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Book Review: The India Narrative

The book also focuses on the significant ideological differences in opinion between Deputy PM Patel and PM Nehru

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Simply put, The Age of Awakening is the story of the Indian economy since independence. It is both an impressive and comprehensive treatise of this country’s economic trajectory since 1947. It looks at some of India’s most important watershed moments, policies and decisions from an economic lens. 

Authors Amit Kapoor and Chirag Yadav painstakingly dissect this incredible journey of India – from humble beginnings to her metamorphosis into an emerging superpower. For linearity, the book has been compartmentalised in four segments spanning over seven decades of political and economic discourse. It flows chronologically, starting from just before India’s Independence and focuses on the role of Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel in giving shape to the Indian economy. It then meanders into the territory of Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi and their moulding of the economy. Part 3 begins with Rajiv Gandhi and journeys into the rather tumultuous era of almost two decades – from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. The new millennium dawns with Part 4 and it is here that we come across the more recent architects of the Indian economy, Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and finally Narendra Modi.

The focus that the authors bring to the pre-Independence and immediate post-Independence years is very insightful. This is relevant not just from a historical perspective but because it helps define the very character of India for the subsequent many decades. Was it the right path or wrong? The authors rarely make their own judgements and leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

The correspondence between Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru on their deliberations with regards to the economic path India should adopt is particularly noteworthy. It gives an incredible insight into the challenges these early leaders faced and the thoughts  and reasoning that played out in their minds as they set about trying to build a new India even before the Partition was thrust on them.

The book also focuses on the significant ideological differences in opinion between Deputy PM Patel and PM Nehru. Both men were as different as chalk and cheese, but Gandhi was of the view that India required both men to lead the country. Sadly, polarity of opinions is rarely welcomed, much less encouraged by political parties today.

The book also has its lighter moments. There is this amusing anecdote from the time of partition, when the movable and non-liquid resources of pre-Independence India were to be now divided between India and Pakistan in the ratio of 80:20. Every public asset was meticulously divided, sometime to ludicrous levels of detail. An amusing dilemma was faced by the Punjab Government Library that had only one copy of some books. The solution that emerged saw these single copies being ripped into two, where one would go to Pakistan and the other would stay in India. A solitary dictionary suffered the same fate.

The section A-K stayed in India while the section L-Z was given to Pakistan. Other books were divided based on which nation had a greater say in the subject. Things got heated when it became difficult to ascertain which country had a greater interest in Alice in Wonderland and Wuthering Heights and ended in a physical confrontation between the librarians.
The narrative goes beyond limiting itself to the interplay of politics and the economy. Where necessary, the authors move beyond the corridors of power in Lutyens Delhi to examine other catalysts that had a hand in giving shape to India’s economic thinking. The ‘Bombay Plan’ devised by a motley group of industrialists that included J.R.D. Tata, Ghanshyamdas Birla, Shri Lala Shri Ram, Kasturbhia Lalbhai and Shri Purshottamdas Thakurdas is a case in point.  The Bombay Plan proposed an investment of Rs 10,000 crores over a period of 15 years to bring about a 130 per cent increase in agricultural output, a 500 per cent increase in industrial output and an increase in services by 200 per cent.

More interestingly the Plan made a note that the State would need to play an important role in achieving this goal and highlighted that, ‘the existing economic organisation, based on private enterprise and ownership has flailed to bring about a satisfactory distribution of national income.’ India’s first five-year plan that came into effect much later incorporated several aspects of this very plan yet none of the authors were invited or consulted during its formulation.

From nation-building under Nehru, Patel and Lal Bahadur Shastri to nationalisation under Indira, the Janata Party and Morarji Desai; wars fought and other periods of national emergency; engagement with global powers and experiments with non-alignment; to incremental economic changes during the time of Rajiv, V.P. Singh, and Chandrashekhar, the movement towards economic growth and liberalisation in the first five decades of independence was slow and laboured. It finally began accelerating, as we all know, only under a stable Narasimha Rao-led Congress government post Rajiv’s assassination. What many don’t know is that Rao helped revive a new industrial reforms policy that had originally been drafted by Ajit Singh, the then industries minister (who had quit IBM to join politics) in V. P. Singh’s cabinet. Unfortunately, since the V.P. Singh government was dependent for survival on both the Left and the BJP, such radical reforms were not politically feasible. Post Rao, Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh continued with the legacy of reforms that has now been further accelerated by Modi and the book highlights these in some detail.

The Age of Awakening documents India’s economic rise, stagnation and rise again, literally brick-
by-brick, and policy-by-policy and politician by politician over a period no less than seven decades, spanning almost six generations. It throws spotlight not just on a huge number of architects that includes not just prime ministers and their ministers but also key economists, scientists, bureaucrats, academicians and industrial reformers who have borne the yoke of India’s economic growth.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Harsh Lambah

The writer is Country Manager, India, IWG Plc

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