May 25, 2022

What We Miss: Meeta and Rajivlochan’s book Making India Great Again chooses action over nostalgia

Making India Great Again as a title suggests that the work aims to give prescriptions for how a golden age long past can be reconfigured. This, however, is not the intention of the Rajivlochans. Their aim is to take a close look at certain aspects of our history and extract a list of shortcomings as action points to be addressed and corrected as India looks to the future. Finding “lessons” from history is, of course, walking a slippery path, but within the methodological limitations posed by this caveat, their book is a thought-provoking effort to critically engage with our history by taking account of our current difficulties. The latter, in particular, can be summarized as follows: although we have made good progress and have substantial achievements to our credit, our performance remains below its potential and others have done better.

In pre-colonial times, India had developed a certain dexterity in setting up complex financial institutions; he had substantial achievement in mathematics, as well as a level of technology that demonstrated he was unrivaled in the world in these skill sets and related skills. And yet, colonial conquest, economic exploitation and degradation followed at the hands of smaller, weaker and in many ways less developed outside powers. Why did this happen? The answer that the book develops has different dimensions, but each emerges from a central impulse: “A certain inability to systematize information”. The authors explain at the outset “whether it is taxation, battles or doing business and making money, it is superior information that would decide who could win and who ultimately loses. The Indian encounter with the English East India Company in the 17th and 18th centuries is significant in that it shows the two missing pieces. It was not superior technology or greater access to capital that gave the Company a decisive advantage over local rulers and merchants. These benefits were generated by better record keeping, high quality information for better decision-making, and the knowledge that trade yields more profit when protected by state authority.

This thesis is fleshed out with a few examples drawn from our history: the house of Jagat Seth in eastern India; the manufacture of high quality steel which had a great international reputation until well before colonial times, and the great achievements in mathematics, but no comparable achievement in other sciences or in marrying science with practical knowledge to advance and develop technology. In each of these varied fields, the authors emphasize that the common thread is the absence of systems for systematizing information and experience to constitute a pool of knowledge that can be transmitted, replicated and evolved. Thus, in India, while “knowledge was important, knowledge systems remained remote”. India fell behind, in other words, because Indians lacked the collection, organization and transmission of knowledge to create “systematic networks of information and trust”. In contrast, Europe “has moved forward to use its collective knowledge, accumulated over generations, to bring about industrialization and the associated efficiency gains, reduction of production costs and widening of the market. ‘societal scale’. So India remained as it was while the world around it changed.

Why didn’t the Indians change when they saw the Europeans doing things differently? Sometimes the authors suggest that existing endowments of rich natural resources were so abundant that there was little incentive to change. More compelling is the argument that “Indian society struggles to find ways, formal or informal, to exchange information between groups.” These shortcomings also had a direct impact on political and military power. The Marathas lost to the English not because they lacked superior firepower or were deficient in numbers, but because the English, Scottish, and Eurasian officers they relied on were not going to fight the English. But “no Maratha chief had ever bothered to establish an institution for the formal training of his officers” and therefore the most important failure was the failure to understand the value of knowledge systems.

This, the book continues, is by no means limited to the history of India’s past. If India is to become a wealthy nation, we must, she says, “build a learning society,” which means “a self-reflecting society; which is constantly taking comebacks” and “We should stop looking for welfare arguments that only see India as a victim”. These are conclusions that are hard to disagree with, and the book is a serious effort to understand and explain our suboptimal performance in different areas.

TCA Raghavan is a former diplomat. His latest book is History Men: Jadunath Sarkar, GS Sardesai, Raghubir Sinh and Their Quest for India’s Past (2020)