A mixed bag of essays, some dry, but some certainly thought-provoking.
“Oh dear” is the immediate response when you are asked to review yet another anthology of essays on 70 years of independent India. The sense of dread grows as one goes through the contents page and one sees the usual heavyweight domain experts writing on, well, domains they are experts in — from health and education to external affairs to tax policy. But read one must and as one does, one realises that a book should not be judged by its title (quite an uninspiring one) or the contents page. Why would a reader get drawn to an essay titled “Jobs in India” or “India-ASEAN relations at Seventy” or “Challenges Facing Higher Education in India”… you get the picture.
So, it is natural to get drawn to one which provocatively asks “Will India Ever Be a Great Power?” That seems a rather sacrilegious question to ask in these “mera Bharat mahaan” (my India is great) times. Author Sumit Ganguly takes stock of India’s quest for this status, right from the time of Jawaharlal Nehru and notes the country’s innate potential for greatness. But, he is equally frank about what holds India back — institutional challenges and limits. Pointing out that institutional reforms and policy shifts have only come in response to shocks, he comes to a very sobering conclusion: “given this record… it is tempting to conclude that the likelihood that India will achieve that status remains quite uncertain.”
In fact, this lack of a self-congratulatory tone marks the 24 essays on public policy and institutions in this volume, though the editors — former comptroller and auditor general Vinod Rai and economist Amitendu Palit — point out that hope reverberates through each of them. They are thoughtful and clear-headed and when they do strike a note of despair, they provide solutions. Of course, it is not possible to agree with all the solutions — for example, A K Shiva Kumar’s suggestion to do away with user charges of any kind for use of healthcare services — but they do provide something to mull over.
There’s a wealth of information in many of the essays. One example is Pronab Sen’s article, “The Rise and Fall of Indian Planning”. Whether or not one agrees with him that NITI Aayog’s strategy paper is really bringing back planning in any another name and that “this is a good thing”, this essay is a must read for its succinct account of each of the 12 five-year plans. Sen argues that it is wrong to treat India’s development strategy as “an undifferentiated continuum, with little substantive variation from plan to plan”. Each plan, he says, was a response to the challenges of the period it dealt with.
Former Reserve Bank of India governor D Subbarao’s piece deals with the pluses and minuses of globalisation. He draws a distinction between volatility caused by trade liberalisation and by financial liberalisation — the first can take “a formidable toll” but the latter “can be even more unforgiving”. He also highlights the intransigence of the advanced economies to address the issue of spillover of their central bank actions on emerging markets. Fortunately, his conclusion is not about withdrawing from globalisation, but about maximising the benefit-cost ratio with the right kind of policies.
Three of the hot button topics these days — jobs, caste and elections — figure in the essays. Palit’s incisive essay on employment deals with the issue of automation and points out that it will affect not only low-skill, manual, blue-collar jobs but also those that require more sophisticated skills. India, he also says, is not alone in facing a challenge on the jobs front, but the complex implications of a jobs deficit and the socio-economic divisions that wrong policies can lead to, are unique to it. Having a chapter each on skill development and higher education, both with implications for the job market, is a good idea. The one on skill development suggests a new model framework for skill development and a five-point reform programme.
It is interesting, given all the debate that is going on about caste equations in politics, that sociologist Dipankar Gupta questions this, as he has done in his columns. Caste-based voting is a myth, he says, and gives numbers to back this up. And, contrary to the usual narrative, there is no natural affinity between different communities. “The tie that binds identities together in a political alliance is notoriously fickle; the moment the context changes so do friendships”. The KHAM and AJGAR alliances, he points out, didn’t last because they were vehicles of convenience and not because of like-minded views. But the question lingers in one’s mind — if that is the case, do political parties not know this, and why do they still persist with this strategy?
Setting out electoral reforms over the years, former chief election commissioner S Y Quraishi makes a strong defence of electronic voting machines, which are coming under attack. They have, he says, “withstood judicial, administrative and technical scrutiny” and are increasingly catching the attention of election management agencies around the world. He talks about the various ways in which the Election Commission of India has used technology to chisel the art and craft of election management. He is a bit wary of the proposal for state funding of elections; it might, he says, result in a double jeopardy of honest taxpayers’ money as well as black money being used. What he suggests is state funding of political parties based on the number of votes polled by them. But, why that will help eliminate black money, is not clear.
Not all essays are thought-provoking; some are quite dry. But it’s an interesting mix and the editors are right when they write in the introduction that what comes through in them is that “resilience is that has seen India through till now and hope is what will take it forward.”