It is a quarter century precisely today, May 29 2009, since my monograph Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India was first published in London by the Institute of Economic Affairs. (Its text is now available (in slightly rough form) at this site here.)
Now in May 1984, Indira Gandhi ruled in Delhi, and the ghost of Brezhnev was still fresh in Moscow. The era of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in America was at its height. Pricing, Planning & Politics emerged from my 1976-1982 doctoral thesis at Cambridge though it came to be written in Blacksburg and Ithaca in 1982-1983. It was the first critique after BR Shenoy of India’s Sovietesque economics since Jawaharlal Nehru’s time.
The Times, London’s most eminent paper at the time, wrote its lead editorial comment about it on the day it was published, May 29 1984.
It used to take several days for the library at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg to receive its copy of The Times of London and other British newspapers. I had not been told of the date of publication and did not know of what had happened in London on May 29 until perhaps June 2 — when a friend, Vasant Dave of a children’s charity, who was on campus, phoned me and congratulated me for being featured in The Times which he had just read in the University Library. “You mean they’ve reviewed it?” I asked him, “No, it’s the lead editorial.” “What?” I exclaimed. There was worse. Vasant was very soft-spoken and said “Yes, it’s titled ‘India’s Bad Example’” — which I misheard on the phone as “India’s Mad Example”
Drat! I thought (or words to that effect), they must have lambasted me, as I rushed down to the Library to take a look.
The Times had said
“When Mr. Dennis Healey in the Commons recently stated that Hongkong, with one per cent of the population of India has twice India’s trade, he was making an important point about Hongkong but an equally important point about India. If Hongkong with one per cent of its population and less than 0.03 per cert of India’s land area (without even water as a natural resource) can so outpace India, there must be something terribly wrong with the way Indian governments have managed their affairs, and there is. A paper by an Indian economist published today (Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India by Subroto Roy, IEA £1.80) shows how Asia’s largest democracy is gradually being stifled by the imposition of economic policies whose woeful effect and rhetorical unreality find their echo all over the Third World. As with many of Britain’s former imperial possessions, the rot set in long before independence. But as with most of the other former dependencies, the instrument of economic regulation and bureaucratic control set up by the British has been used decisively and expansively to consolidate a statist regime which inhibits free enterprise, minimizes economic success and consolidates the power of government in all spheres of the economy. We hear little of this side of things when India rattles the borrowing bowl or denigrates her creditors for want of further munificence. How could Indian officials explain their poor performance relative to Hongkong? Dr Roy has the answers for them. He lists the causes as a large and heavily subsidized public sector, labyrinthine control over private enterprise, forcibly depressed agricultural prices, massive import substitution, government monopoly of foreign exchange transactions, artificially overvalued currency and the extensive politicization of the labour market, not to mention the corruption which is an inevitable side effect of an economy which depends on the arbitrament of bureaucrats. The first Indian government under Nehru took its cue from Nehru’s admiration of the Soviet economy, which led him to believe that the only policy for India was socialism in which there would be “no private property except in a restricted sense and the replacement of the private profit system by a higher ideal of cooperative service.” Consequently, the Indian government has now either a full monopoly or is one of a few oligipolists in banking, insurance, railways, airlines, cement, steel, chemicals, fertilizers, ship-building, breweries, telephones and wrist-watches. No businessman can expand his operation while there is any surplus capacity anywhere in that sector. He needs government approval to modernize, alter his price-structure, or change his labour shift. It is not surprising that a recent study of those developing countries which account for most manufactured exports from the Third World shows that India’s share fell from 65 percent in 1953 to 10 per cent in 1973; nor, with the numerous restrictions on inter-state movement of grains, that India has over the years suffered more from an inability to cope with famine than during the Raj when famine drill was centrally organized and skillfully executed without restriction. Nehru’s attraction for the Soviet model has been inherited by his daughter, Mrs. Gandhi. Her policies have clearly positioned India more towards the Soviet Union than the West. The consequences of this, as Dr Roy states, is that a bias can be seen in “the antipathy and pessimism towards market institutions found among the urban public, and sympathy and optimism to be found for collectivist or statist ones.” All that India has to show for it is the delivery of thousands of tanks in exchange for bartered goods, and the erection of steel mills and other heavy industry which help to perpetuate the unfortunate obsession with industrial performance at the expense of agricultural growth and the relief of rural poverty.”…..
I felt this may have been intended to be laudatory but it was also inaccurate and had to be corrected. I replied dated June 4 which The Times published in their edition of June 16 1984:
I was 29 when Pricing, Planning and Politics was published, I am 54 now. I do not agree with everything I said in it and find the tone a little puffed up as young men tend to be; it was also five years before my main “theoretical” work Philosophy of Economics would be published. My experience of life in the years since has also made me far less sanguine both about human nature and about America than I was then. But I am glad to find I am not embarrassed by what I said then, indeed I am pleased I said what I did in favour of classical liberalism and against statism and totalitarianism well before it became popular to do so after the Berlin Wall fell. (In India as elsewhere, former communist apparatchiks and fellow-travellers became pseudo-liberals overnight.)
The editorial itself may have been due to a conversation between Peter Bauer and William Rees-Mogg, so I later heard. The work sold 700 copies in its first month, a record for the publisher. The wife of one prominent Indian bureaucrat told me in Delhi in December 1988 it had affected her husband’s thinking drastically. A senior public finance economist told me he had been deputed at the Finance Ministry when the editorial appeared, and the Indian High Commission in London had urgently sent a copy of the editorial to the Ministry where it caused a stir. An IMF official told me years later that he saw the editorial on board a flight to India from the USA on the same day, and stopped in London to make a trip to the LSE’s bookshop to purchase a copy. Professor Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University had been a critic of aspects of Indian policy; he received a copy in draft just before it was published and was kind enough to write I had “done an excellent job of setting out the problems afflicting our economic policies, unfortunately government-made problems!”
Siddhartha Shankar Ray told me when we first met that he had been in London when the editorial appeared and had seen it there; it affected his decision to introduce me to Rajiv Gandhi as warmly as he came to do a half dozen years later.
Within a few months though, by the Fall of 1984, I was under attack by the “gang of inert game theorists” who had come to Blacksburg following the departure of James Buchanan. By mid 1985 I had moved to Provo, Utah, really rather wishing, as I recall, to have left my India-work behind me. But by late 1986, I was at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, where the perestroika-for-India and Pakistan projects that I and WE James led, had come to be sponsored by the University and the East West Center. The unpublished results of the India-project reached Rajiv Gandhi by my hand on September 18 1990 as has been told elsewhere. A week later, on September 25 1990, Rajiv appointed a small group that included myself, to advise him. It was that encounter with Rajiv Gandhi that sparked the origins of the 1991 economic reform. Yet in 2007 one member of the group, declaring himself close to Sonia Gandhi, brazenly lied in public saying it was Manmohan Singh and not I who had been part of the group — a group of which I had been in fact the first member! Manmohan Singh himself has never claimed to have been present and in fact was not even in India at the time it was formed.
I have explained elsewhere here why I believe this specific lie came to be told by this specific liar who shared membership with me in the group that Rajiv had formed: because I had also pleaded with many and especially within this group that Rajiv had seemed, to my layman’s eyes, very vulnerable to assassination, and none of them had lifted a finger to do anything about it! Such is how duplicity, envy and greed for power make people mendacious and venal in politics!
As for Pricing, Planning and Politics, Dr Manmohan Singh received a personal copy from my father whom he had long known through the Kaul brothers, Brahma and Madan, both of whom were dear friends of my father since the War and Independence. From a letter Dr Singh wrote to my father, he would have received his copy in late 1986 when he was heading the Planning Commission in his penultimate appointment before retirement from the bureaucracy.
Readers of Pricing, Planning and Politics today, 25 years after it was published, may judge for themselves what if any part of it may be still relevant to the new government that Dr Singh is now prime minister of. The work was mostly one of applied microeconomics or the theory of value; in recent years I have written much also of applied macroeconomics or the theory of money as it relates to India. My great professor at Cambridge, Frank Hahn, was kind enough to say in 1985 that he thought my “critique of Development Economics was powerful not only on methodological but also on economic theory grounds”; that to me has been a special source of delight.
Subroto Roy, Kolkata