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Tryst with Destiny, Part II

The book is an account of the monumental changes liberalisation brought on India's culture, lifestyle and economy.
By Debashish Mukerji Delhi Print Edition: September 11, 2016
Tryst with Destiny, Part II
What's Changed: 25 Years of Liberalized India Edited by Kartikeya Kompella (PAGES: 230 PRICE: RS 399 Random House India)

If India redeemed its first tryst with destiny on August 15, 1947, this book suggests it did so for a second time with the announcement of the New Industrial Policy in the third week of July 1991. If the first tryst was primarily political - albeit with major economic consequences - the second was primarily economic, with crucial social consequences. It is the different facets of this social change that the 14 essays in this book seek to explore, 25 years after they began.

As it happened, liberalisation in India occurred near-simultaneously with the digital revolution, and the onslaught of the two together on Indian society has been greater than the sum of their parts. Broadly, they have turbocharged the process of westernisation, which the sociologist M.N. Srinivas pinpointed long ago as one of the two key driving forces of Indian society. (The other, Sanskritisation, seems to have taken a backseat of late.) Editor Kartikeya Kompella has assembled an impressive array of experts to analyse the changes in detail: Rama Bijapurkar on consumer behaviour, Harsha Bhogle on cricket, Subhash Chandra on television, Siddharth Roy Kapur on Bollywood and Kumar Mangalam Birla on the overall Indian scenario, among others.

Bijapurkar is, as usual, extremely insightful on her favourite subject, pointing out not only what has changed in Indian consumer behaviour since liberalisation, but also what has not; what is laudable about the changes and also what is not. "Globalisation is not a nuclear bomb that flattens everything it falls on to identical rubble and then rebuilds it to a standardised design," she concludes. Meena Kaushik, on much the same subject, is equally compelling, noting the changing self perception of consumers; their changing sense of community, of tradition, of quality of life, and more. (Interestingly, both quote the same social anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai, to validate their arguments; Kaushik repeatedly.) Kompella himself takes up the related subject of brands and the Indian consumer - how liberalisation offers many more opportunities and challenges in brand building than before.

Subhash Chandra's is the only essay that includes a slice of autobiography - and it is fascinating, particularly his encounters with the Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing. Zee TV has had its share of controversies, but Chandra's obsessive passion to set up India's first private TV channel, as recounted by him - against all business sense and seemingly impossible odds - can only be admired. K.V. Sridhar superbly sets out the seismic changes advertising went through following liberalisation: the ad boom with the entry of multinationals, the specialisation or 'de-bundling' of agencies, the rise in status of creative heads, the shift from selling glamour to telling stories, and more.

Former IIM (Kozhikode) Director Debashis Chatterjee ranges wide as he discusses education in post-liberalisation India, from the changing role of teachers who can no longer be purveyors of information since most of it is available on the Net anyway, to the decline in value - with the mushrooming of educational institutions - of both the MBA and the engineering (especially IT) degree. Rohini Nilekani provides terrific insights into the changing nature of philanthropy in liberalised India, especially the conflict of perceptions between the new, result-oriented donors and the left-oriented NGOs that execute their programmes. Other contributors include Sangeeta Talwar on women, Ira Trivedi on sex, Damodar Mall on retailing and Hindol Sengupta on luxury.

No doubt it is impossible in a short, single volume, to cover every aspect of social change brought about by liberalisation, but the absence of any write-up on the telecom revolution is somewhat glaring. Kompella maintains he left out mobiles because "they caused disruption across the world, not just in India", but surely liberalisation, too, made a big difference to this sector - had the government retained the monopoly over telecom services it enjoyed before 1991, there might never have been any revolution. (In fact, there is already an excellent book on the subject, Cell Phone Nation by Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron.)

My other quibble is with the tendency of some of the contributors (not all) to exaggerate the bleakness of the pre-liberalisation period and make sweeping generalisations, sometimes to the point of misrepresenting facts. Sridhar's essay, for instance, claims "Doordarshan channel was mainly about news and useful inputs about weather, agriculture, etc" - actually, in the 1980s, the decade in which TV's reach really expanded, Doordarshan broadcast some of the best soaps India has produced, from Hum Log to Malgudi Days. Again, while sexual mores are indeed changing, to assert that it was only after liberalisation that Indian youth became "keenly interested in romance, love, self discovery and exploration" as Ira Trivedi does, is laughable. It only proves the truth of an old saying - every generation thinks it invented sex. ~

The author is a freelance journalist based in Delhi

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