It is usually easier to be pessimistic. The national mood at the moment in India is caught in the aftermath of assorted scams and corruption scandals, combined with a sense that the Manmohan Singh-led government, after nearly seven years in office, is growing stale. Last week’s non-event of a ministerial reshuffle only added to the sense that nothing was really getting better.
The strongest and most emotive cause of national unease is the current rate of inflation, and in particular the price of food. If you have little money and the price of onions and tomatoes goes up by a quarter, it becomes difficult even to eat. But it is of course not only the poor who care about rising food prices. Any middle-class household will have to cut back elsewhere if the weekly food bill rises sharply. Everyone notices such a problem and rightly blames the government.
It can sometimes feel as if the benefits of the economic reforms brought in two decades ago exist mainly in theory and do not impact on everyday life. The failure of national and state-level institutions to keep up with recent changes in Indian society is obvious. Speaking on a recent television debate, one politician, a Congress party stalwart, said that India needed to return to the values and practices of the 1970s.
But how good were things in those days, compared to now? Are we taking too rosy a view of the supposedly benign days of the past? Or are there reasons to feel nostalgic for that simpler time?
Looking at this question on an economic level, it seems not. In the last half-century of British rule in India, annual per capita GDP flatlined at a disastrous 0.1 %. During the Jawaharlal Nehru era — aided by substantial government investment, using accumulated capital — it rose to just over 2%. In the 1970s, before and after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, India’s annual per capita GDP grew at only 0.76%.
Much of the economic planning that was done at that time — when the Permit Raj was stagnating — depended on foreign assistance. The country was in the bizarre position of getting American food aid while denouncing American capitalist hegemony. Bureaucrats looked admiringly at South Korea and Japan, even while their bosses voiced their disapproval at the methods these countries were using to develop indigenous industries.
A businessman from Chennai who can remember this period described to me how his family company — TVS — had to work at that time. In order to make wheels and brakes for vehicles, they needed to import steel and copper. This meant getting an import licence, seeking permission from the Reserve Bank of India to release foreign exchange, getting the money released (not the same thing!) and obtaining clearance to manufacture. The company had to set up a very large office in Delhi simply to apply to the ministries for permits. As he said, “It was a black period in our history. We were ruled by the Director General of Technology Development.”
It was not only business people who suffered from this bizarre, centralised method of running an economy. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, 17 out of every 20 Indians lived on less than $2 per day. Many of the political storms that she weathered — and most notably the mass civil unrest that preceded the Emergency — had their roots in a prolonged economic failure.
In 2011, you still only have to walk down a street to find evidence of exclusion and poverty. But if you draw back and look at the trajectory of the Indian nation, there are good reasons to be optimistic. The disasters and inequalities are still present, but many millions can now aspire to financial security that their parents or grandparents could not have imagined.
Those who decry the nature of present-day India consistently fail to state what the alternative might be. Should the hundreds of millions who have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty since the 1980s return to the degradations of the past? What of the 20 million people each year who are starting to eat a second meal every day?
Often, when you point out the basic, unanswerable fact that India on the whole is getting richer, you receive a knee-jerk response that you are ignoring the extent of enduring penury that still afflicts around a quarter of India’s population.
It is an undeniable truth that many, many people have been left behind in the economic advances of the last two decades. But it is also true that countless others have advanced in terms of their material security. Men and women from utterly diverse rural and urban backgrounds have opportunities they would never have had in the past, and India has a rate of growth that is more than 10 times higher than it was in the 1970s.
Are the achievements of those who have moved on not worth commending, and viewing as a basis for optimism? Is the neglect of India’s poorest citizens by the State somehow the fault of those who have succeeded, and brought their families forward? Does anyone believe an advance on this epic scale could have happened without inequality of progress? You have to start somewhere.
Patrick French is the author of India: A Portrait. The views expressed by the author are personal