal modernity

I am no midnight’s child. I was born a few years after Independence. Consequently, I can only imagine the emotions of those who watched the flag unfurl on the midnight of 14/15 August 1947. They must have thought the pledge would be redeemed very substantially. As we celebrate 75 years of Independence, we shouldn’t look back only in anger. Back in 1947, there were those who thought India would descend into anarchy and wouldn’t hold together as a political entity. That dire prognosis didn’t come to pass. Barring a brief interlude in the mid-1970s, unlike immediate neighbours, India remained united, wedded to democracy. The early 1960s were a watershed. On many variables (per capita income, literacy)—and data on current human development indicators was difficult to get then—India compared fairly favourably with several East Asian tigers, not to speak of China. Indeed, donors wished India to succeed and the Indian development model was a test case for success. The 60s saw ennui set in, and by the end of the decade, some thought India would go down under, thanks to a population bomb. If Bollywood films are used as a metaphor for socio-economic reality, I will date the onset of ennui to Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957).

I grew up in the 1960s. It was a time of shortages. Of food, milk, bread, watches, manufactured goods, gas connections, telephones, foreign exchange, railway and air tickets. A time of queues, rationing and inevitable rent-seeking. In 1980, János Kornai would write a book titled Economics of Shortage. It documented central and east European economies, but the symptoms were equally true of India. I studied economics in the 1970s, and was taught there were developed countries, the “haves" of the world, and it would take generations for “have-nots" like India to catch up. When I travelled abroad as a student, I discovered India warranted column centimetres in international newspapers and magazines because of Kashmir (and later Punjab), politics, yoga and cuisine. There was little content on our economy or development. My first trip abroad outside the developed world, to East Asia, was a psychological shock. There was no need to wait for generations. At the stroke of the midnight hour, the rest of the world wasn’t asleep. While India lagged, other countries moved on, relatively. There were developed economies, developing ones and least developed countries (LDCs). Plus, there was the RDC (refusing to develop country) grouping, with India as a solitary member.

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A vivisection of the malaise uses multiple related prisms: (1) A failure to deliver, despite socialism, equitable access to a minimum level of health and educational outcomes. Regardless of ‘isms’, every country that has progressed has ensured that. (2) A protected domestic market, breeding inefficiency and lack of choice. (3) Excessive state intervention, stifling entrepreneurship and productivity. Started in the 1950s’ second half, this worsened down the years, despite the costs of state intervention being disproportionately high, compared to its presumed benefits. The 1960s and 1970s were therefore lost development decades. (4) Import substitution and export pessimism, a failure to tap the global market and integrate production into supply chains when the external environment was less malign. Whichever way one slices our inappropriate policies, these are the main ingredients. This is not a denigration of everything that occurred since 1947. Our accomplishments were significant: a broad and diversified industrial base, self-sufficiency in food-grains, a reduction in poverty, improvements on human development indicators, successes in science, technology and higher education. But there’s always the counter-factual. Shouldn’t India have done better? What if gears had been shifted earlier? One can use the image of driving a car on a highway. Moving in third gear seems acceptable, especially with eyes glued to the rear-view mirror showing the distance traversed. But there’s the counter-factual of other cars travelling in fifth gear and overtaking us.

Higher growth in the 1980s changed this. The 1991 reforms changed this. Developments since 2014 changed this. The covid pandemic provided an additional trigger. Government policies, Union and state, were liberalized and entrepreneurship responded favourably. The world sat up and took notice. India being invited to the global high table is one aspect. Any number of dashboards and numbers reinforce the point, as does the play of soft power. Also palpable and tangible, though less quantifiable, is what the Indian student or traveller abroad faces today. As students, we were perpetually defensive, bracketed and hyphenated with Pakistan. There was much to defend and pride had to be swallowed. No longer. A generation that grew up after 1991, or was born after 1991, no longer has a colonial chip on the shoulder. It’s a generation, from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh and from Kashmir to Kerala, that is proud of being Indian and of what India stands for. Often, a wisecrack about the Indian economy floats around: the Indian economy is one with a glorious past and a magnificent future; it is the present alone that is bleak. No longer, since the promise of the future has blended seamlessly into the present and potential energy is being transformed into its kinetic form.

India’s 75th anniversary of Independence is a time to take stock and set the template for the next 25 years of an “Amrit Kaal" (an auspicious phase). Traditionally, 75 years is when one goes off on vanaprastha, retiring to the forest. The symbolism here is of the old mindset going on vanaprastha, as the torch passes to a new generation of Indians. Tautologically, one’s potential is always above the actual state. Every country is behind that frontier, but India’s gap is narrowing.

Bibek Debroy is chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.

Elsewhere in Mint

Long Story reveals how expensive and rare orchids are smuggled out of India. In Opinion, Nitin Pai draws nation-building lessons from a Bollywood song. Bibek Debroy writes on India's Amrit Kaal modernity. ED has made India's crypto winter colder, argues Andy Mukherjee.

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