CHAT In his book ‘Accidental India’, journalist Shankkar Aiyar drives home the point that all good things in India follow “the fascinating but dangerous” pattern of crisis-driven changes

Journalist Shankkar Aiyar’s recently published book Accidental India (Aleph) is based on a premise many already accept as well-founded — the premise that every major game-changer in India has arrived in the wake of a crisis. What makes it a page turner is his efficient driving home of the point, fleshing out the hows and whys with ample exemplars drawn from considerable data mining — from the libraries of the IMF, the World Bank, interviews, research, besides drawing from his own journalistic experience.

Mumbai-based Aiyar says the basic argument has been with him for some time, triggered by a news story he broke in 1991. It was about India furtively airlifting 47 tons of gold from the Reserve Bank of India to pawn it to Bank of England to borrow 400 million dollars to pay its creditors.

“The book itself took me 13 months start-to-launch. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of interrogating the ancestry of change,” he says.

In an e-mail interview, Aiyar elaborates on the argument, calling this pattern of crisis-driven change “fascinating but dangerous”. He rests the blame on our complex systemic flaws. “Typically, the system in India stays in a state of inertia till impacted upon by an external force. And this force is most often a crisis.” The phenomenon is best explained through the current economic crisis, he reasons. “Our GDP growth slid for 24 months in a row, fiscal and current account deficit touched historic highs, borrowings of the Government to fund expenditure shot up from Rs.200 crore per day in 2004 to Rs.1600 crore per day in 2012. Yet the Government was in denial. It was only when the international rating agencies threatened to ‘junk rate’ India in the summer of 2012 that the Government woke up.”

The villain is politics, “almost entirely.”

“There are some issues on which political parties rise above personal interests but the field is narrowing. The harsh truth is that in the quest for preservation of status-quo of political power, national interests are subjugated.” To gain and sustain the numerical majority, “political parties woo sectional interests and preserve interests of the entrenched few who fund their politics. Anything that threatens to upset this business model of electoral politics is rejected or put off.” A typical example here is the Licence Raj despite studies declaring it as disastrous for growth. “Until it had to be dismantled because of a huge crisis.” Still, he says, “Credit must be given to former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao for steering India towards liberalisation. Otherwise, there would have also not been its cascading effect, the software and telecom revolution which came later.”

Aiyar however underlines that not every crisis results in change. “The critical point to acknowledge here is that the momentum of change depends on the force of the crisis, the ferocity of public outrage, public shame and fear of being dislodged by public anger.” He brings the examples of the Green Revolution and the recent Delhi gang-rape here. “India waited for two decades for the Green Revolution. With a history of famine and scarcity, India should have focused on agriculture. It did not. It was only when it faced drought and scarcity, the threat of being denied food aid by the U.S., the shame of being tagged a ‘ship-to-mouth economy’ by the Lyndon Johnson Administration and the fear of Malthusian famine that the Government acted.

If the crisis is visible and vocal it gets attended to. Again, this is validated by the outrage over rapes following the Delhi gang-rape.”

India has had Five Year Plans for six decades now. “There is too much focus on planning, too little on implementation and results. There are 147 centrally sponsored schemes to address social and economic issues. India spends over $ 100 billion on social sector schemes. Yet we continue to have the largest number of poor and malnourished people.”

What India needs urgently is “a structural and systemic overhaul, and a transparent funding model for politics.”

“The multiplicity of agencies is the crux of stasis. Everybody is responsible but nobody is accountable. India also needs a citizen’s charter that ensures the babudom delivers Government services within a specified time. Crime and rampant corruption is emboldened by lack of judicial capacity, justice is delayed and denied.”

Having made his point lucidly in Accidental India , Aiyar is now training his thoughts on “the spectre of public policy failure and the linkage between globalisation, demographics and conflicts.”

“My next book is somewhere round the corner,” he says.