From Midnight to Modernity by Amrit Kaal

I am not the midnight child. I was born a few years after Independence. Therefore, I can only imagine the emotions of those who saw the flag unfurled on August 14/15, 1947 at midnight. They must have thought that the pledge would be redeemed very substantially. As we celebrate 75 years of Independence, we should not look back only in anger. In 1947, some thought India would descend into anarchy and not hold together as a political entity. This grim prognosis did not come true. Except for a brief interlude in the mid-1970s, unlike its immediate neighbours, India remained united, committed to democracy. The early 1960s was a turning point. On many variables (income per capita, literacy) – and data on current human development indicators were hard to come by at the time – India compared quite favorably to several East Asian tigers, without talk about China. Indeed, donors wanted India to succeed and the Indian development model was a test of success. The 1960s saw boredom set in, and by the end of the decade some thought India would sink, thanks to a population bomb. If Bollywood movies are used as a metaphor for socio-economic reality, I’ll date the beginning of Guru Dutt’s boredom pyaasa (1957).

I grew up in the 1960s. It was a time of scarcity. Food, milk, bread, watches, manufactured goods, gas hookups, telephones, currency, railroad and plane tickets. A time of inevitable queues, rationing and rent seeking. In 1980, János Kornai will write a book entitled Economics of scarcity. He documented the economies of Central and Eastern Europe, but the symptoms were also true of India. I studied economics in the 1970s, and I was taught that there were developed countries, the “haves” of the world, and that it would take generations for the “have nots” like India are catching up. When I traveled abroad as a student, I discovered that India deserved column inches in international newspapers and magazines because of Kashmir (and later Punjab), politics, yoga and cooking. There was little content about our economy or our 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 midnight, the rest of the world was not asleep. While India has fallen behind, other countries have relatively moved on. There were developed economies, developing economies and least developed countries (LDCs). In addition, there was the DRC grouping (refusing to develop a country), with India as a lone member.

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A vivisection of the malaise uses several related prisms: (1) A failure to provide, despite socialism, equitable access to a minimum level of health and education outcomes. Regardless of ‘isms’, every country that has progressed has ensured it. (2) A protected internal market, generating inefficiency and lack of choice. (3) Excessive state intervention, stifling entrepreneurship and productivity. Beginning in the second half of the 1950s, it has worsened over the years, despite the disproportionate cost of state intervention compared to its presumed benefits. The 1960s and 1970s were therefore lost decades of development. (4) Import substitution and export pessimism, inability to exploit the global market and integrate production into supply chains when the external environment was less adverse. However we slice our inappropriate policies, these are the main ingredients. This is not a denigration of everything that has happened since 1947. Our achievements have been significant: a broad and diversified industrial base, self-sufficiency in food grains, poverty reduction, improvements in the indicators of human development, success in science, technology and higher education. education. But there is always the counterfactual. Shouldn’t India have done better? What if the gears had been changed earlier? One can use the image of driving a car on a highway. Shifting into third gear feels acceptable, especially with your eyes glued to the rearview mirror indicating the distance travelled. But there is the counterfactual of other cars traveling in fifth gear and overtaking us.

Higher growth in the 1980s changed that. The 1991 reforms changed that. Developments since 2014 have changed that. The covid pandemic provided an additional trigger. Government, Union and State policies have been liberalized and entrepreneurship has responded positively. The world sat up and took notice. India’s invitation to the global high table is one aspect of this. A multitude of dashboards and figures reinforce the point, as does the game of soft power. Equally palpable and tangible, though less quantifiable, is what the Indian student or overseas traveler faces today. As students, we were perpetually on the defensive, bracketed and hyphenated with Pakistan. There was a lot to defend and the pride had to be swallowed. Not anymore. A generation that grew up after 1991, or was born after 1991, no longer has a colonial chip on its shoulder. It is a generation, from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh and from Kashmir to Kerala, that is proud to be Indian and what India represents. Often a joke about the Indian economy circulates: the Indian economy is one with a glorious past and a magnificent future; it is the present alone that is dark. This is no longer the case, for the promise of the future has merged into the present and potential energy is transformed into its kinetic form.

The 75th anniversary of India’s independence is an opportunity to take stock and set the pattern for the next 25 years of an “Amrit Kaal” (an auspicious phase). Traditionally, 75 is when you go on a vanaprastha, to retire to the forest. the symbolism here is that of the old mindset going on vanaprastha, as the torch passes to a new generation of indians. Tautologically, its potential is always above the actual state. Every country is behind this border, but India’s gap is narrowing.

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

Elsewhere mint

Long Story reveals how expensive and rare orchids smuggled out of India. In Opinion, Nitin Pai draws nation-building Bollywood song lessons. Bibek Debroy writes about India The modernity of Amrit Kaal. Ed did India’s Crypto Winter colder, argues Andy Mukherjee.

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