Hope, and some liberalisation
In 1991, Manmohan Singh gave the Indian economy an introduction to liberalisation. The bi-product � an entire generation of middle class 'have-nots' finally gained the advantage of 'access'. But two decades later, has economic liberalisation changed our political mindset? Are we, the liberalised, really liberal-minded? Moeena Halim talks to Hindol Sengupta, author of The Liberals, to find some answers
Everything in my life has been due to liberalisation,” says author Hindol Sengupta. From getting admission into an American-run missionary school, to getting an internship at AP (and consequent jobs at Reuters and IANS), Sengupta’s story of both access and exposure rings true for countless other middle-class children growing up in the ’90s and naughties.
The senior journalist, currently assistant editor at Fortune magazine and founding trustee of The Whypoll Trust, was born into a middle- class Bengali family. While his parents and their parents dreamt of getting secure government jobs, Sengupta could only see himself working for a foreign company after he graduated. Without the benefit of ‘influence’ or money, this was his only way to “take his career forward” and liberalisation made it possible.
“The greatest gift of liberalisation is that it gave us hope,” Sengupta writes in the prologue to his book, which takes the reader on his journey through Delhi, Mumbai, then-Calcutta and even Karachi. Hope is the one thing in common with Indians of this generation, he believes.
“Hope is why we find it difficult to hire a decent driver or a maid servant — they are no longer satisfied with doing such jobs. There is hope for something better,” elaborates Sengupta, over the phone from Delhi. He offers another example, “My writing a book is a direct bi-product of liberalisation. Not just me, everyone around me seems to be writing a book, something that might have been unthinkable a decade ago unless you knew the right people. Suddenly there is an exponential explosion of publishing houses and it is opening up markets for writers.”
Far from perfect
The ‘liberals’ in the book’s title refers to the generation affected by the economic reforms. “It is supposed to be taken ironically,” says Sengupta, who believes that the generation is far from liberal-minded. “Some of the country’s worst riots have occurred during the period of liberalisation,” he adds as an example.
Sengupta isn’t ignorant of the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer. “The policies aren’t perfect, and that is something that the government has to work on,” he asserts.
“The one thing I urge politicians against is the destruction of hope. Disturb the per capita rise in hope, and we’re looking at a civil war,” he warns. “Apart from income inequality, we’re also looking at resource inequality. If the politicians murder hope, we’re going to see a lot more of those Gurgaon riots,” he says, referring to the residents’ riots over water shortage and power cut in July this year.
Worm’s eye view
Aware that he isn’t the first one to write about liberalisation, Sengupta was clear about giving the topic a different perspective. “I had a strong desire to talk about liberalisation through a human and therefore social perspective. The story has been told through many eyes, but a people story remained untold,” reveals Sengupta, who has used his autobiographical account to unveil the lives of an entire generation of liberalised Indians. “It is a worm’s eye view, rather than a bird’s eye view,” says the author, adding that he wanted to create a record for posterity.
By talking of his mother’s irritation at the maidservant who constantly used a cell phone (before the former even owned one) and his adolescent girlfriend who had to be taken out, Sengupta gives us a great idea about consumerist culture taking over the social scene.
“My very first memory of liberalisation has to be the arrival of KitKat. I had never travelled abroad and had no clue about this chocolate brand until all of a sudden it was made available to us. And now, no one even thinks twice about KitKat,” laughs Sengupta.
Ask him about the future and the answer is at the tip of his tongue. “Temocracy 2.0, a combination of technology and democracy, is the future of India. That is the next big leap we’ll make — technology will connect the country to a greater extent, pushing the government to be more responsible. But this isn’t the first time technology is serving this purpose. When the British built the railways in India, they unwittingly built the nation. This will be the second time technology will unite the country,” he says.