It’s undeniable that India has made immense progress since Manmohan Singh and his team loosened economic fetters in 1991. Those who would sneer at the fiscal and financial achievements of the 1990s need only to ask themselves a few questions: What if Dr Singh hadn’t shook things up? Where would the jobs, development and tax revenues come from to fund today’s NREGAS and NRHMS? Without booming Bengaluru and Cyberabad, where would India deploy its considerable entrepreneurial and software talent?
Conspicuous consumer imports aside, how would a ring-fenced Indian economy develop without goods and best practices from abroad?
Exercises in ‘what if’ are speculative at best, but there are no satisfactory answers to these queries that don’t involve blind faith or ideology.
Rationalists have little doubt that the path taken in 1991 was the best available at the time and the benefits have been obvious. Yet cogent critiques of economic change are spot-on when they ask why so many have been left out of India Inc’s joyride into globalisation’s comfort zone.
That the inhabitants of that bubble led the outcry against Slumdog Millionaire and The White Tiger is telling.
A film and a book riled the guardians of India’s sacred image. Evidently, they took umbrage at depictions of poverty, exclusion and alienation.
Lost in the hollow thunder were the concerns of what the liars of the George W. Bush administration used to call the “reality-based world”.
In that sphere, hundreds of millions of real men, women and families face challenging lives. They struggle each day to make the income they need to live, and beyond that to plan a future for children.
At the lower echelons—the broad base of the pyramid that is socio-economic India—they leave their homes, their states, and roam this vast land in search of opportunity. They work for day wages; unloading trucks, picking crops, rolling beedis and other paid pursuits that are little more than poverty maintenance.
Yet they still strive to better their lot, to realise some version of the Indian dream. This is a nation of strivers, of immense energy and boundless belief in the need to improve things. This is the magic formula that has developed the middle class in contemporary India, not mysticism or a penchant for computer code.
This is the dynamism that unleashed hidden energies and loosened the once restraining hands of government, culture or orthodoxy. Any and all depictions of that struggle, especially if they offend the bubble-dwellers, are welcome.
For India’s next decades bring with them no guarantee of success or superpower status without sustained efforts to narrow the base of the national pyramid and close the vast inequitable gaps in income and opportunity.
The economic changes of 1991 were the first drops in a gapingly empty bucket. The wealth creation and growth of ensuing decades has moistened the sides and raised hopes of a wellspring of development.
Realising that hope will be a national project akin to the glorious freedom struggle that founded India and sustained it in the earlier decades. The alliance of Indians that bested the Brits needs to find a modern avatar and take on the challenges of poverty and exclusion.
Business, farmers, politicians, bureaucrats, artists, activists, students, workers, Dalits, Muslims, rural women, Maoists and the Hindutva crowd: all must join this particular Salt March.
Whether a charismatic figure leads the way, or people merely assert the rights of all citizens to social and economic justice is immaterial. The media age requires fewer Mahatmas and empowers its crowds with viral networking of ideas.
The acid test of India’s future greatness is coming, and it has little or nothing to do with nuclear submarines, export-led knowledge sector growth and permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
It lies in honest efforts, on a gargantuan scale, to inflate the bubble of middle and upper class life so there’s room for all. A thousand-fold increase in NREGA, building infrastructure worthy of a superpower, using Indian ingenuity at home to forge a broadly inclusive age of education, social services, job opportunities and prosperity.
That’s my definition of a superpower.
(The author is a Canada-born writer and broadcaster who has reported extensively on South Asia.)