Shankkar Aiyar’s ‘Accidental India: A History of the Nations Passage Through Crisis and Change’, presents a thought-provoking perspective on the economic and political history of post-independence India. Combining academic rigor with journalistic flair, the book introduces its readers to the history and politics behind the seemingly mysterious process of policy making in India.
Aiyar observes that a precipitating crisis can always be seen lurking behind India’s attempts at economic reform. This makes India’s reform achievements appear to be mere accidental consequences of a major crisis. Whether it is the issue of producing enough to feed the nation or the matter of earning enough foreign exchange to meet payment obligations or encouraging a nascent industry, the Indian system has always felt the need to act only when its hand is forced.
While Aiyar is right in his observation, his analysis of seven of the most crucial reforms presented in the book, show us precisely why this happens. The book gives us gives us a sense of just how many things needs to fall into place (with the politics, diplomacy, bureaucracy, and democracy) for real tangible outcomes to come into existence. In almost every chapter we observe how the system can stymie well-intentioned and well thought out development agendas until it finds political or bureaucratic leadership strong, shrewd and decisive enough to push things through. Needless to say, it’s a story of many a missed opportunities and some tragic failures.
It is heartening to note, the pioneering and courageous work of some brilliant politicians, technocrats, bureaucrats and activists, who persist against all odds to bring about change. Aiyar’s writing very clearly celebrates these unsung heroes’ and gives their work its due recognition. It took a bold, enterprising and rebellious Varghese Kurien to brave the odds and give us the white revolution (often working against the system). It took an N. Vittal to unshackle the telecom potential of the country and the astute genius of Lal Bahadur Shastri and C Subramanian to make India self-sufficient in food.
For many of us born and fortunate enough to live in the post liberalization era, the book proves to be an eye-opening experience. It gives us a glimpse of what it was to live in an era where citizens of this country had to rely on food aid, where one had to wait for months to get a landline connection and where aspiring to create a world-class enterprise required you to navigate a byzantine crooked and opaque system.
Shankkar Aiyar’s book is well-researched, fast-paced and easy to read. A must read for anyone who anyone is interested in a critical rendering of India’s post- independence political and economic history.