An Indian journey
IN August 1988, I arrived in Delhi as the Financial Times’s South Asia Correspondent. I had spent the previous eight months travelling through East Asia, researching and writing a book length report for the paper on the rapid growth of the so called ‘Asia’s Tiger Economies’ – Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the new hopefuls in South East Asia. My head was swimming with ideas that what had been achieved in these countries could be replicated in India. It was a question of policies, of giving the market the right signals, of good organization and putting people’s intelligence and education to good use. It did not require miracles.
My family and I were met off the flight at Delhi airport and shepherded past the queues at immigration. In what other country could a journalist have been waived past immigration and customs? Delhi airport in those days, with its makeshift buildings, its ill-lit halls and its chaotic organization, was a poor symbol of an international capital. I immediately saw the advantage of having a well-connected office.
Another advantage I had was that I had been to India several times before and had reported on some major events. I had been amongst the first batch of British journalists to arrive in Delhi after the Emergency in 1977. I remember Indira Gandhi’s strained face as she met with the foreign press for the first time after she had lifted the Emergency. I shall never forget the vast crowds at the highly emotional first election rally of the Janata Party in the Ramlila grounds that showed the upsurge of feelings against Congress. I remember watching the big screens outside the newspaper offices on election night which told of the Janata Party’s landslide. In other words, I was already caught up with Delhi – its politics, its obsessions, its self-absorption.
I had also come to love it as a city. Coming from the UK, its entanglement with British history hit you directly. On the one side was the British founded Lutyen’s Delhi, with its echoes of Washington as the capital of a major country. On the other, Delhi was where the British had carried out a mindless destruction of a beautiful city – and of a unique Indo-Persian civilization – in the wake of the 1857 revolt.
This Indo-Persian culture had for me a personal meaning as I had lived in Iran. On each trip to Delhi, I made a point of visiting Humayun’s tomb on the first morning. I thought of it as both a homage to splendid architectural monuments and to this culture. Pavan Varma was to recapture what Delhi had been and the atrocities it had suffered in his book on Ghalib. Meanwhile, I watched the oxen drawing the mowers across the grass, listened to the squawking of the crows and to the sound of the trains in the distance. These were images and sounds I cannot ever forget.
The political and economic landscape in 1988 was very different from the 1970s when I had last been in India. Indira Gandhi, who had dominated the political horizon then, was no longer there. Rajiv Gandhi had embarked on tentative economic reforms that had lifted the growth rate to a higher plateau. But his leadership was under fire after Bofors, and he was struggling with issues like the growth of the Hindutva movement and increasing signs that Indian forces were bogged down in Sri Lanka. In Delhi, he seemed an increasingly isolated figure.
But what struck me most in Delhi – particularly in contrast to East Asia – was the lack of confidence India still seemed to have in itself. There was no longer talk as I had heard in the 1970s of India being constrained by a so-called Hindu rate of growth. But apart from a few rare swallows, there was no sense that India could become a global economic player. Comparisons with East Asia cut no ice. India was a large continent which had to handle in its own way the issues of growth, poverty and inflation.
Delhi was a relatively new staff post for the FT whose major focus at the time was on Europe, the US, and Japan as the epicentres of global business and economic power. John Elliot had set up the post in the early 1980s and was leaving it with great reluctance. He had networked widely and left a trail of contacts for me to pick up. He had also rented a large ground floor flat on Sardar Patel Marg into which we gladly moved. It was in the heart of Chanakyapuri and just opposite the ridge where I took to walking or running in the winter mornings. Unless I strayed as far as the polo grounds, I never saw a soul.
But long before John Elliot had come, K.K. Sharma had represented us and was still active in the Delhi office. He was a fund of knowledge, knew lots of people in government, administration and business and could open doors almost anywhere.
New Delhi in those years was still a city of broad avenues, green spaces and very little traffic. I could not think of any capital which had so many parks, forest areas like the Ridge, and even a golf course in its centre. It was a city in which there were few cars on the streets, most of them white Ambassadors. You could be on time for appointments because it took only a few minutes to reach a government office, an embassy or a luncheon date at the India International Centre.
It was very much the political, administrative and cultural capital. It was the home of think tanks and discussion groups. It seemed – compared to Paris where I had been earlier posted – a place where you could get to know people fairly easily.
My priority was exactly to do this – to get to know the actors on the Delhi stage. What had drawn me to journalism while I was still at school was the notion of being on the spot when history was in the making. It was no fun being behind a desk making telephone calls or writing from newspaper cuttings. I thus set up as many appointments as I could with politicians, senior officials, journalists, academics and businessmen. It helped as well that Delhi had a voracious social life.
Intellectually Delhi’s preoccupations were with its own political world and with that of India. In that it had something in common with Beijing which was as focused on China. India had chosen a path of nonalignment and self-sufficiency under Nehru. It was only beginning to adopt as a goal greater integration into the world economy. Trade and exports were still a relatively minor part of GDP. Talk to Foreign office mandarins like Mani Dixit or Natwar Singh and you had the feeling that Delhi was still an imperial capital whose natural and security frontiers stretched from the Arabian Sea to South East Asia. Delhi was the capital and focal point.
I quickly stumbled into the ambivalence towards the foreign press amongst Delhi’s establishment. The foreign press had been feted after the Emergency during which, though largely excluded from India, it was the major outlet of criticism against Indira Gandhi by the swelling army of her opponents. In most aspects of my daily life and work, this warmth continued. But amongst some of Delhi’s intellectual elite there was an element that echoed anti-colonialism and was suspicious of the West, the US in particular and of capitalism. By extension they were wary of the western press. What did they know of India? And on what basis did they make their often critical reports?
For its part the foreign press used Delhi as their base. Those of us covering South Asia lived here and had our offices here. We met informally in each others houses and more formally – but occasionally – at Foreign Press Club luncheons. We shared the dream that as with the Foreign Press Club in Tokyo or Hong Kong we would have premises to ourselves. This did indeed happen some years later when Manmohan Singh as finance minister arranged a club house on Mathura Road.
To get past this ambivalence to the foreign press took time. You had to prove your credentials. You had to be involved in India, to be caught up in its civilization, to be at home in all its contradictions, to be absorbed in its politics and its problems. You had to be a ‘friend’ of India. Once your credentials were established, the barriers were down. The shining example was Mark Tully, more Indian than most Indians, who could say anything.
Ihad pushed hard to get the job of South Asia Correspondent after I left Paris. India, though a sought out post, was not at the top of the FTs list of priorities. But India had somehow always been in my blood. For long my secret ambition had been to be the Delhi correspondent of a major paper. I did not come from a family that lived in India during the Empire. My first contact had been through my brother who had been – so he told me – the youngest British major in India at the end of the war. I have a memory of him pitching a tent in the garden of our home in Surrey and proudly sleeping in it – which seemed an odd thing to do on a cold English night. He was posted in Ranchi and talked of cantonment life. I later recognized the landscape from the brilliant novels (the Raj Quartet) of Paul Scott which caught the English obsession with India – or rather with an idealized middle class life in India that was a mirror image of the Home counties in the UK.
At the age of seven, I was sent to a small country boarding school that moulded its values on those of the Empire. Discipline, duty, sport, cold showers in the early morning were all given priority. The school also had its share of the hypocrisy and brutality of Empire. The headmaster was fond of boys in a way that would be unacceptable now. Corporal punishment was a feature of our lives, often carried out by the headmaster in a self-indulgent, playful spirit. I remembered him when I read the portrait of Briggs, the policeman, in the Raj Quartet
Between school and university, I hitch-hiked to India. It was a crazy thing to do and was bitterly opposed by my brother – much older than me – who knew the perils of an Indian summer. I travelled third class in the luggage racks of trains. I fell sick with dysentery and jaundice and ended up in a missionary hospital in Allahabad. I was taken to meet Satyajit Ray in Calcutta and stayed for a while at Santiniketan. The whole experience left indelible memories.
When I joined the Times after university as a trainee, it was partly in the hope of one day being the New Delhi correspondent. On hearing that Neville Maxwell – who made his name with India’s China War – was leaving the post, I went to the foreign editor to apply for the job. I had no experience and was understandably turned down. But some years later I did find myself in Pakistan as the Times correspondent covering the 1971 war from West Pakistan. It was a thankless job, as Yahya Khan’s regime blocked access to news of any value and censored all press cables as well. But it was my first reporting experience in South Asia.
I came back in 1977 – this time with the Financial Times – in a roving job that allowed me to travel pretty much where I wanted in Asia. I spent much of the time in India – first with the elections after the Emergency and then on subsequent visits as news or the FT’s survey programme dictated.
Before I returned to Delhi as correspondent in 1988, Geoff Owen, the editor at the time, had given me the brief to focus on India. I had been on trips with him earlier to both India and China. The latter he found very difficult, but he was fascinated by India, its size and potential, and by its knack of burying its head in the sands. He always came back to George Fernandes’ decision to expel Coca Cola which seemed to Geoff like turning your back on the world. I think he had sent me on such a long journey though East Asia before I came to Delhi because he wanted an approach to India that had a knowledge of those economies behind it.
Focusing on India in late 1988 was not easy. Events elsewhere in South Asia made the headlines. The rest of my colleagues moved in a pack from crisis to crisis. The Soviet forces were under intensive pressure from the mujahideen in Afghanistan – armed from across the border in Pakistan. Within a few weeks of my arrival, Zia was assassinated in Pakistan. I flew there immediately. I had been in Pakistan when Zia had seized power, though he later refused to see me after I characterized him as being something of a ‘buffoon’. I also personally knew Arnie Raphel, the American ambassador, who had been on the plane and was killed as well.
I was in Pakistan for a lengthy period after the assassination and then again in November for the elections that followed. In December, I was also in Sri Lanka for the elections that took place against the background of the JVP insurgency in the South.
But overall I did indeed spend much more time in India than most of my colleagues. Always ticking at the back of my mind was the idea with which I had come. Why could not India do as well as East Asia had done? Some economists in Delhi and outside were beginning to think on these lines. But orthodoxy amongst Delhi think-tanks and in government Delhi was still framed by Nehru’s legacy and a distancing from market economics. Some business leaders were more long-term bullish – though short-term frustrated. As the FT correspondent, part of the beat was to cover business and to see as many business leaders as possible. A hidden secret that I quickly learnt was that they had a knowledge of the political ins and outs that passed by most Delhi based reporters.
Ispent time in Bombay discovering valuable contacts such as Deepak Parekh at HDFC and Pradeep Shah at Crisil whom I would regularly use as sounding boards. I met Dhirubhai Ambani and his two sons – Dhirubhai predicting that over the next 5-10 years a handful of Indian companies would make it to the Fortune 500 list. I enlisted Gita Piramal to write for the FT. She personally knew every business house in the city. We wrote a long feature together on Ratan Tata and his struggle to control the barons in his group. I was taken by B.K. Modi by helicopter to visit his plants in Rudrapur and Modi Nagar. I was wooed by the Hindujas – until they threatened a libel action against the paper for something I wrote about their interests in Iran.
The FT gave a lot of freedom in allowing me to pick up issues I chose. I went to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad – a stunning experience – and wrote a piece on this great Hindu pilgrimage that was not a natural subject for the Financial Times. I spent time in Kashmir where the insurgency was developing and when there were ugly clashes in Srinagar. As the Ayodhya issue began to explode, I travelled to and fro to Lucknow. I remember driving back to Lucknow from Ayodhya after the laying of the foundation stones for the proposed temple with kar sevaks in every village blocking the roads with burning tyres.
But slowly I gathered material for a lengthy feature that appeared in October 1989. The first sentence read: ‘Tell an Indian that his country could be entering a "golden age" and he will look at you with shock and incredulity.’ The theme was that India had the skills, intelligence, and entrepreneurial drive to achieve the higher rates of growth that had been witnessed in East Asia. It required changes in policy that would give industry a freer rein and would integrate India more in the global economy. I quoted Deepak Parekh as saying: ‘If we loosen the reins a little more the multiplier effect will be enormous’.
As a long-term forecast, it was prescient in the light of what India did achieve subsequent to Manmohan Singh’s liberalization programme and the 8-9 per cent growth achieved in recent years. But in the short term it was disastrously mistaken. The economy was engulfed by problems of deficits and inflation that led to import controls and eventually the selling of part of the gold reserves. The December elections resulted in Rajiv Gandhi being replaced by a fragile coalition headed by V.P. Singh. Caste and communal violence exploded in 1990 with Mandal and Ayodhya dominating local headlines. An intractable insurgency erupted in Kashmir, and India and Pakistan seemed headed for confrontation.
A year after the publication of my feature on India’s golden opportunity, the mood in Delhi had completely changed. I wrote another feature which had a very different theme. It began: ‘As caste and religious violence have rolled across India in recent weeks, many Indians have the uncomfortable sense of living through a period of social upheaval without precedent in their country’s post-independence history.’
It’s a sad truth that bad news makes good copy for a journalist. I travelled enormously in India in the years 1989-1991. The collapse of the coalition government and fresh elections in 1991 meant that there were two major electoral campaigns in a very short period. I seemed to be endlessly on the road, caught up in all the noise and tamasha of an Indian campaign. I was back in Ayodhya and Lucknow for the seizing of the mosque and the rioting against reservations. Along with the rest of the foreign press corps, I was back in Kashmir as militant violence increased and Jagmohan took to increasingly repressive measures to control it.
But the most traumatic event was still to come. I was back in Delhi after travelling during the election campaign. We had a small group of friends to dinner in the midst of the 1991 election campaign. They included Aftab Seth, who was then the foreign ministry spokesman. It was 11 o’clock and we were close to packing up when I got a call from the FT’s London office. Did I know there were reports that Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated? I didn’t – nor obviously at that moment did Aftab. The party broke up at once and I dashed to our office in Malcha Marg. The streets of Delhi had an unearthly quiet – though not many people could at that time be aware of what had happened. When I entered, I saw to my horror that the PTI news tape – on which I, like all foreign journalists at that period, depended for basic news – had got jammed. I struggled with the machine despairingly for five minutes and then gave up.
I spent the night writing reams of copy for the insatiable demands of the paper, most of it appearing in the later London editions. The demand was for analysis of what it meant for India and for up-to-date information on what had happened and on the mood of the country. I reflected what everyone felt that night – the fear of the rioting and bloodshed that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984.
A few days later I was shocked to open the paper to see a jointly signed letter from A.P. Venkateswaran, former Foreign Secretary, Bhabani Sen Gupta and two others saying they were ‘dismayed and outraged’ by an article implying that India’s democratic institutions could be threatened by the death of one individual. I don’t think I implied that. But I was happy to see the following day a letter from Neville Maxwell – who had himself crossed swords with some of the establishment intelligentsia over his India’s China war – come to my rescue.
Throughout the fast moving events, India’s foreign reserves were slowly being drained and the balance of payments moving to a crisis. In Delhi, a small group of economists, including Montek Ahluwalia and Rakesh Mohan, were writing papers that got discreet circulation on the urgent need for major reforms, including tariff reductions and an end to industrial licencing. I saw Manmohan Singh – who was out of office – on two or three occasions and his views had also swung much more in the direction of a market economy.
In June, when he took over as finance minister under the new government of Narasimha Rao, I was back on track that the government now had the leeway to carry through major reforms. At his first press conference in Delhi in June 1991, Manmohan Singh talked of making India an internationally competitive economy. He used South Korea as a model, comparing its success with India’s failure to achieve its economic potential. It was a complete somersault for somebody who had once been a left-leaning economist.
The devaluation of the rupee and the reform package announced in July did indeed unleash forces that led to India achieving a higher growth platform. But since then ‘golden opportunities’ have come and gone. India has got stuck in other road blocks. Old problems of deficits and inflation have come back to haunt. One consequence of liberalization has been an unwelcome concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small elite that smacks of the robber capitalism of the US at the turn of the 19th century.
Liberalization brought change to Delhi – some of it unwelcome. The once empty streets soon began to fill with cars of every make. Traffic, flyover systems and closed intersections have changed the character of Delhi. It is no longer the intimate city it was. There are quiet corners and hidden treasures. But it is now truly a mega city in which different townships often lead separate lives.
I was involved personally in setting up the Foreign Correspondent’s Club which has become a landmark on the Mathura Road. I had become President and approached Manmohan Singh to ask whether he could find us a space. He was still on very good terms with the press who in those days unanimously sang his praise. A few weeks later he came back to me to offer the house on Mathura Road.
I was also involved in the restoration of the gardens of Humayun’s Tomb. The British community proposed this project as a way of marking 50 years of Independence. As negotiations dragged on British companies lost their enthusiasm and the project was in the end funded by the Agha Khan foundation.
But for me personally, the liberalization of the 1990s had certain concrete results. In spite of my huge enjoyment of journalism, I had begun to think I had had enough. I quit the Financial Times and with my then wife set up a company – Shades of India. It was a leap in the dark, but only made possible by a change in regulations. The strains of running a business together shattered our marriage. But Shades of India has grown. It has been a roller coaster ride but we are now a business firmly established in India and with markets across the world.
I am remarried to an Indian and have a small daughter. I don’t feel that this is ‘staying on’ as immortalized in Paul Scott’s novel. In the world we inhabit, people of different nationalities live and work in each other’s countries. I feel part of that mainstream.
One footnote I would add. In the early 1990s, my son Kim was captured and held hostage for 17 days by Islamic militants in Kashmir. Many people thought at the time that the trauma would mean that I and my family would want to leave India and never return. But the reality was that the support and understanding we got from Indian friends and acquaintances at the time brought us even closer to India. I now live permanently in India. I am not an Indian citizen. But I am officially classified by the odd title – at least for a foreigner – of ‘A Person of Indian Origin.’