Book Review: Non-fiction/ An Agenda for India's Growth: Essays in Honour of P. Chidambaram bySameer Kochhar(Edited), Academic Foundation/SKOCH Group, 267 pp; Rs1095 (Hardback)
The year 1991 brought reforms at the center-stage of India’s economy. Then it routed more as compulsion than a policy choice, for immediate handling of the grave balance-of-payment crisis and other sagging economic fundamentals of that uncertain era. But in further course, it shaped up in delicate natural progression and that with overarching effects on India’s macroeconomic scenario.
There were five catalysts in action for making it happen. In political circles, one of the most notable advocates of that epoch-making change was P Chidambaram (then the Union Commerce Minister). His advocacy was next only to the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh.
Two others in the core policy team—C Rangarajan and Montek Singh Ahulwalia— equally championed the cause through making economic planning truly forward-looking and compatible with the demand of new condition, which India did configured recently.
The book under review is a compilation of 14 essays by accomplished experts of their respective spheres. They recall the reform saga with honouring the contribution made by Chidambaram behind those historic shifts in policy outlook. Even the bitterest critics of economic reforms — and who have little to offer by way of a workable model for growth with equity—feel not shy in acknowledging this man’s success in changing the course of Indian economy.
In recent times, Indian leaders have been steadfast in their belief that economic freedom is linked not just to higher growth and incomes, but has greater bearing on socioeconomic empowerment and good governance. The wind of change came with few young leaders in the 1980swho thought beyond the over-formalism in vogue then. Chidambaram was one among them.
An eloquent advocate of economic freedom, he spearheaded the reform processes by clearing the fog of implementation on many crucial junctures.From bringing reforms in the UPSC, drafting the revolutionary trade policy document that liberalised India’s export and import policy, presenting the ‘Dream Budget’ in United Front government, steering the Indian economy clear of the impact the global financial crisis generated, solving internal security gaps post 26/11 and now in commanding the difficult task of keeping the economy growth-oriented: in all these tasks, he remained unrelentingly tireless as a policymaker.
The essays of this volume and a thorough introduction by the editor are written with higher expertise, and not in flat polemical order. They cover with meticulous analyses a wide-range of issues: fiscal and monetary policies, strengthening financial inclusion, revitalising agriculture, buoying stock markets, policy on natural resources, external trade reforms, urban infrastructure renewal and security aspects to growth. Moreover, they forward a growth-oriented, inclusive agenda for the country's future leaderships.
Through their anecdotal accounts of the reform story, C. Rangarajan and Montek Singh Ahluwalia try to recast and reorient the challenges and opportunities the whole architecture of economic reforms presents. They also recollect the memories of working with P Chidambaram in various capacities at different times.Their narratives are naturally significant on the delineated theme.
On the other side, essays of Vijay L. Kelkar, M. Govinda Rao,Parthasarathi Shome, N.K. Singh U.K. Sinha,Duvvuri Subbarao, Y.S.P. Thorat,Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Tarun Das and Ashok Jha streamline the memories of the initial days of reforms to the challenges country is facing today on multiple fronts. However, they all articulate their emphatic impression and opinion about P Chidambaram of being a firm and steady hand in government.
This festschrift has two other remarkable pieces.Sameer Kochhar’s Banking for the Last Mile and his jointly written piece with a strategic expert Gursharan Dhanjal,Security: What Chidambaram Changed,expand the opinionated horizons of the book.
In Individual capacity and through Skoch Group, Kochhar is known for his formidable works to make India—socially, financially and digitally inclusive. His earlier piece affirms it, while second one touches the status of internal security through sharp insights—with taking into account the precedents and what had changed since Chidambaram took charge of Home Ministry after the terror attack in Mumbai in 2008.
The book is about India’s good and odd experiences surfaced since 1991—that year, a generation of change agents in Indian Parliament had seen the merit in French romantic poet, Victor Hugo’s visionary line: “A day will come when there will be no battlefields, but markets opening to commerce and minds opening to ideas”. They reckoned it and given greater legitimacy to Manmohan Singh, when he finally pronounced that: “No one can resist an idea (that was the beginning of reform) whose time has come”.
Later the economic goals were squinted and found a less-travelled path to follow-on. With all hues and cries in its opposition—economic reforms succeeded in India. It is true—its outcomes are not reciprocating the resurgent needs at absolute level—but few can doubt that the New Economic Policies have given an unprecedented confidence to the Indian economy. Nevertheless, much is required to be done, where the growth and equity can actively transcends each other—the book has overt concentration on this.
It is a complex phase of history, where the ideological shackles, built in 18th century alone wouldn’t work for solving the issues of present time. India especially is a unique case with civilisational status but young as a nation—so, our policies should see the merit of both the prominent economic models: Socialism and Capitalism. Embracing good spirits from all the camps, will give nation a hope, hitherto never seen in recent decades.
This book is a rattling good read and infuses new energy with lots of inspiring tales, which can make the ground of policymaking much more enthused and accountable. The spectre of gloom cannot fix India’s growth story, until the command of economy is in hands of duty bound intelligent leader.
The world should see the ‘writings on wall’ that is favouring India’s medium and long term prospects—even in the short phase, this appears not less promising than the saturated terrains of developed world and other instable developing economies, from different subcontinents!
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in Rising Kashmir,on 15July2013)