India’s Economy: a Tale of Two Ideas

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The country’s economy was thrown open as an ‘idea whose time has come’ but justice still eludes millions

Many Indians got carried away by the Union Budget of 1991-92. My own experience was rather literal. On 24 July that year, I was at the BSE’s Jeejeebhoy Towers on Dalal Street, a curious collegian squashed for breath in a crush of people roaring away to the glory of goodness. Dr Manmohan Singh had just flung India’s economy open. About a dozen steps up a staircase, I was flung too—off a railing by a rowdy surge of euphoria, landing on rapturous heads and shoulders, only to be carted along a few yards before my feet could find firm ground again. Nobody noticed.

It was India’s own colour-of-the-cat moment, a decisive turn towards the Market to get the economy going. “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come,” Singh had declared, quoting Victor Hugo. This French Romantic’s actual words, ‘On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées’—‘One resists the invasion of armies; one doesn’t resist the invasion of ideas’—appear in an 1852 book against an elected leader’s grab for a monarch’s crown, Histoire d’un Crime, which he wrote just a few years after his rousing prophecy that “a day will come when there will be no battlefields, but markets open to commerce and minds open to ideas” at a peace congress in Paris. If Hugo was familiar in 1991, it was as the author of Les Misérables, a book few had read but enough recognised as a cry on behalf of the poor against injustice. And India’s Goal No 1, one assumed, was still the same: to rid the country of poverty. Only, faster. Thanks to a sizzling economy.

Victor Hugo’s cry has been given an interesting musical turn by Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning movie, but India’s economy seems way too sullen to be reminded of any idea whose time has come, gone, or got warped. The Market has let the poor down, say its critics; it was never given much of a chance anyway, argue its fans. This gap in opinion has widened vastly since the economy’s slump. Budget after budget has been about the ratio of voter handouts to GDP boosters, not about the gestalt effect of Market-led economic expansion on poverty. Does this year’s budget go the gestalt way? Does it do the cause greater good as a whole than as a sum of its constituent parts?

Finance Minister Chidambaram may have tried. After all, like Manmohan Singh, he is a Market man by instinct. Alas, maybe it isn’t good enough. Maybe it’s time to admit that India’s have-nots have been dealt a raw deal by the Market. For this idea to work its wonders, perhaps the arrival of another idea needs to be hastened, an idea—nay, truth—whose time ought to have come a long time ago: human equality.