My generation of Indians has often been disappointed in our country, and we have sometimes despaired about the direction it was taking, but it’s been impossible for us to stop hoping.
Our own past has trained us to see the silver lining.
Opportunities we couldn’t imagine growing up in the 1970s and ’80s emerged from nowhere and changed our lives, and many of us believe history will keep repeating, with the pain of the pandemic shocking the economy out of its pre-Covid inertia.
So it breaks my heart to have to suggest to today’s rising generation that this crisis is different than others we have weathered, that the walls are closing in again, and the opportunity set for India is shrinking, perhaps for a very long time. The national dream of emulating China’s rapid growth is receding – by some economic yardsticks, we can’t even keep up with Bangladesh.
A disturbing arbitrariness has crept into policymaking, institutions have decayed and the economy’s structural deficiencies have worsened. Animal spirits have been sucked out of all but a handful of firms. Zombie business groups are perched atop the debris of debt-fuelled expansion, waiting for politicians to signal what role they still have, if any. The defeatist slogan of self-reliance, which blighted our parents’ generation, is back. Politicians are using religious discord and caste conflicts to drive a wedge in the society.
To make matters worse, India has handled the coronavirus pandemic with the same inept authoritarianism that’s come to define its approach in all spheres, economic, political and social. With more than 9 million infections, India is the second-worst affected country after the United States. The economy slipped into an unprecedented recession last quarter.
The post-lockdown economy will simply not have enough demand to consume what can be produced. There’s some attempt to reform the supply side – labour and farm markets, in particular. But not much is being done to revive demand, either in the short or the long run. Some of us are wondering if this callousness will cause India’s demographic dividend – two out of three Indians are still in the magic age group of 15 to 64 years – to go unclaimed.
Yes, there’s time. If India stops turning inward and embraces an open, transparent partnership with global investors, hundreds of millions more would get a shot at prosperity. A stagnant world economy could tap a new source of future demand. The West might win a strong and reliable security partner in Asia. The ’90s optimism will renew itself. But if India remains stuck in a middle-income trap, people will soon stop asking if it could be the next China. My generation already has.
A previous generation of Indians also knew violent change. My parents went from being British subjects to citizens of an independent republic. They carried the trauma of partition and lived through four post-World War II armed conflicts, one with China, three with Pakistan.
They recoiled in horror when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – the child of the great democrat and freedom hero Jawaharlal Nehru – suspended democracy for two years in the mid-1970s.
Amid this turmoil, they underestimated the shadow on their lives of the mid-’60s economic crisis, when after a bad drought, India devalued the rupee by 37% because that was the World Bank’s condition for assistance.
The promised funds didn’t arrive in full. Indira Gandhi, too new to power to be in control, took a sharp pro-Moscow turn and rejected the capitalist path that South Korea, almost as poor as India back then, was choosing for itself. She raised tariffs, nationalized the banks, but failed to democratize credit. The government bloated up; small firms remained stunted.
The “developmental enthusiasm” of Nehru’s idealistic socialism gave way to political expediency and policy incoherence. The post-colonial dream of rapid industrialization faded. India remained agrarian and poor, led by a tiny English-educated urban elite. At the top of the order were bureaucrats with the power to say “no” to any expansion in the private sector. The economy’s speed limit was 3.5%, pejoratively described by scholars as the “Hindu rate of growth.”
To those of us whose families neither owned rural land nor had secure urban jobs, life was about making the most of a heavily state-subsidized education. Very few experienced upward mobility, and often only when the U.S. or U.K. embassy stamped their passports. The friends and family who came to see off the newly minted doctor or engineer at the airport went back to their unchanging lives.
All this ended when Manmohan Singh, the economist who became finance minister in 1991, devalued the currency to stanch the bleeding of foreign reserves, made the rupee convertible for trade, dismantled industrial licensing and began slashing import duties.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, our politicians ran out of their anti-imperialist excuses. India engaged with a victorious West, my elder brother got a job in New Delhi with AT&T Corp., and he brought home a shiny red push-button telephone.
A hook-up from the state phone company still took years, so we borrowed the neighbour’s line. But there was no time to brood over what we lacked – or what our parents had lost to autarky and state planning. Somehow we knew that our shortages were ending, and our choices were expanding. India’s ruling elite had run out of options for self-preservation. It had to open the doors to a better life to more of us. There was work to do.
Fledgling software firms got down to it with the help of a colourful lobbyist. Dewang Mehta sported a luxuriant crop of hair – it was a wig – and went around selling a puffed-up story to global corporations that their computers were going to crash at midnight on the new millennium because of the Y2K bug. Outsourcing of code-writing, at a fraction of what it cost in the West, began in earnest. Jobs were created in telecom, media, technology, finance and newly denationalized aviation industries; the median home-buying age began to fall. Global carmakers came to India, inspired by the popularity of a small hatchback, the Maruti 800, made locally by Suzuki Motor Corp.
China’s example beckoned. After the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Beijing wouldn’t brook political freedoms, but the economic reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping were deemed irreversible and foreign investors were mostly welcomed. The economy took off. China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and grew at 10%-plus rates for 20 years.
It was never going to be easy for India to emulate its neighbour, whose single-party state struck a bargain with foreign investors, while discriminating against its own business class. Such stratagems weren’t possible in India’s noisy, federal democracy. Politicians couldn’t ignore local businesses that gave them money to fight elections. So India cleaned up the stock market and opened it to overseas investors. This made sense. Unlike China, which was saving more than half of its national income before the 2008 global financial crisis, India lacked the capital to sustain a liberalising economy through messy cycles of coalition politics, let alone to build the roads, power plants and other basics of missing infrastructure.
So we put our faith in institutions. Our heritage of English common law, independent courts and regulators held the promise of fairness and protection for all stakeholders, and we thought these would get stronger over time. The state, we hoped, would shrink as an economic player, and become a more robust referee. Governance would improve, endemic corruption would recede. The anonymity fostered by urbanization would smash the regressive caste system. We liked it when scholars such as Yasheng Huang, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, said that India could overtake China.
To me and many of my generation, Manmohan Singh was a saviour, someone who carried the scars of partition and had known poverty as a child. He was one of us. Our disillusionment with him was 20 years in the future.
The 1990s reforms in India began with trade and investment liberalisation. Tougher “second generation” reforms in markets for land, labour, capital, energy and goods were to follow.
However, myriad interest groups captured the weak coalition governments that became a norm after 1996. Even as India’s openness grew, the larger project of boosting competitiveness kept getting shelved. Internal markets continued to malfunction.
An additional problem arose: Now that the government was retreating from being a producer, it had to give land, energy and commodity rights, wireless spectrum and other concessions to the private sector and procure – on behalf of the public – electricity, roads, ports, telecom services and jobs. The opportunities for corruption swelled, and a nexus of businesses, politicians and criminals coalesced to exploit them.
By 2004, the once-dominant Congress Party’s Manmohan Singh was prime minister, leading yet another ragtag coalition. He returned to power in 2009, but the triumph of his victory didn’t endure. With the world economy entering its post-2008 funk, India’s unreformed markets, political opportunism, fiscal profligacy and the private sector’s unregulated greed overwhelmed Singh’s second term.
Around 2010, I was heading up editorial operations for a business TV station in Mumbai. That’s when, surrounded by the nouveau riche (my toddler’s return gift from his host at a birthday party was an iPod), I began to notice cracks in the enterprising spirit of the ’90s. Peeking from those gaps was a business class seeking riches in private rents. Praful Patel, the then-aviation minister, gave me an interview at the newly modernized Delhi airport, which was going to replace the shambolic terminal that used to frustrate and embarrass us. The private consortium that had won the 60-year management contract wangled a passenger fee to cover a big part of the cost of the upgrade – after snagging the project. “This important condition should have been known upfront to all the bidders at the time of bidding,” the government’s auditor noted.
Public-private partnerships of all hues proved problematic. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous Indian state, made a special zone for alcohol distribution and gave it to an Armani suit-wearing businessman named Ponty Chadha, who on a November day in 2012, went to his farmhouse on the outskirts of New Delhi with his security detail. His brother arrived with his own henchmen. The two sides were there to sort out a property dispute. Before long, they were shooting at each other. Both brothers ended up dead.
The vulgarity of crony capitalism became a lightning rod for mass mobilization. An “India Against Corruption” movement fed a frenzy of disgust against crooked politicians and businessmen who were usurping farmers’ land, promising to create jobs and then not delivering. But most crucially, people’s anger was aimed at the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty. Even as Singh nominally ran the government, Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law, the Italian-born Sonia, and her son Rahul wielded real power, as Singh’s former media adviser Sanjaya Baru claimed in “The Accidental Prime Minister.”
Scandals surfaced and metastasized. In 2012, the Supreme Court cancelled 122 telecom licenses. The government’s auditor said that the granting of those licenses had cost the country $23 billion. This debacle was soon dwarfed by what the auditor said was a $42 billion scam in allocating coal mines to private firms. Those were also scrapped.
Wounded and cornered, Singh’s government lashed out. It began to hound long-term investors like Vodafone Group Plc for outsized tax liabilities, charged retrospectively. It passed a law that made it prohibitively expensive for private businesses to acquire land. None of this helped politically. Singh’s failures, meanwhile, were helping to make Narendra Modi, a leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and chief minister of Gujarat, look good. Although his stint there had begun with huge Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002, Gujarat’s economy grew 10% annually through the first decade of the millennium, faster than the rest of the country.
As the 2014 general election approached, many voters thought that only muscular leadership could end India’s economic paralysis and social stasis. Even those of us who found Modi’s Hindu right-wing politics abhorrent thought his development record as an administrator had earned him a place in federal politics. In our impatience for growth, we ignored the warnings of scholars such as Indira Hirway that Modi’s capital-intensive “Gujarat model” was built on generous subsidies to businesses, and that the state was slipping in poverty reduction, human development and hunger removal. I wrote that Modi could be like Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a leader who would suppress his nationalist instincts, and use his popularity to drive hard economic reforms.
PM Modi’s “permanent revolution”
PM Modi came to power promising business-friendly policies and an end to “tax terror.” But when he tried to undo the previous government’s land acquisition law, the opposition attacked him for being anti-farmer. PM Modi had to drop the plan.
Vodafone’s troubles in India didn’t end. In fact, harassment by tax authorities intensified. “Sab chor hain,” Hindi for “Everyone’s a thief,” became the state’s informal motto for dealing with the private sector.
Then, in November 2016, PM Modi performed a high-voltage stunt: He outlawed 86% of the country’s cash, presumably to unearth illicit wealth. People queued up for days to return their worthless notes. New currency was in short supply. Small businesses in my hometown – a shoe-making hub – couldn’t pay workers. Women-run micro enterprises on the outskirts of Mumbai later told me that their going rate for weaving golden threads into a sari crashed to ₹ 4,000 from ₹ 7,000.
Ultimately, demonetisation was a fruitless exercise. Most of the outlawed money came back to banks, but the pain PM Modi inflicted on society helped launch his cult. As Arvind Subramanian, then PM Modi’s chief economic adviser, would argue later in a book, sacrifice, “as a necessary condition for achieving a larger, loftier objective,” resonated with the population because it harked backed to Mahatma Gandhi’s strategies during India’s freedom struggle. That elevation of PM Modi in the public consciousness was a turning point in the citizen-state relationship. Unquestioning devotion was in; critical examination was out. Gone was the pre-poll promise of “minimum government, maximum governance.” The dirigisme of the ’60s and ’70s was back. “We are now entering the politics of ‘permanent revolution’,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political scientist and commentator, presciently warned after PM Modi’s currency ban.
Since then, the government’s whimsical decision-making has intensified. Don’t like what a consumption survey shows? Suppress it. Getting flak for a slowing economy? Publish unbelievably rosy GDP data. Think Covid could get out of control? Impose a nationwide lockdown on four-hours notice.
“Sab chor hain” now defines most interactions. Homebuyers don’t trust builders to deliver homes; financiers don’t trust property developers to repay loans. The government doesn’t trust either the builder or the lender. Nobody trusts politicians, though PM Modi, like all strongmen leaders, can elicit any response he wants from the public. During the coronavirus lockdown he asked Indians to light candles, go on the terrace and bang utensils. They did, as told.
True, some bottlenecks have eased. After failing to double in size in the four decades before 1991, the national highway network has quadrupled since then. From less than 65,000 megawatts in 1990, power generation capacity has surged to almost 375,000 megawatts. Half of it is in the private sector. A further doubling by 2030, without setting up any more polluting coal-fired plants, is possible, thanks to investor interest in solar and wind power.
But therein lies a problem, a variation of the old resource crunch. A large section of the capitalists to whom a cash-strapped government outsourced roads, ports, airports, power stations and mobile towers is bankrupt.
( Courtesy: Bloomberg )