Free markets, they mean.
And me, a faint alarm goes off. Not because it's free markets -- not at all -- but because "the only way" smacks a little too much of faith, cuts a little too close to religion.
After all, every religion speaks that language -- the only path to god, or salvation, or fulfilment and inner peace. As every religion must. The flock must stay in line, or they might get tempted by some other faith that talks of the one path, of its only way.
By now, I'm sceptical of looking at the world this way. With religion, I believe it has caused great misery, always in the name of good. My faith in the supremacy of my way makes me intolerant of others who find their own. Too often, my faith persuades me that I must torment them until they see I'm right.
And this -- leaving aside the misery and torment -- is too often how free marketers sound.
Two caveats. First, I believe the policies of the past have largely failed us. Whatever that thing was that we followed in India for 45 years -- socialism, statism, whatever -- it too was always sold to us as "the only way" to tackle poverty. It didn't. When we turned away from it, there were more desperately poor Indians than there were Indians at Independence, which says it all. Yes, there are food for work programmes, employment guarantee schemes, which address poverty head-on at least in some places. But overall, Indian socialism has failed the poor.
Second, therefore I believe the reforms we embarked on in 1991 had to happen. There were many reasons, but for me the fundamental one was the miserable lives too many Indians lived. For me, the reforms were an effort to address that misery. They had to. Their promise was that Indian poverty would start to disappear; that relatively soon, we would not easily see the kind of squalor we had got inured to in this country. Not because we push the squalor under a Shyam Ahuja dhurrie, but because the reforms would truly reduce poverty.
By now, we've had 15 years of reforms: enough time for some change, surely. After all, in that time the change in our urban landscape -- malls, multiplexes, spanking new cars -- is stunning.
Yet the squalor? It's still easily visible.
Buy a coconut on the seaside promenade near my home, and a scrawny woman will plead with you for the flesh. On Tulsi Pipe Road, hundreds of huts have been there 40 years and more, their residents asleep on the road every night. Stroll past the piles of garbage that dot this city and watch dogs and pigs and kids searching through them.
Why haven't the reforms made such sights harder to find?
And when I see these things, as years pass and I see them still, I begin to wonder: is something wrong with how we are pursuing reforms? Is something wrong with our experiment with free markets, as something was wrong with our experiment with socialism? Is something wrong with free markets themselves, as applied to India, as something was wrong with socialism itself?
Ask those questions out loud, and the free marketers object. They do not see that the continuing visibility of poverty is itself a reason to worry about reforms -- even among people, like me, who welcome reforms. They do not understand that such people might find the old socialism repellent anyway. No, if you have even small worries about reforms, free marketers say you want to return to socialism, and will label you accordingly: "leftist", "statist", "pinko".
And then they start on "the only way." Instead of questioning it, they say, your questions themselves should spur you to sing its praises even louder, persuade the masses that the benefits of reforms will "trickle down" to them "eventually".
Until "eventually" comes around, the masses must wait.
The free marketers seem unable to understand, above all, that some among those masses have seen the sweeping changes in middle- and upper-class lives, in our urban landscape, in the last decade. And they ask, why aren't our lives changing, even if not so dramatically? Why do I still have to queue for water, or send my kid out to beg and work?
They think, we were asked to wait under socialism, we're being asked to wait now. What's the difference?
A final parallel to religion. You might be an agnostic, repelled by religion but equally, unable to see rationality in atheism. In the same way, you might be repelled by socialism, but equally, unable to see the fruits of free markets falling where they should. Just as atheists find agnostics even more annoying than the religious, the free marketers glower at the questioners even more than they do the socialists. How can you reject socialism -- or religion -- and still not see "the only way"?
The answer, as with most things, is that tackling poverty needs a mix of approach and ideology. For the lesson from our experiment with socialism is not just that it failed. More important, it showed us the perils of "the only way."
Thanks to Anand for comments on an earlier draft of this piece. I plan to work on it some more to send elsewhere; your comments welcome.