Vikrum Sequeira responded to my Only way piece with this.
I have a few responses. But first, I should say that few things are more stimulating than a back-and-forth like this -- and I also include there most of the comments to that "Only Way" article -- done without resort to snide remarks and insinuations. These are big debates, with strongly-held and well-reasoned positions on every side. They are best carried forward the way people (in the comments) and Vikrum have done. So thanks.
OK, Vik, what I have no argument with is this: it is extremely problematic to compare India with East Asia. You’ve explained this far better than I can, so I will leave it there.
As for this: your assertion that the Indian government embarked on the 1991 reforms to help the poor is incorrect.
Yes, the trigger for the reforms was the balance of payments crisis; and yes, the link to poverty was a political afterthought.
But that doesn’t change my opinion about the need for reforms. In my opinion, whatever the system was that we had followed since 1947 simply wasn’t addressing the misery in which such a lot of Indians lived. This is what I meant when I wrote about the "fundamental" reason for reforms. By 1991, the system itself was creaking badly, subject to increasing questions – and the balance of payment crisis was one symptom – and therefore, something had to change.
Yes, the Indian government didn’t start reforms to help the poor, but then Indian governments rarely do the things I would like them to do!
You say, you are failing to recognize some of the impressive achievements of the pre-1991 governments.
You’re right there. I don’t mean to paint a picture of complete failure, and I should have been more careful not to give that impression.
For example, even though we overlooked the importance of widespread primary education, our emphasis on higher education in our early years is the bedrock on which we have become the world’s back-office, the basis for the rosy predictions for our economy.
For another example, there is the success of Indian democracy in the sense Amartya Sen meant it (and you quote him): that it worked to prevent huge disasters like the Bengal famine.
But there’s another side to this very Sen argument – which is about India’s indifference to the condition of its people. This led Sen to also say: "[E]very eight years or so, more people in addition die in India – in comparison with Chinese mortality rates – than the total number that died in the gigantic Chinese famine [of 1958-61]."
So we don’t have great famines that kill millions. But we have steady deaths that, over time, do kill millions. Seems to me something has failed.
Food self-sufficiency: It is one of those great Indian ironies (TM) that we are self-sufficient in food, even export it, and yet have people going hungry. The problem is that those people don’t have the purchasing power to buy that food that we are self-sufficiently producing. What price self-sufficiency, then?
And the Green Revolution: Norman Borlaug's intervention in the 1960s saved us from great disaster, undoubtedly. But I don't know how to credit that to socialism, except that it was a supposedly socialist government in place then that invited him to come do his work. (And this is apart from the downsides of the Green Revolution that people are starting to speak about now). To me, the way to consider the Green Revolution is as a greatly effective response to a terrible crisis, that’s all.
Nomenclature: sure this wasn’t a socialist state by definition, and yes, we didn’t do such things as land reform with any seriousness. But we called ourselves socialist. And for convenience in argument, it makes sense to refer to our "socialist" past (pre-1991) as opposed to whatever we are following now. Although I’m happy to use "pre-reforms" and "post-reforms" if you like.
I would also like to underline your emphasis of the fact that no state is truly a free market, and that many sectors of the US economy, for example, receive state support.
Finally, thanks for recognizing the central point of my article: that "the only way" is suspect.