Pranay Gupte Headshot

The Great War, A Century Later

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Was there anyone at the outset of The Great War who could reasonably predict that the ensuing hundred years would constitute "The Indian Century"?

The idea of an independent India, then under the yoke of British colonialism, may have seemed outrageous and impossible to those handful of people who worried about the impact of long years of British rule. That handful included Britons like Allan Octavian Hume, a civil servant who helped form the Indian National Congress on December 28, 1885; Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi -- the Mahatma -- wasn't to take helm of the INC until 1921. When The Great War started, the agitation for a free India was scarcely on the political horizon; the goings-on in the cauldron of Europe were topic du jour, even when viewed from the distance of the subcontinent.

The movement only gathered steam after Britain and its allies defeated the Germans. Maybe the British were distracted and disheartened despite their victory, or maybe Indians -- some of whom had fought bravely in the war on the British side -- felt emboldened to take up independence as a national cause in the knowledge that they would be dealing with an enfeebled Britain.

In my view, that cause defined the 20th century. It inspired scores of territories to eventually gain independence from colonialists such as the British, French and Dutch. But unlike freedom struggles in, say, Africa, India's revolution was entirely nonviolent, driven as it was by Gandhi ahimsa philosophy. "The Indian Century" was one of a vast national movement to eject colonial rule, but it also marked 100 years of ideas that defined nationhood.

Those ideas initially focused on economic development. Nehru and his associates felt that in a land mired in poverty it was important to build the "commanding heights" of the economy -- which meant expediting industrialization in what was primarily an agrarian society. In his calculus, the "commanding heights" would be controlled by the state, of course. Nehru brought to the Indian scene his special ideas of economic development; these were rooted in the Fabian socialism of the Bloomsbury Group of London. It's not that Nehru was against private enterprise, but he believed that the state had the responsibility to drive sustainable economic growth in poor countries like India. Only the state could mobilize the necessary resources. Markets simply weren't to be trusted.

We know now what such concentration of power did in India and other developing countries: it fostered corruption, it thickened bureaucracies, it spawned a culture of little transparency in governance, and it made government virtually unaccountable.

But that was the price that Indians paid, at least initially, for entrusting the independence of their polity to the men who'd fought for it. The Indian Century dragged on. It wasn't until the early 1990s that the stewards of the economy decided that India would be better off with some liberalization -- even if that meant loosening the grip of the bureaucracy, even if that meant diluting the License Raj, even if that meant letting businessmen make decent money.

In doing all this, India -- the very same India that had been a beacon for territories seeking independence from the colonialists -- was by no means a leader. Far from it. Other former colonial territories like Malaysia and Singapore and even some African states had long abandoned statism. They recognized the value and worth of free markets, and in doing so they ensured that their economic growth gathered velocity.

Because of India's sheer demographic size -- some 1.2 billion people, and counting -- and the bigness of its domestic market, economic liberalization would prove to be salutary. The country's middle class was growing, which meant that consumerism was on the rise. The Indian Century would finally liberate everyday Indians from the shackles of socialism.

Many of the shibboleths of contemporary economics did not exist when The Great War started a hundred years ago in 1914. Public policy was the prerogative of the rulers, who were expected to possess some sort of divine powers to determine what was best for their people.

But The Indian Century empowered the people themselves -- on the predicate that the governed knew best how they should be governed. That meant self-rule, perhaps the single richest gift that India has given in this century to the world of the downtrodden.