What makes the book brilliant and readable is the fact that Lahiri evaluates things critically, he does not blindly buy into the India story.

 

Before I run through this humongous book, “India in Search of Glory: Political Calculus and Economy”, I think it is important to understand Ashok Lahiri’s total grip on the subjects he has dealt with in this book. Lahiri is an economist and a politician, and he is among the finest persons to understand India’s law of the land and economics. This is not all, he is among a handful of policymakers who have, in recent decades, shaped India’s economic history. A former Chief Economic Advisor to the Indian government, Lahiri is now a legislator from Balurghat in north Bengal and a member of the Fifteenth Finance Commission.
Lahiri understands India like the palm of his hand, one can feel it at the way he has dissected the subjects and handled it throughout the book. It is like the proverbial pot of nectar. And it is a daunting task by all standards.
The book takes a close look at India and its population and the progress India has made over the last 75 years since Independence. So what are these? Indians have become healthier, improved their life expectancy at birth and more importantly, Indians have increased their literacy rate by leaps and bounds. The country has made progress economically, reflected in the fact that the proportion of people below the poverty line has halved in number.
What makes the book brilliant and readable is the fact that Lahiri evaluates things critically, he does not blindly buy into the India story. He says India needs to do more, should have done more to emerge on top of the heap of Asia and counter its most dominant neighbour, China. Lahiri says India should have done better, much better. But that is just an observation, not the overlying tone of the book. Lahiri has studied and presented a chronological account of the evolution of economic policies, starting from 1947. He argues well when he says why India could not achieve more since Independence and what all it could have achieved. He also offers reasons and explains in detail what needs to be done by the Indian government in terms of priority. But I thought he could have done it himself, he is, after all, with the BJP, right? Lahiri, now that he is a politician, balances it well. “This book is an attempt to decipher improvements in the political calculus, as the country develops and the backwardness of the people diminishes, for democracy to start yielding better dividends in the Indian search for glory,” writes the author.
What exactly does the book tell us? Divided into three timelines, the book lists the country’s economic journey from 1947-1964, 1964-1991, and 1991-2019. So let’s deal with the first part which lists challenges confronting a new nation emerging from the clutches of the British, and then, slowly yet steadily, growing under the ideals set by Jawaharlal Nehru. The nation’s first Prime Minister and his thought process impress the writer, when he writes about what many describe as the Nehruvian period: “With Nehru like a ‘colossus’ dominating the politics and economics in the country, it was a period of policy autonomy, pluralist politics and socialist economics.” It actually sets the tone for the readers as the introduction.
The second part of the book deals with the nearly three decades—27 years to be exact—of the post-Nehru period when India again grappled with a host of both domestic and international issues. Lahiri says with the transformation of society in the Nehruvian period, there was an upsurge in popular participation. And then comes the part ranging from 1991—the era of economic liberalisation—to 2019. The book takes a close look at India’s economic trajectory when reforms, “albeit their ups and downs, continued and were accelerated”. The task, says Lahiri in the book, appeared even more “stimulating” after the BJP under Narendra Modi formed government for two terms in 2014 and 2019.

Book: India In Search Of Glory: Political Calculus and Economy
Author: Ashok Lahiri
Pubisher: Penguin Random House

I got the feeling that the book is not just all about India’s economic development, it is also about the electoral logic of the nation’s policies and, in turn, how that very logic is changing with the transformation of Indians themselves.
Read these lines which Lahiri writes brilliantly: “Evidently, political fortunes of incumbent governments continued to be determined not by their economic performance alone; the interplay of politics and economic policy was a variegated one, with multiple layers. Democratic politics in India was, and still is, constrained by its social cleavages in terms of ascriptive group identities such as language, caste and tribe.”
Lahiri continues: “These cleavages have not disappeared but, with the spread of literacy, higher incomes and urbanisation, only blurred. People are increasingly casting their votes and not voting their castes, but the salience of regional parties based on caste, for example, has not vanished.”
And then Lahiri addresses an issue successive governments in India have tried to address, and failed miserably: Corruption. Lahiri is ruthless in his analysis of India’s corruption but he also says people in India are aware about the nation’s rising corruption index and are not forgiving.
“In-group loyalties can bias electoral responses to not only inappropriate policies but also to corruption of elected representatives. People’s changing attitude to corruption at high places illustrates the changing in-group loyalties as well. Corruption had plagued India right from the early 1950s and 1960s, but allegations of corruption did not affect electoral results significantly in the beginning. A perceptible change in people’s tolerance of corruption came from the late 1980s. Alleged corruption is likely to have contributed to the defeat of the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 and under Narasimha Rao in 1996, and AIADMK under Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu in 1996. After the Bihar fodder scam, CM Lalu Prasad Yadav had to resign and hand over the post to his wife Rabri Devi. The fodder scam may have effectively ended Lalu’s political career, including, by his own admission, his dream of becoming the Prime Minister. Corruption issues are likely to have contributed to the defeat of the UPA in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. People have become less forgiving of corruption, irrespective of the perpetrator’s caste, tribe, religion, region or group, and information about alleged corruption has become easier to obtain with the RTI Act.” But in the same breath, Lahiri also says proving such allegations and getting the perpetrators convicted, however, continue to be problematic.
And there is something that caught my attention in the book. I will end with that. It is Lahiri’s thoughts on how far India has succeeded in its nation-building endeavour, especially in the light of communal riots plaguing the nation every now and then. He argues that with caste consolidation among Hindus—which is a welcome development on its own—religion-based conflicts and politics may increase for some time before starting to decline. Managing the religious cleavages in India will continue to be a challenge for Indian democracy. And then, these conflicts would go down as caste consolidation within Hindus nears completion.
Lahiri is confident Indian democracy will start delivering better outcomes as ethnic identities lose their relevance. The perfect economist has delivered the perfect book.