IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality was launched with great success at the British Council in Delhi earlier this week and is now on sale. India Today has put up on the internet a copy of a five-page spread that appeared in the magazine last weekend – here’s a report and excerpts:
‘The Inheritance of Loss – John Elliott describes Congress descent into chaos’ by Sharla Bazliel
“John Elliott is an old India hand who belongs to that delightful breed of Englishmen for whom India became home without any obvious forethought or design. “I didn’t stay, I just never left. There is a difference,” Elliott is quick to emphasise…
“Much like its subject itself, Implosion is a large, sprawling book, an excellent primer of sorts for anyone interested in learning why India has come to this impasse. Elliott goes to great lengths to examine how and why the nation has squandered its massive potential and fallen prey to greed, wastage and arrogant displays of wealth.
“Implosion is a refreshingly clear-eyed look at a society ridden by corruption and made ineffectual by an overwhelming dependence on the ‘national approach’ of jugaad and a chalta hai attitude. ‘I didn’t set out to write a negative book. It grew into one. India was a country which greatly appealed to me in the 1980s when I first came here. I once thought of it as a country that would only get better with time,’ Elliott says. But then it didn’t”
“We have got to get rid of the cobwebs,’ Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao told top officials on 21 June 1991, the day he formed his new Congress government. Go away to your office, he said to Manmohan Singh, and work out some details.
Thus was born, with a classic understatement, India’s biggest burst of economic liberalization that, over the past 25 years, has touched almost every corner of this vast country and affected the lives of virtually everyone in the billion plus population. Chalta hai had been pushed aside by a dire financial crisis, but none of the officials in Rao’s office that morning could have dreamed of the long-term effects of the measures they would be launching, and nor could he. They knew they were about to remove industrial, trade and financial controls that would help to solve the crisis by freeing up economic activity and generating international trade.
What happened, however, was far more dramatic. The moves they initiated gradually unleashed previously repressed entrepreneurial drive, skills and aspirations. This was accelerated by unpredictably rapid expansion of information technology and the internet, plus India’s growing involvement in international business and trade. Manmohan Singh was at the meeting because he was about to be named finance minister-he was sworn in later in the day with the rest of the cabinet…
The ‘M’ document
The 1991 reforms first appeared publicly on 11 July 1990 as an unsigned article headed ‘Towards a restructuring of industrial, trade & fiscal policies’ that was spread across a page and a half of the Financial Express newspaper. A note by the editor (A.M. Khusro) said that there had been ‘some controversy’ over a government policy paper that was being considered by a committee of secretaries, so the Express was publishing it ‘to generate a public debate on matters raised in the document’.
No one knew for sure who wrote the document, but Montek Singh Ahluwalia, one of India’s leading economic policy makers who now runs the Planning Commission as deputy chairman, has revealed to me that he was the author. Who leaked what was later dubbed the ‘M’ document-with the title page removed to hide its source-remains a mystery. Maybe it was Ahluwalia himself!
I tracked down the article because I was convinced that Manmohan Singh was not the architect of the reforms and had heard that Ahluwalia was said to have written something called ‘What’s left to be done’ at the end of Rajiv Gandhi’s 1984-89 government. I followed the trail till Ahluwalia told me in June 2013 about the ‘M’ document and admitted authorship, though he did not have a copy.
The Indian Express then searched its Chandigarh archives and later in the year found it and I passed a photostat to Ahluwalia, who said, ‘it takes me really down memory lane’. Ahluwalia confirmed that he initially wrote the ideas as an overview of ‘what needed to be done’ late in Gandhi’s government when he was an economic adviser in the prime minister’s office… The ideas were discussed by a high-level committee of secretaries (the top level of the civil service) and that became the Financial Express leak… Ahluwalia says that the paper was specially significant because it pulled together a comprehensive approach for tackling India’s economic problems and set out a five-year plan with firm objectives though it acknowledged it was bound to create more controversy.
Sonia and Rahul
Sonia Gandhi’s central political importance was demonstrated by the UPA government’s erratic behaviour while she was away ill…
Did the disarray while she was away develop because the government was missing her and her advisers’ sure touch, and had she developed a little-known sense of what needed to be done politically? Or were ministers and officials scared to make decisions that might arouse her (or Rahul’s) wrath later? Or was it because the Gandhi dynasty dominated government channels of authority and decision-making to such an extent that the cabinet and administration could not function without her? Whatever the answer-and maybe it was a mixture of all three-it certainly demonstrated how lost the government was without her.
Rahul played little part ……His appearances in parliament were rare, and he made only three important speeches and interventions in his ten years as an MP….
I noticed his lack of presence in an informal atmosphere one afternoon in August 2012 at Delhi’s Visual Arts gallery where he and Sonia Gandhi had gone (with impressively minimal security) to see works by Devangana Kumar, daughter of the Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar. Although she looked tired and unwell, Sonia had a presence, but what struck me most was how unimpressive Rahul looked on an occasion when he was not performing publicly.
He dutifully followed his mother around the exhibition but he showed scant curiosity while she asked questions about the socially significant works (photographs of servants of the British Raj reproduced as large prints on velvet). He did not have any of the presence and charisma that one would expect from a 42-year old leader.
This reticence made me wonder whether he could ever grow into the top role……..That Saturday afternoon, he looked as if he just wanted to fade away.”