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Cover Story
 
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30 Years of Change, and Status Quo
The roots of India’s present advantages & short comings were laid in 1982. Even today, the country continues to grapple with conflicting ideologies & aspirations
Issue Date - 16/02/2012
 
So you, like so many others, really think that India’s second tryst with destiny really began in 1991 when the late former Prime Minister P. V. Narashima Rao, the then Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and the then Commerce Minister P. Chidambaram opened the floodgates for change to sweep across India? And that all the joys and the sorrows, trials and tribulations and triumphs & tragedies that have spilled over from the 20th century to this one for the Indian economy owe their genesis to that clichéd term called economic reforms and liberalization?

Like so many others, you are wrong. We need to actually push the timeline back by about a decade. Only then can we truly grasp and understand the angels and demons that still hover over India in 2012.

It is January 1982 and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is embarrassed. Her handpicked Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Abdul Rehman Antulay, is embroiled in a so called cement scam. Adverse remarks from the Bombay High Court have made things even more difficult. You can never ever say that Indira Gandhi was not decisive. She asks A. R. Antulay to resign. Pundits pontificate on how ‘corrupt’ politicians like Antulay misuse the perennial shortage of scarce commodities like cement to line their personal pockets. Diehard hardliners of the Left ask for tighter controls. Nobody from the media bothers to ask a gentleman called N. R. Narayana Murthy about his opinion on the issue because nobody knows him. He had started an unknown company called Infosys in 1981, which began operations in 1982.

You can never ever say that Indira Gandhi was not capable of springing up surprises. In early February, 1982, the ‘socialist’ government of Indira Gandhi announced a new policy that astounded even the few advocates of more liberal economic policies that existed then in India. The government announced a ‘partial decontrol’ of the cement industry. Since 1956, when the government under Jawaharlal Nehru adopted an industrial policy that just about ‘reserved’ everything for the public sector and made ‘licensing’ compulsory, India had been incessantly lurching towards the Left. In February 1982, it started moving Right. There is a more important lesson here. Policy makers in India have a habit of blaming the symptoms rather than trying to cure the disease. In this case, the disease was excessive and needless regulation and control over the cement industry. The symptoms were perennial shortages of cement and scams of the type in which A. R. Antulay got embroiled. In February, 1982, the policy-makers actually made an honest attempt to cure the disease. India, honestly, hasn’t looked back since then; albeit in fits and starts and often taking two steps back for one taken forward.

It was not just cement decontrol that marked this special era in the fading years of Indira Gandhi before she was assassinated in 1984. The year 1982 also started the actual birth of India’s consumer durables and consumer electronics industry. This era also marked the genesis of India’s telecom revolution. After 1982, the virtual monopoly that Bajaj Auto exercised over the two-wheeler industry was gone for ever as joint ventures like Escorts-Yamaha, TVS-Suzuki and of course Hero Honda launched snazzy new motorcycles. Since 1982, Indian brands have never looked back with Videocon, Onida, Rasna and Nirma being just a few examples. You could well say that after 1982, middle class India for the first time saw a wider world of aspirations and opportunities through long shut windows that were ‘partially’ opened by Indira Gandhi and her successor Rajiv Gandhi.

 
Incidentally, it was in 1982 that the father of Rahul Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi was formally anointed as the inheritor of the Gandhi crown and he ‘gifted’ the colour TV to India during the Asian Games of 1982. The Maruti Suzuki factory in a sleepy suburb called Gurgaon was being readied to launch India’s first people’s car. Incidentally, it was Pranab Mukherjee who presented the Union Budget in 1982, just as he will do soon in 2012. It was in 1982 that Dhirubhai Ambani gate crashed the big league of India Inc. and Mukesh Ambani formally joined his father’s business. The more things change, the more they remain the same, don’t they?

Some numbers could tell the story better. India’s exports back in 1982 totaled $1.54 billion. In 2011, they crossed $225 billion. India’s GDP in 1982 was $200 billion. It is touching $2,000 billion now. Barely 50,000 cars were sold in India in 1982; the industry now boasts of annual sales in excess of 1.5 million a year. Less than 5 million phone connections existed then. The number this year will cross 800 million. Life expectancy has improved from 55 years to 66 years. On the flip side, there were about 350 million desperately poor people in India in 1982. That number has actually increased by now. About 400 million Indians were illiterate back then; the number has increased since then. Some comparisons must lead to more introspection. Car sales increased by more than 3000% in this period. Agricultural output increased by much less than 100%... No wonder more farmers commit suicide in contemporary India than they did in 1982.

Like the disgrace of farmers’ suicides, many other demons that continue to haunt India even now were hatched back then. The now world famous and iconic company Infosys shares its year of birth with another organization that is not as well known across the world. It is called Dukhtaran-e-Millat, whose founder is a Kashmiri lady called Asiya Andarabi. Even as Narayana Murthy and Infosys were looking towards New York for inspiration, Andarabi and her outfit were looking at Riyadh for inspiration. If the Dukhtaran-e-Millat has its way in Kashmir, all music, all movies and all entertainment would be banished and the women of Kashmir would be forced to be veiled and Wahabi Islam would rule supreme in the valley. Don’t for a moment think that Islamic extremism in India was launched only after 1992, when the Babri Masjid was demolished. The seeds were sown in the early 1980s when awash with petro-dollars, Saudi Arabia had made Wahabi fundamentalism its most important export apart from oil. The problem for India is: Asiya Andarabi believes just as passionately in her world view as Narayana Murthy does in his. Since 1982, India has been struggling to reconcile the two visions.

          

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