Aug 15 • 55M

#181 We Shall Overcome

Celebrating 75 years of Independent India.

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Frameworks, mental models, and fresh perspectives on Indian public policy and politics. This feed is an audio narration by Ad Auris based on the 'Anticipating the Unintended' newsletter, a free weekly publication with 7000+ subscribers.
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Happy Independence Day!

- Pranay Kotasthane and RSJ

This newsletter can often seem pessimistic about India. That isn’t true, though. Every year, on Independence Day, we remind ourselves and our readers why we write this newsletter. This is how we ended the Independence Day edition of 2020:

“What we have achieved so far is precious. That’s worth reminding ourselves today. We will go back to writing future editions lamenting our state of affairs.

We will do so because we know it’s worth it.”  

This year we thought it would be fun (?) to run through every year since 1947 and ask ourselves what happened in the year that had long-term repercussions for our nation. This kind of thing runs a serious risk. It can get tedious and all too familiar. Most of us know the landmark events of recent history and what they meant for the nation. 

Maybe. Maybe not. 

We’ve given an honest try (of over 8000 words) to see if there’s a different way of looking at these familiar events and their impact on us. Here we go.

1947 - 1960: Sense Of A Beginning 

1947

Perhaps the most significant “What, if?” question for independent India surfaced on 17th August 1947 when the Radcliffe Line was announced. The partition of the Indian subcontinent has cast a long shadow. What if it had never happened? What if Nehru-Jinnah-Gandhi were able to strike a modus vivendi within a one-federation framework? These questions surface every year around independence.

The indelible human tragedy of the partition aside, would an Akhand Bharat have served its citizens better? We don’t think so. We agree with Ambedkar’s assessment of this question. In Pakistan or the Partition of India, he approaches the question with detachment and realism, concluding that the forces of “communal malaise” had progressed to such an extent that resisting a political division would have led to a civil war, making everyone worse off. The partition must have been handled better without the accompanying humanitarian disaster. But on the whole, the partition was inevitable by 1947.

“That the Muslim case for Pakistan is founded on sentiment is far from being a matter of weakness; it is really its strong point. It does not need deep understanding of politics to know that the workability of a constitution is not a matter of theory. It is a matter of sentiment. A constitution, like clothes, must suit as well as please. If a constitution does not please, then however perfect it may be, it will not work. To have a constitution which runs counter to the strong sentiments of a determined section is to court disaster if not to invite rebellion.” [Read the entire book here]


1948

What if Mahatma Gandhi wasn’t killed that year? How would the course of our history change? Gandhi spoke like an idealist and worked like a realist. He was possibly the most aware of the gap between the lofty ideals of our constitution and the reality of the Indian minds then. He knew the adoption of the constitution was only half the work done. He’d likely have devoted the rest of his life to building a liberal India at the grassroots level. His death pushed a particular stream of right-wing Hindu consciousness underground. We still carry the burden of that unfinished work.


1949

The Constituent Assembly met for the first time in December 1946. By November 26th 1949, this assembly adopted a constitution for India. Even a half-constructed flyover in Koramangala has taken us five years. For more context, Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly began work on 10th August 1947, and their first constitution came into force in March 1956, only to be abrogated two years later. India’s founding fathers and mothers were acutely aware that they were elite, unelected, and unrepresentative of the median Indian. They dared to imagine a new nation-state while grappling with that period's harsh economic, social, and political realities. Their work should inspire us to strengthen, improve, and rebuild—but never to give up on—the Republic of India.

For more, check out the miracle that is India’s Constitution in our Republic Day 2021 special edition.


1950

We have written about our Constitution a number of times. It is an inspiring and audacious document in its ambition to shape a modern nation. It has its flaws. Some consider it too liberal; others think it makes the State overbearing. Some find it too long; others feel it comes up short. This may all be true. However, there is no doubt our constitution has strengthened our democracy, protected the weak and continues to act as a tool for social change. It is our North Star. And a damn good one at that. 


1951

Few post-independence institutions have stood the test of time as the Finance Commission (FC), first established in 1951. In federal systems, horizontal and vertical imbalances in revenue generation and expenditure functions are commonplace. Closing the gap requires an impartial institution that is well-regarded by various levels of government and the people. The Finance Commission is that institution.

It’s not as if it didn’t face any challenges. As a constitutional body established under article 280 of the Constitution, it was sidelined by an extra-constitutional and powerful Planning Commission until 2014. But we have had 15 FCs in total, and each key tax revenue-sharing recommendation has become government policy.


1952

Our Constitution adopted a universal adult franchise as the basis for elections. Every citizen was to be part of the democratic project. There was to be no bar on age, sex, caste or education. And this was to be done in one of the most unequal societies in the world. The ambition was breathtaking. To put this in context, women were allowed to vote in Switzerland only in 1971. Not only did we aim for this, but we also moved heaven and earth to achieve it in 1952. In his book India After Gandhi, Ram Guha describes the efforts of the government officials led by the first Election Commissioner, Sukumar Sen, to reach the last man or woman for their ballot. The elites may lament vote bank politics or cash for votes scams and question the wisdom of universal franchise. But we shouldn’t have had it any other way. And, for the record, our people have voted with remarkable sophistication in our short independent history. 


1953 

For a new nation-state, the Republic of India punched above its weight in bringing hostilities on the Korean peninsula to an end. Not only did the Indian government’s work shape the Armistice Agreement, but it also chaired a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) that was set up to decide the future of nearly 20,000 prisoners of war from both sides. This experience during the Cold War strengthened India’s advocacy of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).  


1954

Article 25 guaranteed the freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess, practice, and propagate religion to all citizens. But how does one define a religious practice? And can a practice under the garb of religion breach the boundary of individual rights or public morality? This is a familiar conflict zone in secular States and would inevitably show up in India because everything in India can be construed as a religious practice. Like Ambedkar said during the constituent assembly debates:

“The religious conceptions in this country are so vast that they cover every aspect of life from birth to death…there is nothing extraordinary in saying that we ought to strive hereafter to limit the definition of religion in such a manner that we shall not extend it beyond beliefs and such rituals as may be connected with ceremonials which are essentially religious..."

In 1954, the Supreme Court gave a landmark judgment on what constitutes a religious practice in what’s known as the Shirur Math case. It held that the term religion would cover all practices integral to that religion. Further, the Court will determine what practice will be deemed essential with reference to doctrines within that religion itself.

This test of ‘essentiality’ in religion has kept the public, the legislature and the courts busy since (entry of women in Sabarimala, headscarf in Islam, to name two). The outcome has bent towards individual liberty in most contexts, but the ambiguity in the definition of essential means it could go the other way too.


1955

Another wild "What, if” moment that we like to recall relates to Milton Friedman’s visit to the Indian finance ministry in 1955. What shape would India’s economy have taken had his seminal document “A Memorandum to the Government of India 1955” been heeded?

In this note, Friedman gets to the root of India’s macroeconomic problems—an overburdened investment policy, restrictive policies towards the private sector, erratic monetary policy, and a counterproductive exchange control regime. Being bullish about India’s prospects was courageous when most observers wrote epitaphs about the grand Indian experiment. But Friedman was hopeful and critical both.

The Indian government, for its part, was humble enough to seek the advice of foreigners from opposing schools of thought. At the same time, it was too enamoured by the Soviet command and control model. In fact, many items from Friedman’s note can be repurposed as economic reforms even today.

Here’re our points from Friedman’s note.


1956

The idea of One Nation, One ‘X’ (language, election, song, tax, choose any other) is both powerful and seductive. It is not new, however. Back in the 50s, there was a view that we must not strengthen any identity that divides us. So when the question of reorganisation of the colonial provinces into new states came up, an argument was made that it must be done on factors other than language. Nehru, ever the modernist, thought the creation of language-based states would lead us down the path of ethnic strife. The example of nation-states in Europe built on language in the 19th century and the two devastating world wars thereafter were too recent then. So, he demurred.

Agitation, hunger strikes and deaths followed before we chose language as the primary basis for reorganising the states. It was perhaps the best decision taken by us in the 50s. As the years since have shown, only a polity assured of its heritage and identity will voluntarily accept diversity. The melding of our diversity into a single identity cannot be a top-down imposition. We should never forget this.


1957

India’s economic strategy of state-led industrialisation through deficit financing in pursuit of import substitution took off with the Second Five-Year Plan. Heavy industries needed imported machinery, inflating India’s import bill. Since the exchange rate was pegged to the British pound, it meant that Indian exports became pricier. This imbalance between rising imports and flagging exports was financed by running down the foreign exchange reserves.

By 1957, India witnessed its first foreign exchange crisis. This event had a significant effect on India’s economy. Instead of devaluing the rupee, the government opted for foreign exchange budgeting - every investment in a project needed government approval for the foreign exchange required to buy foreign inputs. The immediate crisis in 1957 led to controls that worsened India’s economic prospects over the next 35 years.


1958

The government nationalised all insurance companies a couple of years earlier. India hadn’t gotten into a socialist hell yet, so this was a bit of a surprise. The proximate cause was a fraud that few private life insurers had committed by misusing the policyholders’ funds to help their industrialist friends. A run-of-the-mill white-collar crime that should have been dealt with by the criminal justice system. But the government viewed it as a market failure and moved to nationalise the entire industry. It would take another 45 years for private players to come back to insurance. Insurance penetration in India meanwhile remained among the lowest in the world.  Also, in 1958, Feroze Gandhi took to the floor of Lok Sabha to expose how LIC, the state insurer, had diverted its funds to help Haridas Mundhra, a Calcutta-based businessman. The same crime that private insurers had done.

The government would repeat this pattern of getting involved where there was no market failure. The outcomes would inevitably turn out to be worse. Seven decades later, we remain instinctively socialist and wary of capital. Our first reaction to something as trifling as a surge price by Ola or a service charge levied by restaurants is to ask the State to interfere.


1959

“The longest guest of the Indian government”, the 14th Dalai Lama pre-empted the Chinese government’s plans for his arrest and escaped to India. Not only did India provide asylum, but it also became home to more than a hundred thousand Tibetans. Because of the bold move by the Indian government in 1959, the Central Tibetan Administration continues its struggle as a Nation and a State in search of regaining control over their Country to this day. This event also changed India-China relations for the decades to come.


1960

Search as hard as we might; we hardly got anything worth discussing for this year. Maybe we were all sitting smugly waiting for an avalanche of crisis to come our way. Steel plants, dams and other heavy industries were being opened. The budget outlay for agriculture was reduced. We were talking big on the international stage about peace and non-alignment. But if you had looked closer, things were turning pear-shaped. The many dreams of our independence were turning sour.


The 60s: Souring Of The Dream

1961

The Indian Army marched into Goa in December 1961. The 450-year Portuguese colonial rule ended, and the last colonial vestige in India was eliminated. It took this long because Portugal’s dictator Antonio Salazar stuck to his guns on controlling Portuguese colonies in the subcontinent, unlike the British and the French. Portugal’s membership in NATO further made it difficult for the Indian government to repeat the operations in Hyderabad and Junagadh. Nevertheless, that moment eventually arrived in 1961. 

This was also the year when India’s first indigenous aircraft, the HAL HF-24 Marut, took its first flight. Made in Bengaluru by German designer Kurt Tank, the aircraft was one of the first fighter jets made outside the developed world. The aircraft served well in the war that came a decade later. It never lived up to its promises, but it became a matter of immense pride and confidence for a young nation-state.


1962

Among the lowest points in the history of independent India. We’ve written about our relationship with China many times in the past editions. The 1962 war left a deep impact on our psyche. We didn’t recover for the rest of the decade. The only good thing out of it was the tempering of idealism in our approach to international relations. That we take a more realist stance these days owes its origins to the ‘betrayal’ of 1962.


1963

ISRO launched the first sounding rocket in November 1963. Over the years, this modest beginning blossomed into a programme with multiple launch vehicles. The satellite programmes also took off a few years later, making India a mighty player in the space sector. 


1964

If you told anyone alive in 1964 that less than 60 years later, Nehru would be blamed for all that was wrong with India by a substantial segment of its population, they would have laughed you out of the room. But here we are in 2022, and there’s never a day that passes without a WhatsApp forward that talks about Nehru’s faults. It seems inevitable that by the time we celebrate the centenary of our independence, he would be a borderline reviled figure in our history. But that would be an aberration. In the long arc of history, he will find his due as a flawed idealist who laid the foundation of modern India. 1964 was the end of an era.


1965

As the day when Hindi would become the sole official language of the Indian Union approached, the anti-Hindi agitation in the Madras presidency morphed into riots. Many people died in the protests, and it led to the current equilibrium on language policy. The “one State, one language” project moved to the back burner, even as Hindi became an important link language across the country. The lesson was the same as in the case of the 1956 states reorganisation: melding our diversity into a single identity cannot be a top-down imposition.


1966

The two wars in the decade's first half, the inefficient allocation of capital driven by the second and third five-year plans, and the consecutive monsoon failure meant India was on the brink in 1966. The overnight devaluation of the Rupee by over 50 per cent, the timely help with food grains from the US and some providence pulled us back from it. The green revolution followed, and we have remained self-sufficient in food since.

The experience of being on the brink taught us nothing. We still believe in the Pigouvian theory of market failure, where government policies are expected to deliver optimality.  Strangely, the idea that we reform only in crisis has only strengthened. There cannot be worse ways to change oneself than under the shadow of a crisis. But we have made a virtue out of it.


1967

This was the year when the Green Revolution took baby steps, and the Ehlrichian prediction about India’s impending doom was put to rest. But it was also the year when the Indian government made a self-goal by adopting a policy called items reserved for manufacture exclusively by the small-scale sector. By reserving whole product lines for manufacturing by small industries, this policy kept Indian firms small and uncompetitive. And like all bad ideas, it had a long life. The last 20 items on this list were removed only in April 2015. We wrote about this policy here


1968

In the past 75 years, we have reserved some of our worst public policies for the education sector. We have an inverted pyramid. A handful of tertiary educational institutions produce world-class graduates at the top. On the other end, we have a total failure to provide quality primary education to the masses. It is not because of a lack of intent. The National Education Policy (NEP) that first came up in 1968 is full of ideas, philosophy and a desire to take a long-term view about education in India. But it was unmoored from the economic or social reality of the nation. We often say here that we shouldn’t judge a policy based on its intentions. That there’s no such thing as a good policy but bad implementation because thinking about what can work is part of policy itself. NEP is Exhibit A in favour of this argument.


1969 

The nationalisation of 14 private-sector banks was a terrible assault on economic freedom under the garb of serving the public interest. The sudden announcement of a change in ownership of these banks was challenged in the courts, but the government managed to thwart it with an ordinance. 

Fifty years later, we still have low credit uptake even as governments continue to recapitalise loss-making banks with taxpayer money.


1970

The dominant economic thinking at the beginning of the 70s in India placed the State at the centre of everything. But that wasn’t how the world was moving. There was a serious re-examination of the relationship between the State and the market happening elsewhere. The eventual shift to a deregulated, small government economic model would happen by the decade's end. This shift mostly passed India by. But there were a few voices who questioned the state orthodoxy and, in some ways, sowed the intellectual seeds for liberalisation in future. In 1970, Jagdish Bhagwati and Padma Desai published their monograph, India: Planning for Industrialisation, which argued that our economic policies since independence had crippled us. It showed with data how central planning, import substitution, public sector-led industrial policy and license raj have failed. But it found no takers. In fact, we doubled down on these failed policies for the rest of the decade. It was a tragedy foretold. What if someone had gone against the consensus and paid attention to that paper? That dissent could perhaps have been the greatest service to the nation. It is useful to remember this today when any scepticism about government policies is met with scorn. Dissent is good. The feeblest of the voice might just be right.


The 70s: Losing The Plot

1971

Kissinger visited China in July 1971 via Pakistan. Responding to the changing world order, India and the USSR signed an Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation in August of that year. India had become an ally of the USSR. Four months later, the India-Pakistan war pitted India and the USSR against Pakistan, China, and the US. The Indian strategic community came to internalise USSR as a super-reliable partner and the West as a supporter of India’s foes. It took another three decades, and the collapse of the USSR, for a change in this thinking. Even today, Russia finds massive support in the Indian strategic establishment. We had problematised this love for Russia here


1972

India won the 1972 war with Pakistan and liberated Bangladesh. India’s unilateral action stopped a humanitarian disaster. The victory was decisive, and the two parties met in Simla to agree on the way forward. This should have been a slam dunk for India in resolving festering issues on the international boundary, Kashmir and the role of the third parties. But international diplomacy is a two-level game, and Bhutto played that to his advantage. We explained this in edition 30. We paid a high price for giving away that win to Bhutto.


1973

The Kesavananda Bharti verdict of the Supreme Court rescued the Republic of India from a rampaging authoritarian. The basic structure doctrine found a nice balance to resolve the tension between constitutional immutability and legislative authority to amend the constitution. Bibhu Pani discussed this case in more detail here


1974

You are the State. Here are your crimes. You force import substitution, you regulate the currency, you misallocate capital, you let the public sector and a handful of licensed private players produce inferior quality products at a high cost, you raise the marginal tax rate at the highest level to 97 per cent, you run a large current account deficit, and you cannot control Rupee depreciation.

Result?

People find illegal ways to bring in foreign goods, currency and gold. And so was born the villain of every urban Bollywood film of the 70s. And a career option for a capitalist-minded kid like me. The Smuggler.

But the State isn’t the criminal here. The smuggler is. And the State responded with a draconian law to beat all others. An act the knowledge of whose expanded form would serve kids well in those school quizzes of the 80s. COFEPOSA — The Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Act. A predatory state's defining feature is how it forces ordinary citizens to do unlawful activities. COFEPOSA was the mother of such laws. It has spawned many children. 


1975

This blank editorial by the Indian Express says it all.


1976

We view our population as a core problem. The politicians, the public servants and the ordinary citizens share this view. We don’t want to acknowledge our governance deficit. Calling population a problem allows us to shirk the responsibility of running a functioning State. We have written about the flaw in thinking about the population as a problem on many occasions.

How far could we go to control the population? Well, in 1976, during the peak of the Emergency, the State decided to sterilise male citizens against their wishes. This madness ended when the Emergency was lifted. But even today calls for population control keep coming back. 


1977

The first non-Congress union government was an important milestone for the Indian Republic. While Morarji Desai’s government did reverse the worst excesses of the Emergency rule, its economic policies were less successful. This period went on to witness a demonetisation in search of black money (2016 from the future says Hi!), and the same old counter-productive policies in search of self-reliance.


1978

Despite all available evidence that statist socialism was an abject failure, the Janata government that came to power decided to double down on it. One of the great ideas of the time was to force MNCs to reduce their stake in their Indian subsidiaries to below 40 per cent. A handful agreed, but the large corporations quit India. One of those who left was IBM in 1978. The many existing installations of IBM computers needed services and maintenance.

In a delightful case of unintended consequences, this led to the nationalisation of IBM’s services division (later called CMC). Domestic companies started to serve this niche. Soon there were the likes of Infosys, Wipro and HCL building a business on this. CMC provided a good training ground for young engineers. And so, the Indian IT services industry got underway. It would change the lives of educated Indians forever.


1979

In a classic case of violating the Tinbergen rule, the Mandal Commission recommended that the reservation policy should be used to address relative deprivation. While the earlier reservations for oppressed castes stood on firm ground as a means for addressing unconscionable historical wrongs, the Mandal Commission stretched the logic too far. Its recommendation would eventually make reservation policy the go-to solution for any group that could flex its political muscles. We wrote about it here


1980

After ditching the Janata experiment and running out of ideas to keep Jan Sangh going, the BJP was formed. It wasn’t a momentous political occasion of any sort then. A party constitution that aimed for Gandhian socialism and offered vague promises of a uniform civil code and nationalism didn’t excite many. Everything else that would propel the party in later years was to be opportunistic add-ons to the ideology. The founding leaders, Advani and Vajpayee, would have been shocked if you told them what the party would be like, four decades later.


The 80s: A Million Mutinies Now

1981

This year witnessed a gradual shift away from doctrinaire socialism in economic policymaking. “The Indira Gandhi government lifted restrictions on the expansion of production, permitted new private borrowing abroad, and continued the liberalisation of import controls,” wrote Walter Anderson. The government also “allowed” some price rises, leading to increased production of key input materials. The government also permitted foreign companies to compete in drilling rights in India. All in all, a year that witnessed changes for the better. 


1982

The great textile strike of Bombay in 1982 was inevitable. The trade unions had gotten so powerful that there was a competitive race to the bottom on who could be more militant. Datta Samant emerged intent on breaking the monopoly of RMMS on the city's workers. And he did this with ever spiralling demands from mill owners in a sector that was already bloated with overheads and facing competition from far eastern economies. There was no way to meet these demands. The owners locked the mills and left. Never to come back. The old, abandoned mills remained. The workers remained. Without jobs, without prospects and with kids who grew up angry and unemployed. The rise of Shiv Sena, political goondaism and a malevolent form of underworld followed. Bombay changed forever. It was all inevitable.


1983

The Nellie massacre in Assam and the Dhilwan bus massacre in Punjab represent the year 1983. Things seemed really dark back then. It seemed that the doomsayers would be proved right about India. Eventually, though, the Indian Republic prevailed. 


1984

Her Sikh bodyguards assassinated India Gandhi. The botched Punjab policy of the previous five years came a full circle with it. An unforgivable backlash against innocent Sikhs followed. A month later, deadly gas leaked out of a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, killing and paralysing thousands. 1984 will rank among the worst years of our republic. There were two silver linings in retrospect. One, we would learn to manage secessionist movements better from the harrowing Punjab experience. Two, had Indira continued, would we have had 1991? Our guess is no.


1985

This was an eventful year in retrospect. Texas Instruments set up shop in Bangalore. It was to begin one of modern India’s true success stories on the world stage. 

This was also the year when the Anti-defection law transformed the relationship between the voter and her representative. Political parties became all-powerful, and people’s representatives were reduced to political party agents. We have written about this changing dynamic here

This was also the year when the then commerce minister, VP Singh, visited Malaysia. The visit was significant for India because it served as a reference point for Singh when he visited that country again in 1990, now as the Prime minister. Surprised by Malaysia’s transformation in five years, he asked his team to prepare a strategy paper for economic reforms. This culminated in the “M” document, which became a blueprint for reforms when the time for the idea eventually came in 1991.


1986

Who is a citizen of India?  This vexing question roiled Assam in the early 80s. The student union protests against the widespread immigration of Bangladeshis turned violent, and things had turned ugly by 1985. The Assam accord of 1985 sought to settle the state's outstanding issues,, including deporting those who arrived after 1971 and a promise to amend the Citizenship Act. The amended Citizenship Act of 1986 restricted the citizenship of India to those born before 1987 only if either of their parents were born in India. That meant children of couples who were illegal immigrants couldn’t be citizens of India simply by virtue of their birth in India. That was that, or so we thought.

But once you’ve amended the definition of who can be a citizen of India, you have let the genie out. The events of 2019 will attest to that.


1987

Rajiv Gandhi’s ill-fated attempt to replicate Indira Gandhi’s success through military intervention in another country began in 1987. In contrast to the 1971 involvement, where Indian forces had the mass support of the local populace, the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) got itself embroiled in a bitter Sri Lankan civil war. Not only did this involvement end in a failure, it eventually led to Rajiv Gandhi’s brutal murder in a terrorist attack. The policy lesson internalised by the strategic community was that India must stay far away from developing and deploying forces overseas.


1988

Most government communication is propaganda in disguise. However, there are those rare occasions when government messaging transcends the ordinary. In 1988, we saw that rare bird during the peak era of a single government channel running on millions of black and white TV sets across India. A government ad that meant something to all of us and that would remain with us forever. Mile Sur Mera Tumhara got everything right - the song, the singers, the storyline and that ineffable thing called the idea of India. No jingoism, no chest beating about being the best country in the world and no soppy sentimentalism. Just a simple message - we might all sing our own tunes, but we are better together. This is a timeless truth. No nation in history has become better by muting the voice of a section of their own people. 

Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, Toh Sur Bane Hamara, indeed.  


1989

1989 will be remembered as the year when the Indian government capitulated to the demands of Kashmiri terrorists in the Rubaiya Sayeed abduction case. It would spark off a series of kidnappings and act as a shot in the arm of radicals. 


1990

VP Singh dusted off the decade-long copy of the Mandal Commission report and decided to implement it. This wasn’t an ideological revolution. It was naked political opportunism. However, three decades later, the dual impact of economic reforms and social engineering has increased social mobility than ever before. Merit is still a matter of debate in India. But two generations of affirmative action in many of the progressive states have shown the fears of merit being compromised were overblown. The task is far from finished, but Mandal showed that sometimes you need a big bang to get things going, even if your intentions were flawed.

1990 also saw the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) from the valley. A tragedy that would bookend a decade of strife and violence in India. The only lesson one should draw from the sad plight of KPs is that the State and the people must protect minority rights. We’re not sure that’s what we have taken away from it. And that’s sad.


The 90s: Correcting The Course

1991

With the benefit of hindsight, the 1991 economic reforms seem inevitable. But things could well have been different. In the minority government, powerful voices advocated in favour of debt restructuring instead of wholesale reforms. In the end, the narrative that these changes were merely a continuation—and not abandonment—of Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s vision for India carried the day. This political chicanery deserves some credit for transforming the life of a billion Indians. 


1992

Harshad Mehta scammed the stock markets. It wasn’t a huge scam. Nor did it hurt the ordinary Indians. Fewer than 1% invested in markets back then. Yet, the scam did something important. It set in motion a series of reforms that made our capital markets stronger and safer for ordinary investors. Notably, over the years, Mehta came to be seen as some kind of robber baron figure. Capitalism needed an anti-hero to catch the imagination of people. Someone who could reprise in the 90s the Bachchan-esque angry young man roles of the 70s. Mehta might not have been that figure exactly, but he helped a generation transition to the idea that greed could indeed be good.

Also, Babri Masjid was brought down by a mob of kar sevaks in 1992. It will remain a watershed moment in our history. The Supreme Court judgement of 2019 might be the final judicial word on it. But we will carry the scars for a long time.


1993

The tremors of the demolition of the Babri Masjid were felt in 1993. Twelve bombs went off in Bombay on one fateful day. The involvement of the city’s mafia groups was established. The tragic event finally led to the government rescuing the city from the underworld. Not to forget, the Bombay underworld directly resulted from government policies such as prohibition and gold controls. 


1994

One of the great acts of perversion in our democracy was the blatant abuse of Section 356 of the constitution that allowed the union to dismiss a state government at the slightest pretext. Indira Gandhi turned this into an art form. S. R. Bommai, whose government in Karnataka was dismissed in this manner in 1988, took his case up to the Supreme Court. In 1994, the court delivered a verdict that laid out the guidelines to prevent the abuse of Section 356. It is one of the landmark judgments of the court and restored some parity in Union and state relationship.

Article 356 has been used sparingly since. We are a better democracy because of it.


1995

India joined the WTO, and the first-ever mobile phone call was made this year. But 1995 will forever be remembered as the year when Ganesha idols started drinking milk. This event was a precursor to the many memes, information cascades, and social proofs that have become routine in the information age. 


1996

Union budgets in India are occasions for dramatic policy announcements. It is a mystery why a regular exercise of presenting the government's accounts should become a policy event. But that’s the way we roll. In 1996 and 1997, P. Chidambaram presented them as the FM of a weak ragtag coalition called the United Front. But he presented two budgets for the ages. The rationalisation of income tax slabs and the deregulation of interest rates created a credit culture that led to the eventual consumption boom in the next decade. We still carry that consumption momentum.


1997

The creation of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is an important public policy milestone for India. By no means perfect, the setting up of TRAI helped overturn a norm where government departments were both players and umpires. TRAI made the separation of “steering” and “rowing” functions a new normal. That template has been copied in several sectors thereafter, most recently in the liberalisation of the space sector.


 1998

India did Pokhran 2, which gave it the capability to build thermonuclear weapons. We faced sanctions and global condemnation. But the growing economy and a sizeable middle class meant those were soon forgotten. Economic might can let you get away with a lot. We have seen it happen to us, but it is a lesson we don’t understand fully.

Also, in 1998, Sonia Gandhi jumped into active politics. The Congress that was ambling towards some sort of internal democracy decided to jettison it all and threw its weight behind the dynasty. It worked out for them for a decade or so. But where are they now? Here’s a question. What if Sonia didn’t join politics then? Congress might have split. But who knows, maybe those splinters might have coalesced in the future with a leader chosen by the workers. And we would have had a proper opposition today with a credible leader.


1999

This was a landmark year for public policy. For the first time, a union government-run company was privatised wholly. We wrote about the three narratives of disinvestment here.


2000

We have a weak, extended and over-centralised state. And to go with it, we have large, unwieldy states and districts that make the devolution of power difficult. In 2000, we created three new states to facilitate administrative convenience. On balance, it has worked well. Despite the evidence, we have managed to create only one more state since. The formation of Telangana was such a political disaster that it will take a long time before we make the right policy move of having smaller states. It is a pity.


The 2000s: The Best Of Times

2001

Not only was the Agra Summit between Musharraf and Vajpayee a dud, but it was followed by a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament. It confirmed a pattern: PM-level bilateral meetings made the Pakistani military-jihadi complex jittery, and it invariably managed to spike such moves with terrorist attacks. 


2002

There was Godhra and the riots that followed. What else is there to say?


2003

The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act and the Civil Services Pension Reform are two policy successes with many lessons for future policymakers. We have discussed these on many occasions. 


2004

The NDA government called for an early election, confident about its prospects. India Shining, its campaign about how good things were, wasn’t too far from the truth. It is how many of us felt during that time. The NDA government had sustained the reform momentum of the 90s with some of the best minds running the key departments. Its loss was unexpected. Chandrababu Naidu, a politician who fashioned himself like a CEO, was taken to the cleaners in Andhra Pradesh. Apparently, economic reforms didn’t get you votes. The real India living in villages was angry at being left out. That was the lesson for politicians from 2004. Or, so we were told.

Such broad narratives with minimal factual analysis backing them have flourished in the public policy space. There is no basis for them. The loss of NDA in 2004 came down to two states. Anti-incumbency in Andhra Pradesh where a resurgent Congress under YS Reddy beat TDP, a constituent of NDA. TDP lost by similar margins (in vote share %) across the state in all demographics in both rural and urban areas. There was no rural uprising against Naidu because of his tech-savvy, urban reformist image. Naidu lost because the other party ran a better campaign. Nothing else. The other mistake of the NDA was in choosing to partner with the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu (TN) over DMK. TN was famous for not giving split verdicts. It swung to extremes between these two parties in every election. And that’s what happened as AIADMK drew a blank.

Yet, the false lesson of 2004 has played on the minds of politicians since. We haven’t gotten back on track on reforms in the true sense. 


2005

The Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act came into force in 2005. The “right to X” model of governance took root.


2006

In March 2006, George W Bush visited India and signed the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with Manmohan Singh. From facing sanctions in 1998 for Pokhran 2 to the 123 Agreement, this was a victory for Indian diplomacy and its rising status in the world. You would think this would have had bipartisan support among the political class in India. Well, the Left that was part of UPA and the BJP that worked on the deal when it was in power, opposed it. Many shenanigans later, the deal was passed in the parliament in 2008. It is often said there’s no real ideological divide among parties in India. This view can be contested on various grounds. But events like the opposition to the nuclear deal make you wonder if there are genuine ideological positions on key policy issues in India. Many sound policy decisions are opposed merely for the sake of it. Ideology doesn’t figure anywhere. 


2007

It was the year when the Left parties were out-lefted. In Singur and Nandigram, protests erupted over land acquisition for industrial projects. The crucible of the resulting violence created a new political force. As for the investment, the capital took a flight to other places. The tax on capital ended up being a tax on labour. Businesses stayed away from West Bengal. The citadel of Left turned into its mausoleum.


2008

Puja Mehra in her book The Lost Decade traces the origin of India losing its way following the global financial crisis to the Mumbai terror attack of 2008. Shivraj Patil, the home minister, quit following the attack and Chidambaram was shifted from finance to fill in. For reasons unknown, Pranab Mukherjee, a politician steeped in the 70s-style-Indira-Gandhi socialism, was made the FM. Mehra makes a compelling case of how that one decision stalled reforms, increased deficit and led to runaway inflation over the next three years. Till Chidambaram was brought back to get the house in order, it was too late, and we were halfway into a lost decade. It is remarkable how bad policies always seem easy to implement while good policies take ages to get off the blocks.


2009

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was established in January 2009 to architect a unique digital identity for persons in a country where low rates of death and birth registrations made fake and duplicate identities a means for corruption and denial of service. Under the Modi government, the digital identity — Aadhaar — became the fulcrum of several government services. 

This project also set the stage for later projects such as the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) and Abha (Health ID).


2010

There’s petty corruption everywhere in India. It is pervasive. Not surprisingly, it is one political issue leading to mass movements in India. The anti-corruption mood gripped India in 2010 on the back of the 2G spectrum scam, where the chief accountant of the government claimed a notional loss of about Rs. 1.8 trillion to the exchequer. Auctioning of natural resources wasn’t exactly a transparent process then. It was evident there was a scam in the allotment of the 2G spectrum. But the 1.8 trillion number was a wild exaggeration that anyone with a semblance of business understanding could see through. It didn’t matter. That number caught the imagination. UPA 2 never recovered from it. More importantly, the auction policy for resources was distorted forever. We still suffer the consequences.


The 2010s: Missed Opportunity

2011

India’s last case of wild poliovirus was detected in 2011. Until about the early 1990s, an average of 500 to 1000 children got paralysed daily in India. The original target for eradication was the year 2000. Nevertheless, we got there eleven years later.

India’s pulse polio campaign has since become a source of confidence for public policy execution in India. We internalised the lesson that the Indian government can sometimes deliver through mission mode projects.


 2012

If you cannot solve a vexing public policy issue, turn it into a Right. It won’t work, but it will seem like you’ve done everything. After years of trying to get the national education policy right, the government decided it was best to make education a fundamental right in the Constitution. Maybe that will make the problem go away. A decade later, nothing has changed, but we have an additional right to feel good about.


2013

This year saw the emergence of AAP as a political force via the anti-corruption movement. AAP combines the classic elements of what makes a political party successful in India - statist instincts, focus on aam aadmi issues, populism and ideological flexibility. Importantly, it is good at telling its own version of some future utopia rather than questioning the utopia of others. 


2014

The BJP came to power with many promises; the most alluring of them was ‘minimum government, maximum governance’. Over the past eight years it has claimed success in meeting many of its promises, but even its ardent supporters won’t claim any success on minimum government. In fact, it has gone the other way. That a party with an immensely popular PM, election machinery that rivals the best in the world, and virtually no opposition cannot shake us off our instinctive belief in the State's power never ceases to surprise us.


2015

The murder of a person by a mob on the charges of eating beef was the first clear indication of the upsurge of a new violent, majoritarian polity. It was also one of the early incidents in India of radically networked communities using social media for self-organisation. 

Meanwhile, 2015 also witnessed the signing of a landmark boundary agreement between India and Bangladesh, which ended the abomination called the third-order enclave. The two States exchanged land peacefully, upholding the principle that citizen well-being trumps hardline interpretations of territorial integrity.


 2016

There will be many case studies written in future about demonetisation. Each one of them will end with a single conclusion. Public policy requires discussion and consensus, not stealth and surprise. We hope we have learnt our lesson from it.


2017

Until 2017, many in India still held the hope of a modus vivendi with China. Some others were enamoured by the Chinese model of governance. However, the Doklam crisis in 2017, and the Galwan clashes in 2020, changed all that. Through this miscalculation, China alienated a full generation of Indians, led to better India-US relations, and energised India to shift focus away from merely managing a weak Pakistan, and toward raising its game for competing with a stronger adversary. For this reason, we wrote a thank you note to Xi Jinping here


2018

It took years of efforts by the LGBTQ community to get Section 377 scrapped. In 2018, they partially won when the Supreme Court diluted Section 377 to exclude all kinds of adult consensual sexual behaviour. The community could now claim equal constitutional status as others. There’s still some distance to go for the State to acknowledge non-heterosexual unions and provide for other civil rights to the community. But the gradual acceptance of the community because of decriminalisation is a sign that our society doesn’t need moral policing or lectures to judge what’s good for it.


2019

The J&K Reorganisation Act changed the long-standing political status quo in Kashmir. Three years on, the return to political normalcy and full statehood still awaits. While a response by Pakistan was expected, it was China that fomented trouble in Ladakh, leading to the border clashes in 2020. 


2020

We have written multiple pieces on farm laws in the past year. The repeal of these laws, which were fundamentally sound because of a vocal minority, is the story of public policy in India. Good policies are scuttled because of the absence of consultation, an unclear narrative, opportunistic politicking or plain old hubris. We write this newsletter in the hope of changing this. 


2021

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic left behind many bereaved families. People are still trying to pick up the pieces. The sadness was also interrupted by frustration because of the delays in getting the vaccination programme going. India benefited immensely from domestic vaccine manufacturing capability in the private sector. Despite many twists and turns in vaccine pricing and procurements, the year ended with over 1 billion administered doses. In challenging times, the Indian State, markets, and society did come together to fight the pandemic. 


So, here we are. In the 75th independent year of this beautiful, fascinating and often exasperating nation. We are a work in progress. We might walk slowly, but we must not walk backwards. May we all live in a happy, prosperous and equal society.

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