May 29 2009:
It is a quarter century precisely today 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.
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
From Subroto Roy & WE James’s Introduction 1989-1990 to Foundations of India’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s edited by them, published by Sage 1992, received by Rajiv Gandhi on September 1990 in manuscript form.
“Finally, no discussion of the subcontinent’s political economy can ignore the fact of the monumental poverty of external goods on the part of a vast population, in contrast with a fairly large class of people with adequate livelihoods, in turn contrasting with small islands of indolence and conspicuous consumption. Benjamin Disraeli said of Victorian England that it consisted of two nations. The Indian subcontinent today consists in many respects of two nations living side by side, the real division being much less longitudinal on religious or communal lines (as intended by Muslim separatists at the time of Partition and Hindu imperialists today) as it is latitudinal on class lines between “bhadralok” and “janata”, middle class and working classes, bourgeoisie and masses, “nomenclatura” and proletariat. The sheer numbers can justify speaking of whole nations, the janata in India alone consisting of something like seven hundred million people, the bhadralok of one hundred and fifty million. The Indian bhadralok on their own constitute one of the largest nations on earth.
The bhadralok are not to be distinguished from the janata by any self-styled civility, nor is there any inevitable conflict which will lead to the victory of one and decimation of the other, nor is it that one derives its income from productive effort or enterprise and the other does not. A more effective criterion by which to distinguish the two nations of India may have to do not with work but with leisure, as well as with the kind of capital that comes to be inherited over time. The janata are the unleisured nation of India, people who mostly due to the meagreness of their initial resources come to possess little or no leisure in the course of their lifetimes. They are scattered and illiterate, without connections in high places, often too involved with the hardships of daily life to care for much else. They eat and sleep to maintain the minimum energy needed to survive, reproduce and send their children to school or work, travelling through life day by day and week by week. They may have some short time devoted to religion or entertainment, but life is too often too hard, not so much without happiness or culture as without much time for either. Expectations of what life has to offer may be unambitious and yet successful.
Inequality from an economic point of view may consist of the fact that the poor do not inherit any leisure from the past. They do not inherit the savings of their parents and ancestors because most did not have parents and ancestors who had any savings to leave behind. Capital and the income it generates, and the consumption which such income makes possible, are among the most subtle notions of political economy. As a rough approximation, if we distinguish between human capital, physical and financial capital, and social and political capital, it may be said that the inheritance of economic inequality in India may consist of the inheritance of economic inequality in India may consist of the inheritance by the janata of no form of capital except their own stock of human capital. There is little or no inheritance from parents of savings or any other form of capital. Hence the janata are also the “garib lok”, the masses are also the poor folk.
By contrast the bhadralok are also the leisured nation of the subcontinent, with the time and inclination to praise or decry the state of the culture or the economy or the prime minister, to visit or return from the outside world (“baahar”) to the subcontinent or vice versa, to take a walk in the morning or a nap in the afternoon, to express compassion for or embarrassment about the existence of the janata (especially in relation to the foreigner since the bhadralok have to explain both their privileged position relative to the janata and their often underprivileged position relative to the foreigner with whom they desire to consort), to study the janata or lead them in revolution or take measurements of them, and to read, write, edit or publish books such as this one. The bhadralok are the “respectable people” of the subcontinent, with names, family histories and reputations, literate and often highly educated, bilingual at least, with an inheritance of or illusions about acknowledged places in society. They inherit from their parents and save for their children physical and financial capital, invest in their human capital, and bestow to them as much social and political capital as they can. The mercantile and industrial bhadralok own and transfer to their children relatively more physical and financial capital, while the managerial, administrative and professional bhadralok may transfer relatively more social and political capital. At the apex of both groups is an elite amounting to a few million people, united perhaps by their membership or attempted membership of the post-British social clubs and centres of intellectualism, or foreign universities and the lower middle classes of Britain and North America.
What may be expected in the long run is mobility between the two nations and in both directions. Through indolence or bad luck, families can fall by a half or a third of a social class each generation, or move in the opposite direction through chance or cunning or enterprise and effort. It is an essential feature of mass economic development that there will be net mobility upwards in the long run, and an attendant breakdown of social barriers and the gradual assimilation of classes and castes into one another. Contrary to an assumption of the working classes being united in their despair and contempt for the middle class, and motivated in their desire to bloodily dispose of them, it may be more accurate to say that what unleisured people want most (after employment, food, shelter and clothing) is what they value most at the margin, namely, leisure. What the working classes desire most may be something like the kind of life as the bourgeoisie. Let aside there being a potential or open conflict arising from the janata against the bhadralok, the truth of the matter could be there is a desire of the janata to have at least some leisure like the bhadralok.
If this is an accurate assumption, the main source of conflict between the two nations of India or the subcontinent could be different from what is often supposed by many people. Instead of being revolutionary in nature and deriving from below, the source may be reactionary in nature and amount to resistance from the top. Like all cartels, the bhadralok may want to preserve their numbers and not look with favour at the prospect of large-scale mass economic development, entailing as this will greater competition on all fronts, the erosion of privilege, the breakdown of social barriers and the assimilation of classes into one another.
The Jacobin/Bolshevik/Maoist method of reducing inequalities was to expropriate physical and financial capital, and decimate social and political capital and all that stands in the way of such destruction. The upheaval and chaos of such blood-letting leaves a new order which is, or seems, for a moment, more egalitarian than the regime it replaces. But it also leaves a society without knowledge of its past, alternately enervated by its present and terrified of its future. Recovery from such a state of near social death has been long and hard and painful, where it has happened at all. Despite the wishes of a few, India does not seem likely to experience such social death on a national scale, although the temporary effects of terrorism and civil chaos in pockets of the country would seem to be similar.
A more far-sighted method would be by the creation of capital for the janata to increase their sources of income and consumption and thereby reduce the inequality of wealth and political power. It would mean investment in the only form of capital that the janata have: their own human capital. It would mean fundamentally a change of focus away from the theoretical and grandiose in the drawing-rooms and corridors of New Delhi (and Washington), and towards the simple and commonsensical: stopping the wastage of the tax-resources; making the currency sound at home and abroad; redirecting public investment towards public goods such as civil justice, roads, fresh water and sanitation; and fostering a civilized rural life, built around village schools with blackboards and chalk, with playgrounds and libraries and hot meals, with all-weather buildings and all-weather roads to their doors.
India today resembles a kind of gigantic closed city with high walls and few gates. Within the walls are concurrently represented many different ages in the history of man, from pre-historic and early Aryan, to medieval and Moghul, to Dickensian and American, the members of each age having some common and some individual sets of life-expectations, yet all being due to enter the next century together. Outside is the rest of human civilization, as well as the free circulation of gold and foreign exchange. Nearabouts the gates of the city, and with ability to travel in and out, are the few million of the elite. If the walls of the city are to be knocked down or at least if the gates opened and kept wide open, it will have to be the elite who do this or consent to have it done.
If it is done properly, after adequate preparation of the economic and political expectations of citizens, there may be many positive results, not only for the economy but also for the culture and civilization of the subcontinent as a whole. The free flow of ideas and opportunities across national borders; the freedom to travel in the world; the free movement of goods and capital; the freedom to save one’s tangible wealth, small as this may be, in whatever form or currency one considers best — these are fundamentally important freedoms which have been denied to most of the people of the subcontinent thus far and yet are taken for granted elsewhere in the world. There seems little reason to doubt that if such freedoms come to be gradually exercised by the janata there would be a permanent trend of increase in mass income and consumption.
Yet there are genuine questions of sovereignty which have to be anticipated as well. The consequences of a true opening are not fully or easily foreseeable. The prompt arrival of new East India Companies may be expected. Will there be enough competition between them? Or will the elite come to be further subverted, taking the first Indian Republic with it? After the long experience of foreign rule and nationalism and independent democracy, is the Indian polity mature enough to survive and gain from such an opening, or will it collapse once again as it did in the eighteenth century? The spectres of Plassey and Avadh must haunt every Indian nationalist, even as the hopes of a free economy and a progressive culture and an open civilization, beckon from the future. Is it a silent and implicit fear of this sort which constitutes the only possible rational barrier to greater freedom? Has the continued poverty been, in effect, the cost of nationalism? These are hard questions to which answers may not be found easily. It is hoped by the editors that the present volume may engage the citizens and friends of India to reflect upon them….”
From Facebook 7 Sep 2010:
Rajiv Gandhi received this book in manuscript form in hand from me on Sep 18 1990, and it contributed to the origins of India’s 1991 economic reform as has been described elsewhere. I am delighted to hear his son Rahul has in the last few days also been referring to India as “Two Nations”, rich and poor. Dr Manmohan Singh received the book itself in hand from me at the Indian Ambassador’s Residence in Washington in Sepember 1993; I am glad to see he too has yesterday mentioned the same “Two Nations” theory that I had applied from Disraeli’s book about Victorian England.