NARENDRA Modi will never read Backstage — the recently released memoirs of Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Its very sub-title will deter him: The story behind India’s high growth years — a period associated with Dr Manmohan Singh’s sure-handed stewardship. He will avoid its epilogue — an incisive critique of the Modi-led NDA’s flaccid economic policies since it came to power in 2014.
Montek Ahluwalia’s career oscillated between Washington and New Delhi. He joined the World Bank in 1968 as a ‘Young Professional’. He returned to serve his country as special secretary to the prime minister (1988–90); commerce secretary (1990–91); secretary economic affairs (1991–93); finance secretary (1993–98), member of the Economic Advisory Council to the prime minister (1998–2001). From 2001 to 2004, he worked at the IMF as director of its Independent Evaluation Office, and then back in India, as deputy chairman, Planning Commission, until his retirement in 2014.
Montek’s memoirs are not a ‘selfie in book form’. Unlike the recollections of some functionaries, his book is less about himself than about his country. It covers the significant contribution he made backstage to convert India’s ‘confused’ economy (a Russian’s mistranslation for India’s ‘mixed’ economy) into the engine of India’s growth in the 1990s.
Had Mrs Indira Gandhi not been assassinated in 1984, Montek might have worked for her. The sudden death of Sanjay made Rajiv her heir. Montek was asked to give Rajiv a crash course on India’s economy. Montek writes: “I formed a very positive impression from that first meeting. Rajiv listened attentively as we talked about how problems in infrastructure, especially in the power sector … and how we needed to pay much more attention to exports.”
The memoirs are not a ‘selfie in book form’.
Mrs Gandhi had already set into motion the Green Revolution which, in the 1960s, transformed India from a basket case into an agricultural cornucopia. Rajiv was keen on replicating that success in commerce and industry. After Mrs Gandhi’s assassination in January 1985, Rajiv was sworn in as prime minister. Montek joined his PMO within weeks.
Montek found Rajiv sober and cautious, like his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru. But, Rajiv found himself “soon surrounded by a coterie of the old guard, precisely the brokers of power he had attacked”. Rajiv’s vision of a ‘new India’ was hamstrung by his own inexperience and by the inertia that subcontinental underlings have perfected over millennia.
Enviously, India looked across the fence at China’s success under Deng Xiaoping to jump-start its economy. China’s inquisitiveness and India’s inhibitions led to “China being described as a closed society with an open mind, and India an open society with a closed mind”.
To Montek, the liberalisation of India’s import policy in 1991 was a moment of economic fission. His prescient views, endorsed by commerce minister Chidambaram, approved by finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh, were signed off by the then prime minister Narasimha Rao — all within eight hours of Montek crystallising his ideas into words!
Such occasional efficiencies could not obliterate the pain Montek suffered during innumerable inept meetings. At one, the railways minister Madhavrao Scindia briefed Rajiv Gandhi on an increase in passenger and freight charges. The prime minister asked for alternatives. “The Railways officials pulled out their electronic calculators to work out the implications for total revenue.” A tech-savvy Rajiv suggested they might use a spreadsheet. The next day, the delegation returned and a proud official “spread a large sheet of paper across the PM’s desk with alternative fare combinations”.
Montek recalls another high-level meeting, this time taken by prime minister A.B. Vajpayee. It took place on May 12, 1998, after the Indian nuclear tests at Pokhran. Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, then secretary, Defence Research and Development Organisation, made a detailed presentation on the reactions of individual scientists in major Western countries. Montek complimented Dr Kalam: “I whispered to ask how he was able to get so much information in such a short time. He replied that he had got most of it from the Internet!”
During his tenure, Dr Manmohan Singh and his team raised 138 million of their countrymen above the poverty line, efforts coordinated by the Planning Commission. On becoming prime minister, Mr Modi abolished the Planning Commission. Gone the 19 consultative groups, gone the collective wisdom of 450 experts from academia, industry, trade unions and NGOs. Uttar Pradesh and smaller Indian states were left to their own disproportionate resources, unequal arms severed from a headless octopus.
Dr Singh once asked: “Should one take 10 per cent of the population into the 21st century leaving the remaining 90 per cent in the 19th century?” Some pessimists fear that Modi may propel India forward going backwards into history. An optimistic Montek, however, concludes that good economics can be good politics: “India can and must return to its high growth years — our younger generation deserves nothing less.”
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2020