M J AKBAR
My generation entered its age of aspiration at precisely the moment when India slipped into its era of instability. My school class stepped into college in 1967, a few in quest of education, and most in search of a degree that could land a job. 1967 was also the year when Congress, which had monopolised power at virtually every level since 1947, lost every state assembly election from Punjab to Bengal in the north. In the south, Kerala had spun out in 1957; in 1967 Congress lost Tamil Nadu, probably irretrievably.
In a democracy, change should have been cause for celebration. In two decades, Congress had burnt the hopes of 1947 to ash. Economic stagflation was compounded by social violence. Large parts of the country faced famine; there were food riots in cities. We did not have dollars for American wheat, and paid in rupees which polite Americans accepted behind a mask, and the less polite with laughter. The economy, suffocated by pseudo-socialism, was throttled by a ‘licence raj’ that only served to transfer wealth to a grasping elite. Naxalites spread havoc in the name of revolution, and taunted patriotism by calling China’s Chairman Mao their chairman when the trauma of 1962 was still fresh in popular memory. In industry, company managers were locked in and factories were locked out.
1967 could have been a swerve point, the start of economic reform and a fast-forward movement towards national prosperity. But India was betrayed again, this time by non-Congress parties. Instead of imaginative, clean, ideabased governance they offered the pitiful confusion of irresponsible politics in the states, laced with an interesting sideline in corruption quickly captured by an intrinsically Indian phrase: Aya Ram, Gaya Ram. Moreover, Congress split at the Centre and Mrs Indira Gandhi shifted left, opting for a virtual alliance with Communist MPs to keep her government alive. Instead of economic equity, the poor got slogans. The slogans fetched her a handsome victory in 1971, while the poor remained in poverty for another lifetime.
Opposition failure kept offering Congress chance after chance. With unerring consistency, Congress mocked history’s gifts with senseless abandon. One world was dead, and no architect could be found to construct a second. Between the debris of failure and fractured polity, India lurched between patchwork options.
If the price of collaborative collapse had been limited to its engineers, the politicians, Indians might have even celebrated the justice of it all. But fetid governance always punishes the people. GDP growth between 1968 and 1975 averaged 2.93%; but the difference is better measured by the experience of the following years. In 1977 and 1978, GDP rose sharply under Janata rule as long as Janata was stable. During the mess of 1979, which arguably set a new standard for floor-crossing, the Indian economy contracted by 5%.
The gathering crisis erupted with the return of rampant instability in 1989. In 1991, India had to send its gold reserves, through a special courier, abroad as collateral for a foreign exchange loan. India’s commitment was not enough. Bankers wanted to see India’s gold. In brief, we were broke.
Perhaps we find our footing only when we tread on the edge of disaster. We were lucky to get a sensible Prime Minister, P V Narasimha Rao, after the tragic assassination of Rajiv Gandhi during the general elections of 1991. He in turn found an able finance minister, Dr Manmohan Singh. But Rao lacked a majority in Parliament. Think of the reform he might have achieved if he had not been hampered by the inefficiency and compromise in-built into number hunting of MPs; or hobbled by the sniping led by Mrs Sonia Gandhi all through his term. The nineties were a narrative of incipient change stymied by opportunity lost.
True stability in a Union government returned only in 2014, enabling Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reset the compass, and shift the course towards a clear horizon: poverty elimination, gender emancipation, and prosperity for all. He reversed the invidious ‘trickle-down theory’, much advertised by the high priests of UPA, wherein those with swimming pools got the waterfall and the parched were left with a trickle. One statistic is sufficient as evidence of this course correction. The Brookings Institution, a liberal American think tank, has estimated, in a recent report, that only 3% of India will live below the poverty line by 2022.
That is five years away, and much work remains to be done. The true obstacle to this objective will be any return to the fractious laissez faire coalitions, without core or rim, in a lottery mode.
There is one vital difference between 1967 and 2019, though. In 1967, college students did not have a vote. In 2019, they do. They will choose between haphazard drift and a route map to that fulfillment of aspiration that we missed, a place for India in the vanguard of the 21st century. They will compare signature policies like Jan Dhan, Swachh Bharat, Start Up India, Mudra and so much else, and the prospect of slippage. They will vote for their future.
M J Akbar is minister of state for external affairs
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Courtesy: Times of India: 05 Aug 2018