13 December 2005

Retrospective Series : Part 6 : A struggle for the minds of our people

"Liberalisation is not a process of mechanical economic policy-making, but a struggle for the minds of our people, and we do believe we are succeeding,"
- Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, Dec 2005.
ASEAN Summit.


The year was 1990. A crisp new decade. I had just finished my 10th grade and was moving on to a different school in a nearby town for my 11th and 12th grade. Television in India was exemplified by a Goliath called Doordarshan which broadcast one channel to a billion people. The 22 minutes of singles picked from Bollywood musicals and showcased as 'Chithrahaar' was the prime time show of the week. The 9 pm news usually featured Rini Simon who would read out a government sponsored baritone of the days events. A turbaned man surfaced from the depths of anonymity to become the new finance minister in a fledgling congress government. A government propped up by truck loads of money and horse trading. The prime minister of the day, Narasimha Rao seemed to place a great deal of confidence in him and when I heard that this guy was a Doctor in Economics and yet had managed to become the Finance minister of the country, I was shocked. It was an unheard of event. In my experience the only educated people that I could remember having ever occupied political office were a few of the presidents. Other than that, everyone else was the usual "son of the soil" "wolf in sheep's clothing" kind of muck. As a kid, I had written essays on the population problems that India faced, the illiteracy that was endemic across the poorer parts of the nation and myriad other subjects. Ironically I do not recollect writing any essays on improving the economy or the money making potential of the country and its country men.

The next two years of school were tumultuous because of the gut wrenching competition to get into a professional degree program at a good University. Amidst all this personal chaos, I began noticing that we had more television channels beamed into our homes via private satellites, news was no longer served in baritones, MASH was the coolest show on TV and 'Bold and the Beautiful' was the king of Soaps. I even got to see my first computer and during fall of that year I programmed my first bouncing ball game in GWBasic.

During this period the debate in the country was intense. The doom Sayers and the eternal optimists both waxed eloquent about their end of the story. The doom Sayers cribbed about how the country was going to be relegated to the imperialistic pits of the 21st century and the eternal optimists harped on how the country would turn into a Singapore wonderland overnight. After I got into an engineering program, the debates and the essay competitions at the University too suddenly changed tone and tenor. Everything was about 'Liberalisation'. It was natural, because engineers are usually one of the first beneficiaries of a liberalized economy. 'Competition success review' a geek digest that catered to the fanatical Indian wanting to appear in any competitive exam was strewn from cover to cover with analysis and statistics on the new liberalisation policy and how things were getting better with the economy.

I ended up taking the side of the liberals in all my writings and debates. This was not necessarily because of a firm ideological belief, but rather one driven by reality as my middle class parents were evidently one of the beneficiaries of the new policy. I was living a life metaphorically far away from the real poverty of India and hence I never had an opportunity to better appreciate the negative sides of the changes. My mind had been converted towards a policy of liberalisation and I lapped up every word written or spoken about it.

Things were definitely getting better for the middle class as the years progressed and I got into the job market around the time that the IT bandwagon hit town. The winter of 2005, finds me in the US, reading the online edition of the Indian Express and I saw this quote attributed to Manmohan Singh, the same turbaned guy of the early 90s, who is now India's prime minister. I couldn't help but think, how true this statement was. Liberalization indeed is a struggle for the minds of the people. I converted early on because the conditions of real life aided me towards such a position. Would that have been the case if my family had suffered job losses, lower wages or I had trouble getting into a decent school or find a decent job ? Life is too complicated for every incident to be attributable to a hand full of causes, but nevertheless we always need a handful of causes as the scape goats. Liberalisation is one such scape goat.

Today I can proudly say that Liberalisation has my ideological support, but the journey towards that ideological position was fuelled entirely by the realities of every day life. I just happened to be lucky to see it from the good side. Are we even close to providing that realistic foothold to every Indian living so that he can climb onto this bandwagon and call it his own ? I am not sure. But achieving that goal, I believe is going to be the struggle for the country as a whole. A struggle for the minds of our people.

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