Atanu Dey On India's Development

Two Reviews of “Transforming India”

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Now I can say for sure that my book, “Transforming India”, has been read by at least two people. How do I know that? Because two people have recently written about it. My sincere appreciation for the reviews. Selected bits from them, below the fold.

Let’s start with the review by “The Third Eye”. (Dated Sept 11th. Coincidence? I think not.)

Atanu rightly argues that the key component for economic development is freedom. This is not just political freedom which India gained in 1947 but also personal and economic freedom. In the post-independent socialist milieu, the government decided what people should produce, buy and consume. While we have liberalized our economic landscape, much needs to be done as the government still controls large swathes of the economy such as education, transportation and telecommunications. Indians’ personal freedoms continue to be curtailed in the name of national security. Websites and books are periodically banned. The irony is that the government thinks that the people are smart enough to vote them in but not smart enough to decide what to read.

Most of the ideas in the book are familiar territory – privatizing education and railways, promoting urbanization, favoring railways over roadways and airlines and solar energy over fossil fuels. Since he is an economist, Atanu tries to analyze the problem using a systems approach by identifying the feedback loops and the linkages. However his book is almost two years late with Nandan Nilekani’s “Imagining India” having beaten him to the finish line. Nilekani deals with mostly the same ideas and in much greater depth.

I think that Nilekani’s book and my book belong to different genres. Nilekani’s book is a tremendous work of staggering proportions, of famous people and their views, full of interesting details that you can get engrossed in for days and make you the center of attention at cocktail parties. It is 500+ pages of carefully researched writing, professional editing and first class printing. It is a reference work of considerable heft. You have to be a Nandan Nilekani to write a book like that.

Here’s how different the two books are. It took me about the same time to read Nilekani’s book as to write my book. Chew on that for a bit.

Mine is narrowly focused on what went wrong with India’s development, why it went wrong, and what we should be doing to get on with the program. You can read my book in one sitting — a bathroom book, if you get my drift. It’s the kind of book that you pick up on a whim at the airport, and at the end of the flight, you are ready for something else to read. You can pass on my book to a friend and not worry that he may not return it for you to proudly display it on your coffee table for visitors to admire your obvious good taste in reading serious books of great social value.

My book is modestly priced and has no pictures on the cover. It is slim because if I were to go ask important people for an interview, they will not even bother replying to my emails. It is a book of ideas, which of course anyone can come up with just by sitting and thinking hard for a bit. There is one central idea in my book and it is this: economic policies made by a colonial government do not spell economic growth and development. Now you don’t have to read my book to understand that point. But if you do, you will see that we have to do something about them policies that keep India at the bottom of the economic barrel.

I should pause here to make a crucial distinction between privatization and liberalization. I really don’t care if a sector is privatized or not. Privatization is the selling of public enterprises to the private sector. What matters is whether the sector is liberalized — that is, whether the private sector is allowed to compete on a level playing field. Merely privatizing a public sector monopoly, for instance, does no good; it just becomes a private sector monopoly and the same dead-weight losses obtain as before. Liberalization, in contradistinction, increases competition in the market and that is what leads to welfare improvements.

Anyway, here’s TTE’s view of the idea of “United Voters of India” (for details of UVI, start with this.)

However I can think of atleast one major flaw with the UVI idea. The decisions of the UVI are selected democratically. Since UVI is based on hijacking the democratic process, it in turn is susceptible to hijacking in the same fashion. So a political party can infiltrate its agents within the UVI forcing it to take decisions that are in its favor.

UVI is not about hijacking anything, leave alone the democratic process. The idea is to vote strategically by collectively voting for that party or candidate that comes closest to an ideal.

And one final point. TTE writes,

My views about India’s governments are not as virulent or pessimistic as Atanu’s. The founding fathers were mostly ignorant on policy matters and did not go out of their way to oppress their fellow citizens. We did have a stroke of misfortune though – in our hatred for Britain, we ran into the arms of the Soviet Union and in turn embraced their disastrous ideas and policies. The Godfather was right – “Never hate your enemies, it clouds your judgement”.

I realize that TTE is using a metaphorical “we” above. He does not literally mean that you and I embraced Soviet-style socialism. But I must stress the point that it is not some diffused bunch of randomly selected nameless people that made the choices on behalf of the hundreds of millions of Indian — it was a handful of well known people led by one authoritarian gentleman who made the disastrous decisions. Perhaps they acted out of ignorance but it is more likely that they acted out of self-interest because socialist economic polices requires authoritarian rule and this the aforementioned gentleman was most eager to deliver.

TTE uses the phrase “stroke of misfortune.” It was not a misfortune, it was a disaster. (Churchill explained the difference between a misfortune and a disaster thusly: “If Benjamin Disreali falls into the Thames, that’s a misfortune; if someone pulls him out, that’s a disaster.”)

Moving on, let’s take a look at my friend Shashi Shekhar’s column in The Pioneer of Sept 25th, “Engaging with Indian Voters.” He generously mentions my book.

In his recent book titled Transforming India, blogger and economist Atanu Dey proposes an interesting construct for such non-sectarian political engagement. Atanu Dey calls for a voluntary association, ‘United Voters of India’, that functions as a lobby of sorts to pressure political parties and Government to make policies consistent with what he describes as “Pretty Good Principle”. Atanu Dey’s UVI is not much unlike what Mr Arun Shourie calls a “Lobby for Excellence” in his book We must have no price. Where Mr Shourie stops short of spelling out what the lobby of excellence must do, Atanu Dey is quite forthright in what he believes the UVI to be — a vote-bank of urban educated voters. The Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi led India Against Corruption movement could come close to being such a vote bank that Atanu Dey envisions. The upcoming Lok Sabha bypoll in Haryana for the Hissar constituency will likely tell us much if the IAC can be such a vote-bank that Atanu Dey envisions or if it will reduce itself to a negative force that merely knows how to say no, but hasn’t quite figured out how to engage by saying yes.

A riveting point Atanu Dey makes in his book is that any urban middle class vote bank like the UVI must not be apolitical. He sees the vote-bank as a means to change politics in India by becoming part of the political process. Atanu Dey’s book is an easy read. The pretty good principles are clearly stated that should appeal to the common sense of any urban middle class Indian. The book also stands out for its clarity on the kind of economic choices Middle India must make in the pursuit of its own enlightened self-interests. In the respect Atanu Dey’s book is quite similar to one other book by Sanjeev Sabhlok titled Breaking Free from Nehru that makes a case for economic freedom as a basis for political engagement in India.

I like Shashi’s incisive writing. But I have a confession to make. The stuff he wrote above the bits that I quoted here went right over my head. I will have to ask him to explain it to me the next time I see him. Better yet, go read it and explain it to me in a comment to this post.

Thanks. That’s it. Bye for now. See you later.

PS (stands for Parting Shot, not Post Script):

Disraeli (running his hand over Churchill’s bald head): Why Winston, your pate feels just like my wife’s bottom!

Churchill (doing the same to himself): So it does, Benjamin!

  • http://www.mobilepundit.com/ VeerChand Bothra

    The parting shot was the best script of the post ;)

  • DP Chalasani

    Congratulations Atanu! I hope your ideas get broader mention. By the way…Churchill was 7 years old when Benjamin Disraeli passed away!

  • http://rexzilla.livejournal.com Rex

    Disraeli died in 1881 when Churchill was 7 years old, so I wonder who came up with this anecdote.

  • Rakesh

    You got the attribution of the quote wrong. Churchill has nothing to do with it. According to wikiquote – http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Benjamin_Disraeli

  • Rakesh

    Also, the Parting Shot quote is due to this guy – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_Longworth

  • Kaffir

    Rakesh, that’s just Atanu’s way of testing his readers – whether they double-check his quotes and claims, or blindly swallow them. ;-)

    • http://www.deeshaa.org Atanu Dey

      Kaffir, you caught me :)

      Yes, Rakesh, that was a trick quote!!

  • Comrade

    The book seems to be available on Flipkart but not on Amazon. Guess I’ll have to read it during my next visit to India.

  • Marichi

    Atanu,

    Be sure to read Tharoor’s pitiless essay on Churchill, and Madhusree Mukherji’s book on Winston Churchill. If Tharoor’s is the first nail in that coffin enclosing the Churchill myth, Mukherji’s book drives a spike through the heart of that myth. No one who reads Mukherji will ever have any doubt on what Churchill truly was – a monster who bears responsibility for the deaths of 5 million at least in WW2, and millions more before that. Mukherji has with one book shut down the entire Churchill hagiography industry.

  • jjreddick

    Is your book available on Amazon/Kindle?

  • http://themmindset.wordpress.com/ The Mindset

    What about the freedom from the Muslim goons aka Holy Warriors of The Religion of Peace
    Sohrabuddin was extorting money from the Marble dealers of Rajasthan, Gujarat & MP.
    Freedom from this death cult is necessary, we should not forget that the stupid mughals wasted all the money on building stupid tombs like taj mahal.
    Freedom from these people is required so that people can trade freely and bring innovation instead of filling the hands of terrorists.

  • Vinny Iyer

    Anywhere I can buy an electronic copy of the book?

  • kshitij

    Atanu,

    It’s funny you mention that “…It’s the kind of book that you pick up on a whim at the airport, and at the end of the flight, you are ready for something else to read…” and I was searching for it at T3 of Delhi around 4th of Aug but couldn’t find it. I requested the guy at the counter if it would be possible for him to some how get it for me as my flight was delayed. He couldn’t. On 10th of October, I tried again with the same guy at the counter(I recalled that he was the same guy but he obviously didn’t) and he remembered that someone else had asked for it before, but they still did not have it!

    Have gifted it to 2 of my friends via flipkart but am still to read it, stuck in Tunis – onsite :/

    Apparently, mine is the only entry in flipkart review section of the book http://bit.ly/jjZpLB
    I hope the lurkers of this blog would give their comments on the flipkart page so that it grows on the popularity index on flipkart, thereby more people get to know about it there and people don’t think much before buying this modestly priced(its now around $3 with current exchange rate and you can opt for interest free emi option which will cost you $1 a month!!!) book once they get to know about it :)

    Also Atanu, would like you to post the number of books sold up until now which surely exceeds 2 :p