By Himanshu Manglik
I am Rip Van Winkle. I fell under a magical spell many years ago and have been sleeping since then. When I fell asleep, India was buzzing. It was completely mesmerised with the dreams of the future, and was galvanising itself for prosperous India where the economy would be booming with bountiful employment, FDI would be pouring in and Bharat would be transformed into a thriving hub of smart cities and bullet trains, while agriculture would be booming and there would be peace and harmony in the country.
When I woke up today, everything around me seems different. India has changed completely. Yet I am bewildered because this is not the India I was dreaming of when I dozed off. My friends tell me that while I slept, the economy has slowed down. They tell me that demonetisation of the rupee has caused widespread misery and that implementation of GST without adequate preparation has been a serious obstacle for small and medium businesses. They tell me that instead of strengthening, the rupee has been sliding continuously, that the banking system in the country is suddenly ridden with NPAs and that many companies are heading for insolvency under a new law. They tell me that many public sector banks are being merged, even though they say that the process of merger is not easy and will cause greater stress on the banking system. They tell me that there is a major drive against corruption but they whisper to me in confidence that only those in the opposition are being declared corrupt. They also tell me that there is something that needs to be fixed in the judiciary, including at the Supreme Court.
I do not believe all this. People who tell me all this are pessimists and are spreading unnecessary fear. All will be well. Yet my mind takes me back to my thinking days before I fell asleep. I looked back and I look around now and I feel that there are reasons for concern. Something has happened as I slept through these years.
Independent India started its journey from penury and famine, with little to show for assets other than the burning passion and patriotic fervour of the pre- and post-independence years. From there, to create a nation that was self-reliant was a monumental vision by Jawaharlal Nehru. The challenge was mammoth. Some exceptional work was done. Directions were identified, Foundations were created. Dams were built and powerhouses constructed and many of them were acknowledged as engineering marvels. Setting up of IITs and Medical Colleges was far sighted, even though it resulted in creating a talent pool that was used more by the world other than India itself. We were proud of the economic policy of a self-reliant nation set out by Nehru. At least there was a vision and it relied on economic experts to define the policies and the five year plans. The government was the hub of the socialist enterprise, setting up state funded organisations for value creation.
It is a real travesty for India that the great Indian potential is facing severe headwinds, almost as if it is slipping through our hands. Creating an infrastructure for India’s development was in itself an uphill task to start with, and to our credit we started out well. The vision of self reliance and non-alignment flowed from the sacrifices for independence, and from the spirit and desire to take control of our own destiny. Yet, the journey has been both eventful and traumatic. What started as a burning passion and patriotic fervour, is now in the shadow circle of nationalistic fervour.
I am the old vanguard. As the country turns younger day by day, I remain amongst the fewer who have seen the change that India’s economy and the society has undergone in the past almost 70 years. India’s journey, for the most part, has been of a vision, but in recent years we have transitioned from the visionary to the flamboyant. Overwhelming for some, nostalgia for many and a red flag for several. The Indian economy, the elephant that was beginning to trot like a horse and it was hoped that it would would soon be on a canter is now beginning to behave like an elephant again. This time unfortunately, it is like a rogue elephant that is destroying standing crops, trampling businesses and chasing away both the labour and capital!
It is true that the Nehruvian vision may not have been the perfect vision, because for decades it kept us insulated from the technological developments that were taking place in the global environment. Notwithstanding that and all the other constraints, India still managed to continue growing in a democratic framework that was the envy of almost every single country in the world. There are many reasons for us to be proud. We only have to look around us and appreciate the engineering accomplishments of our engineers, the green revolution and the white revolution, and the focus on balanced economic growth. The post independence era was an era of optimism and most of the people took there responsibilities with fierce pride and sense of independence. Setting up the planning commission and the rolling out of the five year plans under the guidance of well renowned economists was the correct move. Emphasising secularism and equal opportunity was the only way forward to create a harmonious India after the holocaust of the partition. It was not a one man vision. It was the considered and mature wisdom of well read and thinking leaders. Nehru may have been the Prime Minister but his team was made up of mostly intellectuals and other strong men. Managing such a team in difficult and stark times cannot be easy.
There were invariably, shortcomings as well. For many years India has been marking time at the turning point. Not moving fast enough to support the rhetoric of India Shining. We lament corruption and the new emerging generation fanatically blames the past. Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes was that Nehru overlooked the ‘green shoots’ of corruption knowingly because he believed that the person or people in question were very capable and efficient. Yet my belief is that Nehru himself was not corrupt. He felt it was necessary, rightly or wrongly, to leave the petty corrupt unrestrained in the interest of the efficient implementation. That was a tragic mistake and much bigger than the Himalayan blunder. Perhaps Nehru realised that as well in his later years and suffered. Any efforts to negate Nehru’s contributions can only vitiate the social and political environment. It cannot change India’s economic history.
Unfortunately for Nehru no one could take his vision forward in the subsequent years as powerfully as he had wanted to. Yet, India continued to hold its own despite Indira Gandhi’s miscalculations, V.P Singh’s machinations, Rajeev Gandhi’s inexperience, before the final opening up of the economy to reforms under Narasimha Rao. Through all this, there was a sense that the Indian economy was growing and the emphasis was on inclusive growth.
Suddenly the Indian reality is different. The Planning Commission has been abolished. We do not hear of economic policies anymore, neither do we hear of what is being done for agrarian reforms. There are only discussions on the quality and credibility of growth and employment figures even as manufacturing clearly begins to slow down, automobile industries continue to curtail production, demand continues to shy away, businesses fold up and news of increasing unemployment and layoffs starts appearing even in the media.
Unfortunately the past few years seem to have now put the economy on the ventilator. It is becoming evident that lack of coherence in policies, especially when implemented without adequate preparation, can create significant stress on the infrastructure and resources, no matter how robust.
The NITI Ayog, the think tank that replaced the Planning Commission and was supposed to show the path, seems to have also thrown up their hands. The Vice Chair of NITI Ayog was finally forced to raise the alarm that the Indian economy is critical and that the financial sector has never been so bad in the past 70 years. Reality is finally beginning to bite. The current government has to start owning responsibility as well.
For a country so complex, there is no magic wand or running shoe that will get us past the turning point unless we have a well thought out and planned economic strategy. It is a real challenge and it requires skills. We seem to be caught at the vortex of a sinking sand pit and are sinking deeper and deeper. We need to allow experts to take control. We need to set up a crisis team of renowned economists. We need to realise that short term decisions cannot be monumental in themselves, because they are only meant to be bridging decisions for a well thought-out economic strategy.
If we continue to underplay the economic crisis we only continue to expose our soft underbelly. To solve a crisis we also first need to accept that there is a crisis and we need to come out of a denial mode. Resolving a crisis requires humility and team work at all levels and we need to accept that we are already in a situation that demands extraordinary humility.
The New India, however, works differently. We believe in ourselves. We are a force of over 125 crore nationalists and there is new fervour in our blood. We are not particular about conventional economic policies. We believe that the economic resurrection will follow the Hindu rate of growth. We do not believe in planned investments and employment generation. Our priority is nationalism. We are working to revive the learnings and education systems of ancient India. We do not believe that the world is a new cosmos with new knowledge. We believe that most or all of modern science is taken from the Indian vedas and emanates from the educational system of ancient India. We are confident that the country will progress automatically after the institutions have been deconstructed and reconstructed. We believe in ourselves. Let us now close our eyes and pray to the Gods and invoke their blessings. Jai Shri Ram. The future is here. Let us embrace the future. I am Rip Van Winkle #MaeSapneDekhRahaThaa
(Himanshu Manglik is the Founder and President at Walnutcap Consulting LLP. The views expressed here are personal)