After his overwhelming victory in the just-concluded Lok Sabha polls, no one can now question Narendra Modi’s intuitive ability to deliver the right message to the right audience. Which is why his recent reference to a particularly critical period in India’s freedom struggle deserves special attention. The BJP leader who will soon begin his second term as Prime Minister, in a post-victory speech in Ahmedabad, said that the next five years would be as significant for the country “as was the period between 1942 and 1947". It isn’t the first time Modi has singled out those years. In August 2017, he had called them a time when India made a “quantum jump of resolution and conviction".

The political significance of these five years, beginning with the Quit India Movement and leading on to the decision in 1945 by the UK’s Labour government headed by Clement Attlee to solve the “Indian Problem", eventually resulting in Independence in 1947, are now an integral part of our shared history. It was a period when the turbulence of a world in the midst of a devastating war was complemented at home by a rising tide of expectancy laced with anxiety.

A similar feeling of hope, albeit with many misgivings, is in the air today. Though Modi’s government in its last term wrought many changes, it is the next five years that could cement his legacy as a nation-builder in the mould of Jawaharlal Nehru and P.V. Narasimha Rao.

Beyond politics, yet another event of some significance took place in the first half of the 1940s, one that had the potential to change the direction of economic development in the country and also one that is worth emulating today. Called the Bombay Plan and released as a pamphlet in January 1944, it was a 15-year investment memorandum outlining a strategy for the economic development of free India.

Among its signatories were some of the country’s best-known industrialists, including J.R.D. Tata, G.D. Birla, Purshottamdas Thakurdas, Lala Shriram and Kasturbhai Lalbhai. The list also had other eminent Indians such as A.D. Shroff, fittingly termed “Titan of Finance and Free Enterprise" by Sucheta Dalal in her book with that title, as well as renowned economist and India’s first finance minister John Mathai. Of these men, P. Lokanathan in an essay in the July 1945 issue of Foreign Policy magazine wrote: “The signatories were not merely men of business experience but were inspired by more than a fair measure of public spirit and responsibility."

But there was more to it. Independence would mean that India would be free to chart its economic trajectory, but, given the limited resources, it was imperative for it to make the right calls. In a June 2010 research paper titled The Curious Case Of The Bombay Plan (bit.ly/2EEc5WQ), Amal Sanyal writes about how the proponents of the Bombay Plan felt at that time: “The government might take populist economic measures in a hurry after the war. Such measures were all the more likely if the government faced organised political demands for redistribution of income and wealth. These measures would harm the prospects of long-run economic development of India. This possibility however could be avoided by proceeding in an orderly and more caring path of development before such a contingency arises" (emphasis mine).

These words are striking for their sheer contemporaneity. The new government of Narendra Modi will be up against similar expectations and pressures, given that it is coming to power against a backdrop of a sharp slowdown in the consumer economy and a widening of the trade deficit. At this time, it could use a similar plan drawn up by the country’s leading business and economic lights. As the government works on its 1,000 day plan, what we need is a new India memorandum, prepared by people such as Anand Mahindra, Preetha Reddy, Mukesh Ambani, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Azim Premji, Devi Shetty, E. Sreedharan and Nandan Nilekani.

Avoiding the usual pre-budget lobbying best left to industry associations, this would be a vision for an India which, as the poll results have shown, has undergone radical transformation. For inspiration, the select group need only look at that famous document crafted over 75 years ago by some of the best minds in the country.

For one, it had its priorities right having allocated 9.4% of the total capital outlay to health and education. It was also ambitious, envisaging the doubling of per capita income over the next 15 years.

Eventually, of course, as Five-Year Plans became the markers for India’s economic trajectory, the Bombay Plan was largely ignored. That India’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita inched up from roughly 7,500 in 1950-51 to about 10,500 by 1964-65 (source: ministry of statistics and programme implementation), is perhaps a consequence of the benign neglect of that Bombay Plan.

A fresh wind is blowing across Indian boardrooms, with many of the companies that had been operating under the terms of an outdated order of business being brought to heel. A set of young entrepreneurs are all set to embrace the new world. What they need is a wireframe for business that allows for profitable growth without compromising on ethics and their value systems. Can India’s best business minds put aside their own interests to prepare a document for national growth?

Sundeep Khanna is an executive editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage

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