MIDNIGHT’S MACHINES: A Political History of Technology in Indiaby Arun Mohan Sukumar. Penguin Viking, Delhi, 2019.
Arun Mohan Sukumar’s book, Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India documents the fraught relationship between successive Indian governments with technology – or, to put it more specifically, with the problems of crafting policies that can provide widespread access to technological advancement in India. While governing a nation whose foremost characteristic is an enormous population, whose livelihoods, social outlook and community structure perceive technological solutions to be threatening, successive governments have awkwardly attempted half solutions that occasionally manage, but also sustain the problem.
In many ways, the central puzzle of Sukumar’s book is interesting in itself: technology, the argument goes, is a critical ingredient in finally freeing the individual from the shackles of community and caste. After all, the great debates about the transition from feudalism to capitalism – and thus a shift from lives lived according to birth based identities, to modern individualistic living, all acknowledge that the advent of technological advancement decisively shifted the balance in favour of a more progressive society. Theoretically, then, technology should provide a further means of transcending that central question that dominates so much of India’s social realities: birth.
But the answers to this question – as any Indian social scientist will know – are tricky, and the fate of technological access, in many ways, share the same problems. The concern was that too much freedom in enabling access to technology might divest India of its identity and turn it into one more cog in a fast food machine. Sukumar’s first chapter deals with the complexities of Nehru’s tussle with this question. While on the one hand, being famous for declaring the Bhakra Nangal Dam as being a ‘temple for modern India’, Sukumar argues that Nehru took a cautious view of the potential of technology, arguing that the medium of technology per se was unimportant, as compared to the ways in which technology could be harnessed to develop a better sense of societal conscience. Convinced, Sukumar writes ‘that Indians, if exposed overnight to the awesome power of technology, would become beholden to it’; Nehru followed domestic policies which would try to prevent this outcome.
The state’s insistence on carefully regulating the access to technology to its citizens, and its monopolization over its production – as well as consumption – meant that access to this medium by the citizen was heavily restricted. Yet, this insistence produced curious contradictions. Because of the Nehruvian state’s uneasiness with technology there was a curious gap in the kinds of development in science in India. A genuinely mass based technology, such as access to the television or radio was markedly delayed in India and resulted in its citizens lagging behind in their ability to transcend the challenges of underdevelopment. Yet, in other spheres – such as research on space, atomic energy – to use Jahnavi Phalkey’s phrase, ‘Big Technology’, India in fact displayed considerable achievements. The problem with this, though, was that there was never any societal support from the rest of the food chain – and these devices never truly touched the average citizen. A striking demonstration of this is the fact that IIT alumni were unable to find employment within the country and, almost to a man, had to look outside the country for their job prospects.
In fact, these contradictions also hampered the working of the Community Development Scheme created by Nehru, which ‘was trying to create an uneasy equilibrium between increased productivity in villages and small-scale industries, ensuring its users understood the tools given to them, and limiting the use of unnecessary machines altogether.’ But, in many ways this was an artificial distinction, and the scheme, unable to overcome the artificial impositions imposed by the state based on political and social considerations, largely ended in failure, resulting, Sukumar notes, in ‘A great psychological and material distance arose between the citizen and the machine.’
This uneasy coexistence between two opposing requirements continued to manifest itself during the Indira Gandhi years. Dealt a rude shock by the military defeat to China in 1962, it became clear, the Bhabha committee report pointed out, there remained urgent repairs in the transport, defence and communications sectors. Yet, ‘even where circumstances required the intervention of the state to bring new technologies closer to the people, the Indian government proceeded in the opposite direction.’ For one thing, the specter of job losses due to technology raised its head in political rhetoric, and Indira Gandhi chose to come out as an advocate of this argument to secure her own electoral interests. One idea which seemed to provide a convenient route out of this conundrum was the concept of ‘appropriate technology’. For instance, a young Amartya Sen suggested, a distinction could be made between adopting ‘landesque’ and ‘labouresque’ technologies – for India, landesque technology would be more appropriate than labouresque, which would deprive agricultural workers of their living.
On the whole, though, Sukumar shows, the Green Revolution occurred in spite of, rather than because of, Indira Gandhi’s attitudes to technology. Although regarded as a great success story today, the idea of introducing more mechanization and seeding technology to agriculture produced a great deal of resistance. The arguments against introducing tractors and combine harvesters, moreover, were more or less in sync with Indira Gandhi’s concerns: it would gobble up the wages of the labourers, increase disparity between rich and poor landowners in addition to upsetting the ecological system. The reason that it was set into motion, Sukumar notes, was a combination of factors that threatened Indira Gandhi’s premiership: the devaluation of the rupee, two successive years of drought, and a poor electoral performance.
The introduction of computers into India was also subject to the same vexed tussle. Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure saw a proliferation of the use of Information Technology in the government. An early form of this was the building of the platform ‘CRISP’ (Computerized Rural Information Systems Project) introduced under the supervision of a civil servant who spotted the potential of building a computerized data set for the work of the District Rural Development Agency. This later developed into the NICNET project, designed to enable a national network of micro computers for digitizing and sharing data amongst public institutions. Its implementation, however, was impeded by the unwillingness of state governments to share information with the Centre. Its creation, moreover, Sukumar notes, required the breaking of over 300 regulations before it could be launched. Local administrations being unable or unwilling to learn how to enter data, turf wars within government departments, and hostility from bureaucrats who saw the project as a threat to their fiefdoms, ensured the project’s failure. Indeed, Sukumar notes, the eventual flowering of the Information Technology sector in India was ‘hardly the culmination of some aggressive effort by the state to bring computing to the masses. It occurred overnight, and almost entirely by accident.’
Sukumar’s last chapter, and amongst the most interesting, details the story of India’s technocrats, Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, Vikram Sarabhai and Nandan Nilekani. In many ways, the diverse history of these men was unified by a single theme: an attempt to develop a systematized and uniform method that could collectively uplift the standard of living, while being bogged down by the complexities and variedness of the reality of the lived experience in India. While developing the platform for Aadhaar to be expanded in government, Nandan Nilekani found that the technology could be deployed in a variety of ways that may not necessarily ring true with its original ideals, but do align with the direction of politics, government and the state in India. Thus the Aadhaar debate has ‘suffered from rampant politicization and bureaucratic meddling, not just from Delhi, but also from the states.’
Indeed, Sukumar argues that the concept of technology itself is politically fraught: ‘If, for decades the Congress has been inclined to see Technology as the Great Corrupter, it is, to the BJP, the Great Disruptor.’ Modi himself is far less squeamish about being seen to be technologically advanced than his predecessors and also has been able to ‘marshal Hindu pride through technological platforms in a way that the RSS itself, with its emphasis on ‘swadeshi’ values, is ambivalent about.
Sukumar’s book is a rich tour de force of the history of the Indian state’s relationship with technology, as well as the accompanying social and political issues around it. It will definitely serve to enliven the debates about progress, advancement and development around India’s ‘rise’. Yet, the question remains: some three decades after the liberalization of the economy, the interface between technology and the average Indian citizen remains relatively limited.
A startling statistic that emerged during the tussle over ‘net neutrality’ between Facebook and India’s telecom regulator was that less than 30% of Indians had access to social media – and possibly the internet. The direction of the government’s policy with regard to technology – discouraging or otherwise – may not be the only reason that this is true. Partly, the lack of development of technological solutions may well be a product of various governments’ specific policies that could and should be changed, but may also be indicative of a structural feature of the Indian landscape: the entrenched, and unchanging fact of its poverty.
Assistant Professor of International Relations, Ashoka University, Sonipat
THE NETWORKED PUBLIC: How Social Media is Changing Democracy by Amber Sinha. Rupa Publications, Delhi, 2019.
OUR typical conceptualization of democratic overthrowing carries drama: a military coup, one swoop of an executive usurping, or a flagrant abuse of voting fraud. With our guard against these spectacles, we perhaps did not realize the vulnerabilities of long-standing constitutional norms until these structures began to slowly decay. Although it is true that India has always felt the fragility of its deliberative democracy, new eras bring in new facets of concern. The current moment of ‘democratic backsliding’ – ‘the gradual dismantling of institutions and mechanisms that check and balance the powers of the executive in liberal democratic constitutional frameworks’ – both gives life to and is given life by a new digital medium overlaying the sovereign public as researcher Amber Sinha describes in his book The Networked Public.
‘The move from full-blooded coups to democratic backsliding means that democracies erode gradually rather than implode rapidly’, Sinha argues. ‘If we have to have any chance of arresting this slide, it is important to recognize that current trends are not random events but natural responses to local and international incentives.’
These incentives, he finds, are mismanaged by corporate and state powers equally, culminating in the technological dimension of today’s democratic backsliding. Sinha manages to piece together seemingly disparate topics to examine this backsliding’s undercurrents, albeit with some amount of meandering away from his original thesis. For readers unaware of the major technology threads of the day in India, the book presents a useful recap.
On the private player front, the platforms have created not ‘a marketplace for ideas’ but ‘an information architecture... designed to show information which an individual may find most engaging, to serve the advertiser interest.’ Sinha snakes through corporate issues of social media misinformation, short-term thinking algorithms, the targeted ad economy, the illusion of authoritative content on WhatsApp’s closed networks, and the half-hearted, ineffective attempts at fact-checking. ‘Although they are run by private corporations, these platforms have become public squares for discourse without any public accountability, and have consequently blurred the lines between public and private’, he notes.
On the public front, Sinha integrates political micro-targeting, government data collection, polarizing electoral speech, and the necessary ingredients of platform liability to showcase that the government is no benign bystander. In fact, the authoritarian state can reap more benefit from a networked media than meets the eye.
Ultimately, the book’s stroll through the news-worthy technological topics of the past few years ends at his acceptance of some amount of government regulation of technocrats, but he ruminates for something much larger. Sinha relies heavily on the foundational work of John Dewey, who spelt out a logical belief in the possibility of a deliberative society. To reach such a state, in the technological age, Sinha champions structural reforms to fix democracy and capitalism.
Deriding the Chicago School of weak competition laws as focused only on consumer harm, Sinha argues that the monopolistic nature of technology behemoths need to be reigned in by a new age of global antitrust reform. In addition, campaign finance reforms can put an equal amount of accountability on state accumulation of power. Sinha is not the first to call for these structural reforms, nor will he be the last. More interestingly, he places them at the forefront of a technology discussion, linking the symptoms to the true underlying causes.
A fundamentally more competitive market and competitive democracy will lead to a Dewey’s imagined public, wherein individual choice of information will inevitably lead to a cooperative, informed public: a sum of its parts that overshadows its bad apples. ‘Perhaps Dewey’s ideal of the public’s social existence, and the ability to form associations, is where we need to look. The way a democracy can work is if the public can organize itself in a way that it can use the information that it drew from its social environment to inform its collective action. This would require a competitive market where the public can choose its sources of information and recognize privately owned platforms as public forums and have meaningful mechanisms to engage and associate with’, he writes.
Right now, the pie remains mostly bad apples because of the growing authoritarian powers that be, in Sinha’s eyes. Information arenas of passive thinking, echo chambers, political micro-targeting, polarizing speech, and the like overwhelm the market. They have become the features caused by and causing the democratic backsliding of the recent moment.
While Sinha’s ability to understand the citizen’s precarious positioning between corporate and state influence allows for an even-handed prescription, if a reader fundamentally disagrees with Dewey’s optimism and freedom in choice, they might find the remedy shallow even if the diagnosis is clear. Sinha does dissect the beliefs of Dewey’s foil, Walter Lippman, who saw an informed citizenry as an unattainable goal. But this Dewey-Lippman dichotomy does little to illuminate the realistic manipulations that even an open marketplace of information platforms would still grapple with. If any platform were built with the most addictive features of a casino, would the citizen’s choice in platforms be any different? Would enough people choose platforms that prioritize the aspects of deliberative democracy that Sinha illuminates? Does one as a reader have similar faith and trust in an individual’s desire and strength for an informative public?
The merits of such a campaign remain debatable. Nonetheless, Sinha reminds us, it is a goal worth fighting for, attainable or not.
Journalist, ‘The Indian Express’
PRIVACY 3.0: Unlocking Our Data-Driven Future by Rahul Matthan. HarperCollins, Delhi, 2018.
INDIA’S large state apparatus has always been Janus-faced: holding out the promise of greater public good often at profound human cost. Our newer digital infrastructures repeat this motif: harnessing our data to deliver services, but raising the price that we pay – the cost of our privacy. How might the law help navigate this tension?
In this context, Rahul Matthan’s provocatively titled book, Privacy 3.0: Unlocking Our Data-Driven Future, sets out on an ambitious project: to trace the evolution of privacy in society, connect it to recent Indian developments and provide an alternative framework for privacy regulation. Ultimately, the central thesis of his book is that a certain inevitable pattern emerges in the way that society reacts to new technologies: first rejecting them because of privacy concerns, but eventually accepting them to harness their benefits.
This optimistic belief in the synthesis that technology can create for society from the dialectic between surveillance and privacy, is in many ways aligned with Matthan’s long career as a prominent technology lawyer in India. He co-founded Trilegal (a leading Indian law firm) in 2000, and headed their technology, media and telecommunications practice until March 2020. He advised technology firms throughout his career while also keeping up a healthy engagement with policymaking on various aspects of technology. This book is therefore deeply personal: part memoir, part policy proposal and partly an assertion of Matthan’s views on privacy given his experience. It is written engagingly with a pacey narrative style that can reach a cross section of non-specialist readers.
Privacy 3.0 is structured in three parts – ‘Privacy 1.0’ paints the evolution of privacy in broad strokes from the times of early humans to the 20th century; ‘Privacy 2.0’ begins the more serious intellectual engagement with the reader taking us through the expansion of the legal right to privacy with a particular focus on India. Here, Matthan deftly weaves his own role into the narrative, charting the behind-the-scenes race to create a privacy legislation for India between 2010 and 2014; ‘Privacy 3.0’ sets out Matthan’s proposals for an alternative framework for data protection regulation.
If Matthan’s own story is mingled with the narrative arc of this book, the other protagonist pervading its pages is the Aadhaar project. Many of the motivations for writing this book are drawn from the Aadhaar architecture which forced India to confront the question of whether privacy is a fundamental right guaranteed by our Constitution. The book’s prologue frames its relevance powerfully against the Aadhaar debate, but this framing remains unfulfilled: the book does not directly lay out a stance on the Aadhaar project’s privacy features.
No doubt this was because the Supreme Court’s judgment on the constitutionality of Aadhaar had not been delivered when the book was released in July 2018. Matthan’s view will need to be complemented by other parallel stories of bureaucrats, technologists and activists that are beginning to emerge, such as Reetika Khera’s edited volume, Dissent on Aadhaar and N.S. Ramnath and Charles Assisi’s The Aadhaar Effect. The result in this book however, is that the long, unresolved shadow of Aadhaar extends across the book after its bombastic prologue, leaving the reader yearning for more: an unexpected homage to our ephemeral privacy rights.
The strongest parts of this book are those that draw out the legal history of privacy, as the transition from Matthan’s construct of ‘Privacy 1.0’ to ‘Privacy 2.0’ takes place. Before this, despite the striking imagery (most notably of a pair of zebras in the Masai Mara), the early chapters exhibit an unnerving oversimplification of the development of pre-modern societies and privacy. Privacy is cast as non-existent in hunter-gatherer societies based on generalizations about the human development of certain tribes and broad assertions about social development in all early societies. For instance, the book asserts that the concept of a ‘self’ did not exist in early societies and it was created (along with the need for privacy) by the invention of walls.
Can such generalizations be made across all pre-modern societies? Are they rooted in political theory, history, philosophy, psychology or all of these disciplines? This heavy-handed approach is discarded as the book proceeds into the more modern history of privacy in 17th-20th century Britain and the United States. This story is recounted through the personal lives of key figures in the evolution of privacy law including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in Britain, and Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis who co-authored one of the most influential legal articles in privacy jurisprudence in 1890 – ‘The Right to Privacy’ – in the US to highlight the human sides of many legal milestones. For instance, Matthan draws on a little-known fact that Samuel Warren had a sibling who was homosexual. This was particularly sensitive in 19th century America which was openly hostile to homosexuality, throwing new light on Warren’s motivations for writing this article.
The most compelling part of the book relates to constitutional choices relating to privacy rights made by members of the Constituent Assembly of India in the 1940s. The impact of these choices are traced through the ages until, six decades later in 2017, a 9-judge bench of the Supreme Court pronounced that privacy is a right guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. Matthan’s research into the role of various members of the Constituent Assembly, B.N. Rau in particular, are a delight to read. They reveal eerily familiar trade-offs that policymakers continue to confront when considering how (and how much) to protect individuals’ privacy against state imperatives, including the trump card of national security.
Finally, Matthan sets out his Accountability Model for data protection regulation. He seeks to move to a more permissive approach for firms using personal information, focusing on ‘remediation rather than on punishment.’ This view can seem disconnected or overindulgent given the growing global recognition of the enormous scale on which technology failures can harm individuals as well as political, social and welfare systems. By placing the onus on a class of ‘data auditor’ intermediaries to keep firms honest, Matthan proposes abandoning the existing, ineffective approach of user consent-led regimes. The focus on accountability of providers is welcome, although the framing belies the author’s forgiveness of data-driven systems making ‘small algorithmic mistakes’ that create ‘inadvertent errors.’
Optimism and advocacy for technology-friendly regulation emerges as a clear theme from the book; although privacy is cast in the title role, it appears that technology is the real star. Some concerns would arise for privacy advocates in the ‘technology versus privacy’ framing; indeed, many (including this reviewer) see privacy as an enduring value like others in society such as fairness, accountability and security which technology can be built to accommodate to varying degrees, rather than as a zero-sum game.
Overall, Matthan has written an edifying, readable book which blazes a trail for more accessible books on Indian law to follow. Popular science, popular economics and even popular history have created pathways into disciplines that are often inaccessible. With Privacy 3.0, Matthan strikes out to create a niche for ‘popular law’ writing in India – on a topic as complex as privacy – which will continue to raise byzantine conundrums for regulation in the years ahead. That is no mean feat.
Dvara Research, Mumbai
DOES INDIA NEGOTIATE? by Karthik Nachiappan. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2019.
FOR years we have been battling to understand how Indian officials negotiate abroad. So far, there has been little more than inferential and anecdotal analysis. There have been suggestions that Indian negotiators reflect cultural and religious traits, based on the Hindu caste hierarchy or the strategic principles of the Arthashastra. Others have pointed at ideological drivers, based on India’s post-colonial, anti-imperialist and non-aligned rhetoric. In Stephen Cohen’s seminal book, India is described as a perpetual naysayer, a country that ‘can’t say yes.’ Many retired officials in the West, in turn, have described India’s negotiation style as obstinate, defensive or even obstructionist.
But the proof is in the pudding – and in scholarship that means evidence. Karthik Nachiappan’s book is a formidable feast of empirics based on four in-depth case studies. He helps us understand the ‘logic’ of India’s multilateral behaviour, which he describes as ‘sober, rational, driven by interests and institutional capacity’ (p. 10, 191). India may not be a proactive rule maker, but it is also not a passive rule taker. Indeed, in some cases it has been a rule breaker, but in most instances, the book argues, India’s dynamic negotiation style presents the country as a rule shaper.
He forwards that Indian officials negotiate based on flexible interests that adapt, varying institutional capacity, and different degrees of influence from domestic interest groups. His four case studies are short but specific and deeply researched, based on multi-lateral archives, interviews and other primary sources, reflecting the value of historical and case study methodology to understand the many undiscovered logics of Indian foreign policy.
On the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC, 2003), he defines India’s negotiation approach as ‘pointed and pragmatic’ based on a ‘fortuitous partnership’ (p. 37) between the government and domestic lobbies, leading to simultaneous changes in domestic tobacco control legislation (COTPA). On the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC, 1992), he describes the political rationale of India’s ‘defensive strategy’ (p. 54), which helped to reframe negotiations to focus on equity and financial assistance for developing countries.
On the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT, 1996), India ‘strove to negotiate a tough CTBT that placed symmetric expectations on all [Conference on Disarmament] member states’ (p. 99), and its position only hardened after the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Finally, on the World Trade Organization’s Uruguay Round (1993), India’s negotiation was ‘tough but pragmatic and rational’ based on a ‘practical, yet sober, approach’ (p. 143).
Overall, Nachiappan’s superb book throws light on four different dimensions in India’s negotiation processes that deserve further research. First, coordination issues: the case studies show how the interests and organizational cultures of different ministries have at times either aligned or clashed. For example, on the FCC, the ministries of External Affairs (MEA) and Environment and Forests had different mandates abroad, which were eventually harmonized. As international negotiations become increasingly complex, for example on data governance, artificial intelligence or the outer space, it is unlikely that we will see the MEA remaining in the lead as it used to.
Second, the role of external expertise in shaping the government’s interests: on the FCTC, for example, evidence based research from civil society experts helped negotiators internalize that the tobacco industry benefits were outweighed by long-term health costs of tobacco consumption. Similarly, in the case of the FCC, think tanks like TERI and the Centre for Science and Environment played a determinant role in shifting India’s initial ‘defensive position’ to a more informed focus on ‘differentiated responsibilities’. On trade, the book illustrates the influential role of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) or the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) and other organizations as sources of technical expertise, rather than just political lobbying. With the Indian Foreign Service and the overall bureaucracy more constrained than ever, a variety of domain specialists will have to step in to help bridge new knowledge gaps and support India’s negotiation stance.
Third, the case studies also show the crucial role of political leadership of Prime Ministers, whether Vajpayee’s personal interest in regulating tobacco use or Narasimha Rao’s determination to join the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) despite fierce domestic opposition. Eventually, the buck stops with leaders, and to assess the salience of public opinion it would help to focus on a few case studies under weak coalition governments. Do governments cave in to political pressures to ensure re-election, or do they sometimes also use these domestic forces as an excuse to increase their diplomatic bargaining power?
Fourth, how much of a proactive role should India take in negotiation processes? For all the talk about India as a ‘leading power’, Nachiappan’s book shows us that multilateral negotiations are complex and costly, consuming vast diplomatic resources and often stretching on for years. He argues that India may, therefore, not want to bite off more than its negotiators can chew. On the other hand, many regional neighbours and other developing countries also expect India to represent their interests, more than ever: in the case of the FCTC, for example, WHO/SEARO countries delegated negotiation responsibilities to India because it was ‘relatively more knowledgeable on tobacco control’ (p. 33). Will India be able to balance its restrained approach, limited capabilities and rising demands to shape global governance?
Nachiappan’s book not only offers extraordinary insights into four multilateral negotiation processes, but more broadly also offers an excellent contribution to understand how Indian officials seek to maximize their country’s international influence. However, beyond skill and expertise, India’s negotiation capacity will hinge on its crude capabilities at home, whether economic, military or scientific. Both in the CTBT and WTO negotiations, Nachiappan mentions that Indian officials at times ‘implored’ their counterparts to accommodate India’s interests (p. 122, 160): a more prosperous and powerful India will hopefully equip its negotiators to henceforth be in a better position at the diplomatic high table.
Fellow, Foreign Policy and Security Studies, Brookings India
THE NEW WORLD DISORDER AND THE INDIAN IMPERATIVE by Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran. Aleph Book Company, Delhi, 2020.
THE book, while analysing the new world disorder, discusses some of the most significant developments of global significance in the post-Cold War world prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. By engaging readers in several macro concerns, the study interweaves innumerable issues and events around the themes, including the decline of the rules-based international liberal order promoted by the USA, challenges to peace building and sustainable development, problems associated with regulating cyberspace, normative foundations of a new world order and the Indian imperative.
The authors, with their diverse experience in policy-oriented work, have presented an eminently readable discourse on the central theme by marshalling abundant wealth of empirical and statistical evidence to sustain most of their arguments. Two recurring arguments, however, that virtually bind this entire effort together could be placed thus. First, there are diverse, continuing and growing tensions between the forces of globalization, on one hand, and those of national sovereignty, on the other. In fact, whenever the forces unleashed by globalization are incompatible with the national interest of powerful states, the latter deploy national sovereignty to combat them. Second, asymmetrical power relations between the developed and developing countries that characterize the disorder need to be placed in a historical context of the colonial past of the latter countries. Evidently, the normative foundations of a new world order can be built with concrete economic assistance of developed countries to developing countries. Keeping this in view, let me proceed to take a quick overview of this travail.
The term ‘global governance’ is often used to describe processes and institutions by which the world is governed. In contemporary times, it has witnessed a plethora of discontents. For instance, developments like 9/11 and the financial crises of 2008 had global ramifications in terms of dealing with transnational terrorist outfits such as Al Qaeda and handling recessions the world over. Similarly, the major powers, in their own ways, have contributed to the discontent. The USA’s military interventions in Iraq in 1991 and 2003 as the United Nations (UN) almost became complicit in war crimes; Russia’s annexation of Crimea and exercise of the veto in favour of an aggressive Syria, and China’s refusal to designate Masood Azhar as a wanted terrorist are cases in point.
Besides sovereign states, regulating non-state actors like the multinational companies (MNCs) too have added to the problems of governance. Ironically, the MNCs by 2019 had $40 trillion in revenues and $186 trillion in global assets. Further, Wal-Mart had emerged as the 24th largest in terms of GDP, and 75% of the Fortune Global 500 MNCs belonged to G7 countries. Moreover, the rapid spread of deadly diseases such as SARS and HIV have allowed the MNCs to monopolize intellectual property rights over the corresponding drugs used for their treatment. In a word, the post-Cold War order built on democracy and free markets has been facing a queer intersection of problems stemming from internet and AI related technologies, politics of identity and growing inequalities between and within the states.
The challenges to the US-led order have also been accompanied by a gradual shift in power centres from the West to the East with the spectacular rise of China as an economic powerhouse. Apart from making a reference to new groupings like G20, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Brazil Russia India China and South Africa (BRICS), the authors draw attention to the lack of adequate representation of the emerging countries within institutions like the UN and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In fact, in order to gain greater legitimacy most of the institutions related to global governance require drastic restructuring.
As far as maintenance of peace is concerned, the USA strove to restore peace and order in Somalia, Iraq and Syria. Under Responsibility to Protect (R2P) the USA and its allies intervened in the domestic affairs of developing countries to restore peace in Afghanistan and Libya although the UNSC resolution on Libya failed to get the endorsement of BRICS countries. Further, the Human Rights Council Resolution of 2018 was down-played by China, so far as individual rights are concerned, by emphasizing the role of the state in socio-economic development. This stance covered up for China’s repression of human rights in Tibet and Xinjiang. In essence, while implementing projects of peace, powerful states are difficult to discipline. Strangely, personnel from Afro-Asian and Latin American countries contribute 90% to the UN peacekeeping force.
Furthermore, unfettered industrialization, unsustainable consumption patterns, rising temperatures and emission of greenhouse gases only underscore the urgent need to resolve climate related problems while managing sustainable development. The authors delve into history, and place developed industrial states and their asymmetrical ties with post-colonial states in the context of imperialism. Despite the adverse role played by the MNCs, especially oil companies and the commercial banking industry, in plundering the resources through a form of ecological imperialism, the developed world seems disinclined to part with even a slightly greater share of their GNP through aid to boost prospects of environmental development. The so-called principle of common but differentiated responsibility continues to be hotly contested owing to the unwillingness of the developed world to take on the problems of the planet. On the contrary, instead of legally shouldering responsibilities to clean the planet, the developed world was keen on forcing reforms on developing countries by adding to their burdens in the failed Copenhagen Earth Summit of 2009.
By grappling with the emergence and possibilities in regulating cyberspace, the authors vividly portray an ongoing clash between the natural drive of the Internet to capture global space in a libertarian order and protectionist impulses of state directed capitalist economies like China to bring the activities of the Internet within the jurisdiction of a sovereign state. The analyses cover a gamut of issues related to wars in cyberspace such as the Arab Spring and l’affaire Snowden that affected social movements and influenced the functioning of governments. It refers to the functioning of several search engines and explicates how ‘data is the new oil’ and can be used after refinement. The discussion on ongoing Sino-US struggles for cyber hegemony and possibilities of digital authoritarianism also find a place. The book concludes by situating India in this disorder. It takes an optimistic view of India and its steady rise by discussing India’s role as a torchbearer of the liberal order, a balancer and a development power.
In the end, let me make two critical points. First, since the dependency theories began to enjoy a sway over social science literature in the 1970s, it became an accepted norm and practice to trace the origins of the development of underdevelopment to unequal relationships between the developed and developing countries. However, how long can one keep on blaming external powers and forces for the lack of development in post-colonial states? The question as to why people in most of the post-colonial states did not succeed in building robust institutions by organizing their states and societies in a manner that synthesize social cohesion and overall development still begs an answer. Of course, one needs to take a differentiated view of developments in the heterogeneous range of countries that constitute the global South. Second, a substantial proportion of the last chapter dealing with the Indian imperative is repetitive. Brevity could have driven the central arguments more sharply. On the whole, the text is remarkable and a must read for scholars in policy studies and students of global politics.
Founder and former Vice Chancellor, Central University of Allahabad
BACKSTAGE: The Story Behind India’s High Growth Years by Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Rupa Publications, Delhi, 2020.
THIS is a long, rich, stimulating read written in an engaging style with superbly clear capsule explanations of complex policy issues. Insider accounts of the making of economic policy in India (indeed anywhere) are not all that common. The accounts of I.G. Patel, Duvvuri Subbarao and Venugopal Reddy are the ones that come readily to mind. This volume is closest to Patel’s in that it is written by an outsider inducted into government service, rather than a career civil servant. This is a breed that is common in both the US and in France but still all too rare in India. In the book, the author adds Manmohan Singh, Vijay Kelkar and Bimal Jalan to this select group. Perhaps they too will one day oblige.
I cannot claim to be a disinterested reviewer, although I trust I am not uncritical. The book’s chronology has reminded me of my own association with the author over more than a half-century. I first knew Montek, as he is universally called, at Oxford. He reached there two years before me, and was a celebrity for the triple distinctions of being a Rhodes Scholar (housed at the same college as me), earning a rare congratulatory First (division) in his undergraduate finals in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (also my field, so I heard tales of his brilliance from college tutors whom we had in common) and for attaining the Presidency of the Oxford Union.
I followed him next to a World Bank transformed by Robert McNamara’s arrival as President in 1968. Montek had recently married Isher Judge who worked at the International Monetary Fund and we met frequently in the same circle of friends. As he describes, Manmohan Singh encouraged him to apply from the World Bank for a vacancy as Economic Advisor in the Ministry of Finance. Once selected, Montek, Isher and their two-year old son returned to India in 1979 arriving at a time of political and economic turmoil which lasted for much of the following decade.
The first half of the decade included Indira Gandhi’s return to power, a programme with the IMF following the second oil shock, Operation Bluestar against the sanctity of the Golden Temple, Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, and anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. This was a deeply distressing time, particularly for a Sikh couple living in Delhi. The massive parliamentary victory of Rajiv Gandhi in the 1984 election led to a move in 1985 from the Finance Ministry to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) as Additional Secretary (later Special Secretary), the first step in the transformation into a government decision-maker.
The sustained decline from Rajiv’s triumph to his tragic assassination and the political and economic debacle of 1991 was witnessed by Montek first from the PMO and then a move to Commerce Secretary in 1990 in the Chandra Shekhar government, with Subramanian Swamy as his minister. Much in the book about this period was new to me as I worked and lived abroad at the time. The sympathetic depiction of Rajiv Gandhi was one surprise. Despite (or because of) his prior reluctance to get involved in politics, Rajiv was able to envision the India that now surrounds us: youthful, middle-income (if not yet middle class), tech-friendly and aspirational. He also assembled a loyal team, inside and outside the bureaucracy, to implement some of his ideas. His lack of political experience was his undoing: the handling of Bofors; the response to the Shah Bano judgement; his differences with V.P. Singh among others in his initial cabinet and his inability to force change within his own party despite a parliamentary triumph of his making.
The book also helped me to see V.P. Singh in a new light; I had previously only associated him with the decision to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission on reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the politics of which Montek explains. As Finance Minister with Rajiv Gandhi he articulated a long-term fiscal policy framework, designed to help the private sector anchor its investment decisions. This inter alia can be seen as recognition that the private sector needed to be enlisted as a partner in India’s development rather than just a goose to be plucked. He concurrently initiated a series of indirect tax reforms in 1987 which set India on the road to the constitutional amendment enabling the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2017.
Also interesting is the discussion of the so-called ‘M document’: labelled as such when a version of the document was leaked in the press with the identity of the author being guessed at but not known. To my knowledge this is the first full account of how this influential document came to be written, and acknowledgement by Montek of his authorship. V.P. Singh commissioned the document in his brief year as prime minister from Montek (still at the PMO despite the change in government). The request followed a joint visit to Kuala Lumpur where Malaysia’s evident economic progress impressed the prime minister. Despite complicated coalition politics which were left-leaning, the PM directed that the document be scheduled for formal inter-ministerial discussion at the secretary level, chaired by the cabinet secretary, a further indication of V.P. Singh’s open-mindedness on reform. Montek graciously notes that the two-day discussion of the paper among his bureaucratic peers was ‘among the most stimulating discussions I have had in government’ (p. 109).
The 34-page document (titled ‘Restructuring India’s Industrial, Trade and Fiscal Policies’) allowed Montek to apply his experience of a decade in government to address what he had long regarded as India’s central economic challenge: ‘how to break out of the low-growth trajectory and ensure that higher growth would benefit lower-income groups in sufficient measure’ (p. 40). The paper itself is succinctly summarized in the book. Its core argument was that the fight against poverty could advance more quickly through greater integration with the global economy. Thirty years later these ideas are more widely accepted, if once again under challenge. At the time external engagement was still seen by much of the Indian policy elite as leading to economic and diplomatic vulnerability and not a way to attain enhanced economic resilience.
The paper argued that policy coherence required coordinated action across several central government organs, particularly the Ministries of Finance and Commerce as well as the Reserve Bank of India. Such coordinated action was incompatible with the machinery of government decision-making where proposals rose vertically to a single minister. The instruments of coordination at the apex level (the PMO, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs and the Committee of Secretaries) were political mechanisms for brokering inter-ministerial differences, rather than instruments for creative, collaborative problem solving at the working level. These issues, serious enough when a single party dominated government, were even more intractable when a coalition was in power.
The moment was not yet propitious for these ideas. Chandra Shekhar replaced V.P. Singh; the first Gulf War intensified a balance of payments crisis already underway through fiscal excess; the Congress party withdrew its outside support and fresh elections were held in May and June 1991.
The above accounts for the first third of the book. The remaining two-thirds covers the high noon of Montek’s professional career, continuing as Secretary in Commerce and then moving to Secretary Economic Affairs in the Finance Ministry while Manmohan Singh was Finance Minister. This was during the full-term, if fragile, government of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao (1991 to 1996). That term was deeply impacted by the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 and consequent Mumbai bombings in the following year, as well as division within the Congress party. The result was defeat in the parliamentary elections at the end of its term. These political developments, as well as the fraud in government securities markets perpetrated by Harshad Mehta in 1992, overshadowed the remarkable recovery of the economy, allowing the government to exit from its IMF programme within two years.1 Over this period Montek was designated Finance Secretary and continued to serve as such in the two brief successor United Front governments until the full-term government of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) helmed by Prime Minister Vajpayee was voted into office in 1998.
With the change in government Montek elected to move to the Planning Commission as Member, then a brief stint in Washington DC when selected by the IMF Board as the founding Director of the Independent Evaluation Office (IEO). There he was instrumental in setting up procedures and protocols that have helped that office mature over the last twenty years despite an inherently tricky relationship with management and staff.2 His term there was cut short by an invitation in 2004 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to return to India as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission (with Cabinet rank) and he served the nation in that role for a decade. While Manmohan Singh has continued in public life, Montek has chosen not to do so.
The later parts of the book are as much thematic as chronological. They provide an insider’s view of the 1991 reforms, as well as of the achievements of the two UPA governments led by Manmohan Singh: fast growth, reduced poverty, elevation to the top table of economic diplomacy as a member of the G20 Leaders’ Group to respond to the 2008 global financial crisis (with Montek serving as the PM’s G20 ‘sherpa’), rapid recovery (without IMF help) from the shock of that crisis; and the major strategic breakthrough of the civil nuclear deal with the (surprisingly sympathetic and far-sighted) Republican administration of George W. Bush. This was in the face of stiff ideological resistance from the left parties in the UPA-1 coalition.
These were largely achievements of UPA-1. Re-election in the midst of a global crisis was an achievement but in a reprise of the Rajiv and Rao governments, the latter years of UPA-2 were marked by a souring of public perceptions which led to the convincing victory of Narendra Modi in the 2014 election, a mandate renewed with equal vigour five years later. Multiple explanations are available for this defeat: need for a change after ten years, slowing growth, rising inflation, shifts in ministerial portfolios, the compulsions of coalition politics and allegations by important constitutional bodies of large losses to the exchequer in the allocation of natural resources. The book provides a stout defence against these charges but in politics it is perception that matters. The book ends with an epilogue commenting on the economic management of the first Modi government and the economic priorities at this time. It was written literally days before the enormity of the Covid-19 crisis in multiple spheres – medical, social and economic – was recognized.
In an already long review, space permits reflection on only a few of the themes that run through the volume. The book’s advance publicity highlighted an occasion when the prime minister asked Montek if he ought to resign. They were on an official visit to New York when, at a public briefing in Delhi, then Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi rubbished the government’s decision to introduce an ordinance that would have spared Lalu Prasad Yadav, a Congress ally, from having to resign his seat in Parliament as instructed by the Supreme Court. Montek dissuaded the prime minister from doing so, a recommendation he does not regret, and which he defends in the book. This episode speaks to the long personal and professional association between these two talented, reserved and occasionally controversial individuals. Each of them started out as a cosmopolitan technocrat at a time when India was suspicious of foreign engagement. Working with others they chose their moments to persuade the political class to follow a changed path on both the economy and in foreign policy.
Despite these considerable achievements, at several points in the book Montek rues that political support for liberal reform has at best been hesitant. He pithily describes the cautious continuity of policies as: ‘a strong consensus for weak reform’ and the mechanics of achieving change as ‘reform by stealth’. As Australia’s Ross Garnaut3 has noted, it takes committed leadership for any political party to reject policies associated with its past leaders even as the world changes around them. China was lucky with Deng Xiaoping who had the skills and power to reframe the legacy of Mao, and Australia’s Labour Party rejected four decades of inward-looking policies under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating not soon after. The Congress party left reform to the technocrats who made as good a fist of it as they could. More puzzling has been the caution of the BJP, less encumbered as it is by the political baggage of the past.
Despite this political hesitancy the India of 2020 is a very different nation from the India of 1990. The Vajpayee government (NDA-1) marked the start of a run of five consecutive full-term governments with coalition leadership rotating between the two national parties. This marks impressive maturity for a polity of India’s diversity and demography in the face of the stresses of fast growth, urbanization and dramatic shifts in social and gender status. The epilogue to the book reminds us of the large unfinished economic agenda (agriculture, human development, transparent banking, labour-intensive manufacturing, infrastructure and labour market informality among them) after fifteen years of Congress-led coalitions and eleven years under the BJP. Equally the continued opacity of electoral finance and the ills that it breeds, our creaking judicial and policing systems, and an unreformed senior civil service are all fixable drags on our progress. Despite these infirmities, and a fair amount of bloodshed along the way, this seemingly ramshackle structure has so far proven resilient. The Covid-19 virus will test this resilience as perhaps never before.
Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington DC
1. I was witness to these economic and political developments in Mumbai on a two-year leave from the World Bank (1992-94) working with Governor C. Rangarajan and S.S. Tarapore at the RBI on the monetary, banking and capital markets follow-up to the 1991 reform package. This engagement led later to my participation in the 2007 Committee on Financial Sector Reforms convened by Montek from the Planning Commission and chaired by Raghuram Rajan, then teaching at the University of Chicago.
2. As the book observes, this experience motivated Montek’s attempt to set up an independent evaluation function in India, which, like the Planning Commission, was abolished by the Modi government soon after it took office.
3. Ross Garnaut, ‘India, China and Australia: Lessons from Different Paths in Economic Reform’. The 2004 Sir John Crawford Lecture, National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), New Delhi, 28 September 2004. https://cpb-ap-se2.wpmucdn.com/blogs.unimelb.edu.au/dist/a/142/files/2016/01/India-China-and-Australia-2004-1lxg97x.pdf. Last reviewed 17 May 2020.