1991 liberalised economy, 2008 liberalised polity

Towards draw of stumps on day one, Team Manmohan looks like it might score 271 in 20 hours. Or it might not.

But sometime in the year 2025, seventeen years from now, will we look at 2008 the same way we now look at a year 17 years before this one: 1991. As the year that altered our mindscapes and the landscape of our country.

As the year of Liberalisation 2.0.

With the benefit of hindsight, 1991 now seems like such an important, even essential thing for the country to have gone through. Out of compulsion if not choice, kicking and screaming, we opened our doors to let a blast of change blow through.

As Parliament burns the midnight oil on nuclear physics tonight, ponder this: would “Liberalisation 1.0” have passed muster in 1991 and would we be looking back at it the same way we do now if our MPs had adopted the same “rigorous” methods back then?

The biggest changes back then came within the first 100 days of the minority P.V. Narasimha Rao government taking over. There was no trust vote, therefore no debates like what we are seeing now.

It was a page straight out of “Shock Doctrine”.

There are plenty of honest critics of liberalisation even to this day, and it can be asked if it has really managed to erase the inherent inequity and inequality of our society, but there can be little doubt that 1991 was what Intel’s Andy Grove called the “strategic inflection point”.

Somebody had to do it.

Whether you are pro-nuclear deal or anti-nuclear deal; a Congress, BJP or Left supporter; an America lover or baiter, we are at a similar strategic inflection point.

1991 liberalised the economy; 2008 is poised to liberalise the polity. Behind both is Manmohan Singh. As benchmarks go, “India’s weakest PM since independence” has set a daunting one for all prime ministers in waiting.

Even an aye-vote on Tuesday might not help the Congress to win an election as it did not in 1996. Indeed, in giving Mayawati a pan-Indian image over just one weekend, the nuclear deal may have already taken the Dalits away from the Congress.

Add to that a tieup with Mulayam Singh along with an existing one with Lalu Prasad, and the Congress is staring at a mountain in the Hindi heartland, on top of a dozen or more defeats in State polls across the country.

But in achieving a perceptional shift in the minds of the middle-classes, in exorcising the ghost of the United States bang in the middle of our drawing rooms, Liberalisation 2.0 is as significant as Liberalisation 1.0.

It’s the sequel to beat all sequels.

True, the defections, the wheeling-dealing, the horse-trading, the favour-dispensing—and the sight of thugs, criminals, the sick and the dying being hauled in—make a joke of the “national interest”. But that applies as much to those pushing the deal as those opposing it.

Only Shibhu Soren’s support to a minority government, it seems, is the common strand between the two rounds of liberalisation. How odd can that be—and how very revealing of the maturity of our democracy, or the lack of it.

Maybe, it is too early to sing hosannas in praise of the liberalization of our politics. Maybe. But make no mistake. Tomorrow when the red and green buttons are pressed, Manmohan Singh’s vision is on test, sure, but it’s a bigger test for Prakash Karat & Co.

Liberalisation 2.0 doesn’t answer the grave questions about the independence of India’s foreign policy, about the subservience to the United States, about the deliverance of promises and so on, but in that respect it is no different from Liberalisation 1.0. It’s not the finished article.

It is possible that the impact of Liberalisation 2.0 will never be as personal and direct as Liberalisation 1.0. Against malls, mobiles and materialism, protons, neutrons and electrons don’t stand a chance.

Still, in 2025, the textbooks, unless they have been reworked, will have the same bold fonts for 1991 and 2008.

This piece also appears on rediff.com