The Mag This Week

Actually, the title should say “The Mag last week”, because these are last Sunday’s links but on that day, I was too busy heading out on an impromptu holiday. But better late than never. Here’s what was in last week’s Books page:

  • A review of Classic Ruskin Bond: Volume 2 (the autobiographical writings), reviewed by Mita Ghose who loved it despite not being a, erm, Bond girl,
  • Pramod K. Nayar wasn’t much impressed by Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon.
  • I chatted with Shankkar Aiyar, whose book Accidental India seeks to prove that pretty much all the development that has happened in this country happened as a result of (as Bombaywallahs put it) luck by chance.

The unedited text of the interview with Shankkar Aiyar is here:

Deepanjana Pal: You’ve said that the idea of writing this book came to you when you reported the story of the emergency gold lift in 1991. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got the story and why it felt significant enough to warrant the kind of effort that goes into writing a book?

Shankkar Aiyar: More specifically, it’s located in an eight-column front-page national scoop that brought home to Indians, and the world, the magnitude of our country’s acute economic crisis of that time, in 1991. As I watched the cargo aircraft being secretly loaded with the nation’s gold reserves to be pledged and as I did the follow-up stories I wondered if this was the best we could do – not resolve issues pro-actively but await a crisis to pledge what almost all Indians revere as uber-Lakshmi. These concerns stayed with me as I reported, analysed and commented on the political economy. I noted it was a fascinating — but a deeply dangerous – pattern. Hence ‘Accidental India’.

DP: How long did it take to research and write Accidental India? Was it a daunting prospect?

SA: I’ve been a 24/7 journalist for 27 years before I took a well-deserved sabbatical to write the book, so that’s roughly the observation-time. Add a little over 13 months for intensive research and writing, which was enjoyably immersive. Then the time taken on the factual cross-checking, the crossing of T’s and dotting of I’s which is the production process and its own challenge because by that time you don’t really want to see your own 1,18,000 words for the nth time yet again! Perhaps the scale of the ambition could have been daunting but since I dived headlong into India’s politico-economic history to research and write, it was pure pleasure.

DP: Did you find your experience in journalism helped? 

SA: My 29 years in journalism have helped in interrogating history, in understanding issues and in analysing the complexities of India. Since I have been paying particular attention to the interface of politics and economics, I have been aware that the need to communicate these complexities to readers must neither be simplified nor dumbed-down.

DP: Did you have any writer or book in mind as a model while writing Accidental India? Were you concerned at any point that the book wouldn’t seem interesting to a reader?

SA: Accidental India is receiving enormous word-of-mouth support not only among academics but also working professionals, journalism students and, interestingly, young politicians in several states. The book is dotted with annotations, the arguments are backed by multiple validations of the premise and the analysis is cross-referenced. Which means that I did have to ensure that no reader get bogged down in any one of the seven crises in the book, after all this is an in-depth study of the political and economic history of modern India from 1947 to date. But no, I did not have an age-band in mind for the simple reason that as a non-fiction reader myself I appreciate the two crucial elements of a good book: it needs to stand the test of time, it needs to engage with its reader at the level the reader chooses.

DP: You’re not particularly impressed by many of Jawahrlal Nehru’s decisions. How serious a setback do you think his government was for India’s development? 

SA: Accidental India is more a compassionate critique of the process of governance that has brought our country to where it has, not so much of personalities. Jawaharlal Nehru nurtured the cause of a democratic country through its most difficult years. He was also an evangelist of modernity in building the abiding temples of science which he ensured. But now that I have analysed all the facts, and time provides the distance to do so dispassionately, it is evident that it was a blunder to opt for a closed economy. Pride and paranoia must not be allowed to overwhelm rational choice.

DP: Which regime has been the most beneficial?

SA: There have been leaders in every decade who have been enablers. Rajiv Gandhi popularised the idea of computerisation. Every decade has seen game changers for India, perhaps propelled by a regime but accelerated by crisis. Serendipitously, the country has progressed because of these seven game-changing accidents. For me, the two prime ministers who stand tall – despite their regimes, I might add – are Lal Bahadur Shastri and Atal Bihari Vajpayee because of their intuitive comprehension of the complexities of the political economy. Shastri resurrected national pride and put food security on par with national security. He enabled the green revolution and the mil revolution. Vajpayee connected Bharat with India through roads and telecom connectivity.

DP: There are a number of less-familiar names that emerge as heroes in Accidental India while more famous names are criticised. We don’t usually have a very receptive attitude to criticism. How concerned were you that your analysis would be misconstrued or considered disrespectful?

SA: The real heroes of India are mostly the largely unsung ones. Every game changer has arrived amidst institutional failure and individual courage. Accidental India is as much a tribute to the courage of these individuals who ensured that India was not left in a lurch by its politics. If this means busting many myths, leaving politicians red-faced, so be it.
For instance Accidental India’ proves that the liberalisation of 1991 was not a voluntary decision. The dismantling of the licence raj was compelled by circumstance and propelled by crisis. It is commonly – and incorrectly — believed that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is the architect of reforms. Truth is India was forced to pledge its gold reserves, approach the IMF for a bailout and the blueprint of reforms was based on the 25 conditions stipulated by the lenders. And it was Prime Minister Narasimha Rao who bit the bullet. Accidental India lists the men who paved the way as enablers even before the World Bank came into the picture. This is how it needs to be; good people must be acknowledged so that more good people stand up and be counted.

DP: One of the arcs that emerges in your book is a sharpening disconnect between politicians
and the public.

SA: Let’s look at the evolution of politics — from a mission at the dawn of Independence to a profession in the ‘70s to family-owned businesses today. Political parties no longer feel the need to represent national opinion or interests as it is much more profitable – electorally – to represent sectional interests that deliver votes. In the competitive race downhill for narrow self-interests, political parties have subjugated the larger national interest. Every major – and increasingly, even minor — problem is being viewed through the prism of electoral dividend. There is no dearth of solutions but there is a systemic paralysis. And when every problem has to wait till it is an unavoidable crisis that must be resolved it is but natural for people to start losing faith in institutions. Meanwhile there is a deepening law and order crisis as misguided victims and villains take the law into their own hands. It’s interesting to me as an observer of politico-economic history – but disturbing as an Indian – that our country’s national and regional leaders have brought us to what is clearly frightening for our younger generation of citizens – this age of enormous civil fear and social unrest. This is perhaps where the United States was in the 1900s, what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age. The political class there recognised the dangers and recovered ground through a series of political reforms and restructuring of government. I believe the Indian political class is awake but is yet to act.

DP: You say in your epilogue, “Delhi must delegate powers to the states and the states themselves must empower local self-governments.” Would you say the country is ready to take on such responsibilities, considering the numerous examples of mismanagement at the state level by numerous chief ministers, the many separatist movements that riddle large tracts of the country and at a very local level, the regressive ideologies of bodies like khap panchayat?

SA: For effective democracy power must be decentralised, shared with elected bodies in the pyramid of governance and that policy-making must have the participation of the people. The argument is not about national parties vis a vis regional parties. A one-size-fits-all approach is what has derailed the process development. At all times the reins of power must be with elected bodies accountable to the people. The khaap panchayats and similar outfits — that seek to hijack individual rights with muscle power that dot the landscape — represent the failure of the rule of law fuelled by politically funded electoral enterprises set up by
almost every party. These bodies are being and must be kept in check by the democratic citizenry. Diversity is a great strength and must be nurtured. Every attack on any group is an attack on the idea of India. It is important for people to recognise that democracy is a 24×7 system where they have obligations too, not just rights. There is a price to be paid for democracy, that price is our involvement which needs to go beyond merely dropping a vote in a box.

DP: Is there a silver lining, because it seems like it’s all going to hell?

SA: In India it does seem that things must get worse for them to get better. The crux is located in the nature of politics and the practice of democracy. The problem is Indians are overinvested in promises and underinvested in performance. We need to make governments transparent and political parties accountable. I am optimistic that this will happen. India has defied odds at every turn of history.

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