In Black and White
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Book: India's Tryst with Destiny
Author: Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya
Publisher: Collins Business
Price: Rs 599
This volume, by two celebrated and regular commentators on the Indian economy, is a straight-from-the-heart defence of the post-1991 liberalisation and reforms of the Indian economy. The first part of the book rebuts various criticisms of the reform process, termed by the authors as "myths". The second and third parts of the book outline suggestions for deepening and expanding the reforms process, in sections dealing with "Track II "and "Track III" reforms.
Substantively, the book reiterates the authors' familiar suspicion of government, their irrepressibly optimistic belief in the invisible hand and their loyalty to laissez faire. Simply written, the book is a quick read, and therein lies the rub. If one were to start from Nehru's vision for independent India (which somewhat surprisingly is reviewed favourably by the authors), go on to a reasoned assessment of which parts of that vision worked and which failed (and why), link that assessment with factors that prompted the need for reforms, and then evaluate the post-reform experience, it would lead to an academic enquiry which would not only be long and complex, but, ideally, would also have plenty of shades of grey. This volume attempts a giant sweep of all these issues, but presents us with blocks of black (the myths) and white (the rebuttal, i.e., the rosy face of reforms).
In setting up these black-and-white blocks, the authors end up making two critical omissions, which are not only surprising for a book written in 2012, but also put their whole argument under a cloud. First, there is no mention of the growth slowdown of the Indian economy. The growth recorded in 2012-13 is the slowest in the last decade. And this slowdown started at least two years back, if not earlier. Reading this book, we wouldn't know that. And, if growth itself is slowing down, what would be the fate of the supposedly virtuous cycle of reforms leading to higher growth, leading to a bigger pie, so that everyone gets more? According to the book, this is not simply a chimera – this is what actually happened between 1991 and the present.